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.
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.
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.
The mission-tile floor, vaulted ceilings similar to those at Grand Central Station, a surrounding balcony and suspended Tiffany chandeliers create a space that's quite impressive. It also could have been quite intimidating.
Lines would have divided men and women. This alone would have terrified many, as family would have been the only recognizable faces in the huge crowd. Individuals would pass by registrars, who quizzed them based on 29-item questionnaires completed before leaving on their Atlantic journeys.
Meanwhile doctors checked out the arrivals. Spending an average of six seconds per person, physicians sought to identify acute or chronic illnesses that might have made them a liability to admit to America.
Those who complain about the caterpillar-like speed of today's airport-security screening might ponder the system at Ellis Island. Arrivals with no identified issues might be finished within eight hours. Any discrepancies on the questionnaires would lead to legal hearing. Chalk marks made by doctors meant more intensive examination.
We toured a Hearing Room restored to its 1910 appearance. Boards of Special Inquiry arbitrated 50 to 100 cases a day. We learned transport companies had a vested interest in assuring accurate information and good health at departure. If passengers were not admitted to the United States (about 2 percent weren't), ships would be fined and found responsible for returning them across the ocean without charge.
Exhibits on medical aspects began with a key to chalk marks that might be made on unlucky persons — "L" for lame, "G" for goiter and about 60 more. More thorough examination might reveal an acute disease or a psychiatric problem to be treated in Ellis Island's 450-bed hospital. Or pregnancy; 355 babies were born here.
Mental illness posed special difficulty for doctors who might not know an individual's language. Future New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, for one, worked his way through school as an interpreter.
We moved on to a dining room seating 1,200 (ship owners also had to pay for feeding those retained on the island). American foods were strange to many foreigners. One Italian immigrant remembered his first exposure to hot cereal: "We got oatmeal for breakfast, and I didn't know what it was ... I couldn't get myself to eat it. So I put it on the windowsill, let the birds eat it."
Those not deemed LPC ("liable to be a public charge") — ultimately 98 percent of those disembarking — would be granted entry to their new land. Many of them sported tags and tickets designating rail lines, connections and final destinations. A man recalled: "We must have looked like marked-down merchandise in Gimbel's basement or something."
There's no way to cover everything. We barely glimpsed at "Treasures From Home," items that immigrants chose to bring on the journey. Other rooms detailed immigration history and explained the extensive restoration of the facility.
Before leaving, we gazed out the upper story windows. Manhattan's skyline could just be seen shimmering in the distance. For so many that view represented a vision of hope, the realization of which proved more difficult than most of us can imagine.
Twenty years ago, a woman in her 70s told me about her own immigration from Germany. She detailed her experience on Ellis Island, a fairly smooth one as it turned out. As she walked out to the ferry that would bring her to the country in which she became a citizen a few years later, an immigration official comforted her by saying, "Good luck, ma'am. I hope things go well for you here." She never forgot his words. It was her welcome to America.
E-mail Richard Frost at: firstname.lastname@example.org