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March 6, 2011

Journey to immigration destination

Nineteenth-century America became the destination of hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of refugees seeking a new start in a new world. For many years, states regulated immigration at their ports. By the late 1800s, the federal government stepped in.

Initial facilities proved insufficient. The government turned to the island once housing Fort Gibson, one of many fortifications built to protect New York City during the early nineteenth century. It purchased the property from then-owner, Samuel Ellis, and built new structures to process the immigrants. Beginning in 1892, and continuing through 1954, some 12 million arrivals came through Ellis Island.

Ellis Island

We purchased tickets at Castle Garden, in Lower Manhattan, then impatiently waited a couple of hours in the cold before passing through metal detectors and boarding a boat for our 40-minute ride. Modern passengers would term this an inconvenience. It pales in comparison to the weeks immigrants might have waited in European ports for a ship before enduring an arduous journey on unpredictable seas.

One experience we shared was the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, still impressive today, but thrilling to people passing it in hopes of a new and better life. For most, Lady Liberty represented an ideal. Ellis Island would provide the balancing reality.

Actually, first- and second-class passengers would have disembarked at Staten Island, where they would be quickly checked and then started toward their eventual destinations. It was the horde of third-class and steerage passengers that would come to the immigration center on Ellis.

The massive brick buildings mix stolidity and force in their bearing. We walked up steps into the world many of our forebears entered.

Immigrant arrivals

National Park Ranger Cady Gierke toured us through the process that an immigrant would have faced. We began in the Registry Room. There must have been a hundred other visitors, and the noise was deafening. One can only imagine the scene with a hundred times that many — all carrying trunks, carpetbags or oversized baskets — and a cacaphony of languages.

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