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Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty - Gateway to America

Updated on December 11, 2018
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From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

Ellis Island - Main Building

The Main Building at Ellis Island (photo by Dolores Monet)
The Main Building at Ellis Island (photo by Dolores Monet)

Ellis Island - the Gateway to the US

Nearly one half of all Americans had a family member immigrate to the United States through Ellis Island. From 1892 - 1954, more than 12 million people came to America by way of the small island in the Upper New York Bay.

In the late 1800s, the steam ship trade made the cross Atlantic trip possible in two weeks instead of the month it took the sailing ships of the past, creating the greatest wave of human immigration in modern history.

At first, individual states regulated immigration but the federal government took charge of the process. Though points of entry for immigrants included Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, New York was, by far, the most heavily used port.

The original intake station at Castle Garden at Battery Park was unable to handle the influx of immigrants and Ellis Island was opened on January 1, 1882. On January 2, 1882, Annie Moore, a 15 year old Irish girl became the first immigrant to be processed through Ellis Island.

On June 14, 1897, a fire destroyed the original wooden facility. On December 17, 1900, the beautiful, new fireproof Main Building was opened. You can still visit it today for a taste of how the US looked to the new Americans at the dawn of the 20th century..

Change Your Life for $50.00

Immigrants signed on to the ships manifest at their point of departure For $25.00 (about $850.00 in today's currency), a person could purchase a ticket on the Red Star, White Star, Cunard or other steamship lines. Travelers also needed to bring $25.00 to establish themselves in the new country.

First and second class passengers were not required to undergo an inspection process as it was determined that if they were able to afford the more expensive fare, they would be less likely to be a health threat or to create a legal or public nuisance. As the ships arrived in New York, first and second class passengers disembarked at Hudson River or East River piers to pass through customs there.

Third class, or steerage passengers were sent to Ellis Island for inspection. At the Great Hall Registry Room, a three to five hour process involved making sure their papers were in order. Consulting the ship's manifest, officials cross-examined the immigrants with twenty-nine questions that had been asked before embarking on the journey.

Doctors gave each immigrant a 6 second physical examination where they checked for obvious physical or mental impairments or the symptoms of contagious disease. Two percent of the immigrants were declined entry and either sent to the infirmary or deported. The shipping line that brought them was responsible for the cost of the cast-offs return. Shipping lines were careful at the point of origin to ensure healthy travelers and avoid that return cost.

A German Immigrant circa 1904 - my great grandmother
A German Immigrant circa 1904 - my great grandmother | Source

Goodbye forever

Steerage passengers spent up to 2 weeks crammed into the bowels of the ship. Seasickness and the stench of overcrowding made the trip difficult. On arrival in a strange land, where many did not know the language, immigrants, often terrified of men in uniform, had to prove themselves worthy of admission.

Distances were greater in those days and communication nearly impossible for the lower classes or people whose families lived in rural areas. Immigrants knew they would probably never see or speak to their loved ones again.

As my great grandmother, Margaret Rachel, stood at the pier with her two little girls, off to meet up with her husband Nicholas in New York, her brothers wept and pressed a bag of gold coins into her hands to be kept hidden in case she wanted to return.

When World War I broke out, her own daughter, out walking with friends, crossed the street to avoid running into the simple German peasant woman who spoke only broken English.

Ellis Island Display of Trunks

Trunks donated by the children of immigrants to Ellis Island - (photo by Dolores Monet)
Trunks donated by the children of immigrants to Ellis Island - (photo by Dolores Monet) | Source

The tide ebbs

The flow of immigrants fell during World War I and Ellis Island was used to house suspected enemy aliens in the United States. A Red Scare at the end of World War I found suspected alien radicals interred at and deported from Ellis Island.

Certain groups demanded restrictions on immigration and new laws and regulations sought to stem the tide of people suddenly seen as undesirable. A literacy test was imposed. 1921 saw the establishment of Quota Laws and restrictions on certain ethnic groups. Naturalized northern Europeans lobbied against large scale immigration by southern and eastern Europeans. The Irish (though being northern European) were often thought of as rabble and portrayed in illustrations with simian characteristics.

After closing in 1954, Ellis Island began to deteriorate. The gateway to America fell into ruin until Lyndon Johnson declared it part of the Statue of Liberty Monument in 1965. Private citizens recognised the plight of Ellis Island and a restoration campaign began the arduous task of restoring the symbolic monument to it's former glory. In 1976, the Main Building was opened to the public and fully restored in 1990.

Ellis Island Fell Into Ruin

(photo of old government archival photo by Dolores Monet
(photo of old government archival photo by Dolores Monet

Statue of Liberty

Liberty Enlightening the World, a gift from France to the United States, was designed and built of hammered copper by sculptor Auguste Bartholdi. Gustave Eiffel designed the framework. The colossus, completed in 1884, was dismantled in France and shipped to New York where Joseph Pulitzer began fundraising for the pedestal.

In 1886, the 151 foot statue created as homage to the ideals of freedom and liberty, was reassembled on Bedloe's Island, New York and was declared a National Monument in 1924.

Guests at Liberty Island are often disappointed at not being able to climb to Liberty's crown. But the winding double helix style stairway was built over 100 years ago for the dedication and maintenance, not to accommodate the millions of tourists that visit today.

What a sight she presented to the masses huddled on the steam ships after their grueling journey, a gargatuan welcome, her light lifted in courage and hope. Today, she is still an impressive and moving sight.

The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty | Source

Visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island is open daily (except Christmas) and reached by Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Ferry. Ferries depart from Battery Park, New York and Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Plan for an early ferry as the tour takes some time.

The view of New York City from Liberty State Park is breathtaking. As you round Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the sight of Liberty will clutch at your heart.

And when you enter the Great Hall at Ellis Island, your vision is met with a wall of steamer trunks donated by the descendants of immigrants who passed through the processing station. the sight of those trunks which once contained all the worldly possessions of those brave souls can melt the hardest of hearts. You can't not weep at the simple, moving homage to our ancestors.

Make sure you bring a hanky.

Manhatten Skyline View From Liberty State Park

View of New York from Liberty State Park, New Jersey (photo by Dolores Monet)
View of New York from Liberty State Park, New Jersey (photo by Dolores Monet) | Source

German Immigrants, turn of the last century

German immigrants living in New York in the early 1900s. The little one in front is my grandmother (old family photo)
German immigrants living in New York in the early 1900s. The little one in front is my grandmother (old family photo) | Source

The Old Country - Germany Early 1900's

The old country. My great grandfather is on the left.
The old country. My great grandfather is on the left.

Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty

Ellis Island:
Ellis Island, United States

get directions

Statue of Liberty:
Statue of Liberty, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Liberty Island, New York, NY 10004, USA

get directions

ellis island:
Ellis Island, United States

get directions


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