For the 12 million immigrants who entered America through New York between 1892 and 1924, the Statue of Liberty provided the sign that they had arrived at the land of their dreams. To them the uplifted torch at the top of the structure on an island off Lower Manhattan did not mean “enlightenment”, as was originally but symbolised a “welcome” to their new home.
“She was a beautiful sight after a miserable crossing that September,” said one immigrant who landed at the Ellis Island processing station. “She held such promise for us all with her arm flung high, the torch lighting the way – opening a new world to those who would accept the challenge.”
Emma Lazarus depicts the ‘Mother of Exiles’ in her famous poem called The New Colossus. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
After passing the statue, immigrants would have arrival at Ellis Island, which processed the ancestors of at least one third of all people living in America today. It was here that arrivals – which first came from places like England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, but later expanded to Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and beyond as well – had their dreams made or broken. For the unlucky few whose applications weren’t successful, they were sent back home.
Many who arrived in America via Ellis Island were Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Of those that fled their homelands between 1880 and 1924, some 90% headed to the United States, creating long-lasting Jewish communities across the country. Others came here because they were unemployed in Europe – or quite simply because they fancied an adventure.
It was improved transport that made mass migration possible. Immigrants took trains from their homes to reach their nearest port, where they boarded steamships to cross the Atlantic ocean in less than a couple of weeks – a far cry from the months it would have taken in the past. But while the likes of Cunard and White Star prided themselves on the luxury vessels they offered their first and second class passengers, the conditions for hundreds – perhaps even a thousand – packed into single-sex cramped dormitories was a different. They were considered to be little more than cargo.
But for the millions that were welcomed into the country, it was a price worth paying as they were given the opportunity to start new lives. And in arriving in Ellis Island, these immigrants helped to transform New York and shape it into the place that visitors would recognise today.
Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi had originally dreamed of the monument that became known as the Statue of Liberty as a sculpture to guard the Suez Canal in Egypt, a great French engineering triumph. But his plan was scuppered when he struggle to attract enough funding. Although Suez was forgotten, it was not completely the end for his planned sculpture as in 1865 a group of French intellectuals, led by Edouard de Laboulaye, proposed it as gift to the United States to honour its commitment to freedom and liberty.
For a test run, the Statue of Liberty was built in France and the engineer Gustave Eiffel (best known for designing the Eiffel Tower) helped overcome some structural issues. Luncheons were during the various stages of the part-constructed shell, before it was dismantled into 350 pieces and packed into 214 crates for the voyage to New York City.
But while the French stuck to their part of the deal in gifting the actual statue, delays set in for the American side of the bargain – providing the pedestal that it would stand on – as they could attracted the required finance. It wasn’t resolved until the newspaper published Joseph Pulitzer launched a fundraising campaign that meant the names of all donors would have their names printed in the newspaper. What is remarkable is the shear number of ordinary people giving money to make it happen, including children donating their pocket money.
When it was finally dedicated in 1886 (some time after the intended milestone of America’s centennial of the Declaration of Independence), some 4,000 guests turned out to mark the occasion which included a flotilla of 300 vessels and a lavish parade. Controversially most of those attending were aristocrats and upper classes – not the ordinary people who donated to the pedestal appeal. It was also noted that only two of the guests were women, leading to suffragette inspired campaigners to disturb some of the proceedings. And in 1984 it was added to the UN’s list of World Heritage Sites.
I climbed the 195 stairs inside the hollow structure to the tip of the statue’s pedestal and from the outside balcony, despite it being a cloudy day, had a wonderful view of the Lower Manhattan skyline. Closer to Liberty Island I could take in Ellis Island and continuing around the walkway there were other blockbuster attractions on show, including Brooklyn Bridge. Inside a small museum in the pedestal visitors can have their pictures taken next to a replica of the face and also see original iron supports which were replaced by steel in the 1980s.
Just six years after the Statue of Liberty was completed, immigrants started to land at Ellis Island. The first arrival was a 15-year-old Anna ‘Annie’ Moore who had embarked on a 12-day journey from Ireland as a steerage passenger on board the Nevada with here two brothers. Millions followed.
Boats whisk tourists from Liberty Island to Ellis Island in just a few minutes and arrive at the same jetty where millions of immigrants would have landed. First and second class passengers went straight ashore from steamships at Manhattan, but it was here that those who had travelled in cramped conditions for weeks from Europe in third class would have been brought by ferry.
As is the case with visitors today, immigrants would have headed straight for the Main Building, an elaborate tripled arched, beaux-arts red-brick construction, with granite cornerstones. The first they space entered on the on the ground floor was the Baggage Room, where those arriving could leave their belongings while they embarked on the immigration process. Many those to take their bags with them, choosing not to trust the authorities with what little they had with them.
They then would have headed up the stairs to the beautiful 338-ft long Registry Room, also known as the Great Hall given its high ceiling, and also featuring a magnificent tiled ceiling and upper-floor balconies. Today, it is an open space, but when it was a processing centre it would have been lined with benches where some 5,000 or applicants each day would have waited for hours on end while they were waited to be called forward.
Doctors took a quick look – perhaps just seven seconds – at the immigrants to establish whether they had any obvious mental or physical illnesses. For anyone they deemed in need of further examination, they would put a white chalk mark on them. And then after much waiting the next person they would have seen would have been the immigration officer who would have sat at a high desk at the end of room. They posed 31 questions in all, checking that the applicant had the required $25 to enter the country (the country didn’t want those that head straight to beg on the streets) and asked for identity.
The decision of the immigration officer would determine which of three sections of stairs – know as the ‘Stairs of Separation’ – the person would head after leaving the desk. If they had been successful, they would take the left and right portions and be free to enter the United States, for New York and the rest of the country respectively. But if further interrogation was required, then they would be sent down the central stairs and head across a bridge to the other side of the island.
But 98% of all those arriving at Ellis and seeking immigration were successful. Given that steamship companies were responsible for paying for the passage home and food while they were in detention for unsuccessful applicants, they completed some levels of checks on passengers before they left Europe.
At the bottom of the stairs where those permitted entry to the US would have descended, is a spot known as the ‘Kissing Post’. It was here that people already living in New York would have travelled on specially-organised ferries from Manhattan and been reunited with their relatives from Europe here. Emotions ran high, as they met one and other.
“The manner in which the people of different nationalities great each after a separation of years is one of the interesting studies at the Island,” noted a matron in 1910. “The Italian kisses his little children but scarcely speaks to his wife, never kisses or embraces here in public. The Hungarian and Slavish people put their arms around one another and weep. The Jew of all countries kisses his wife and children as though he had all the kisses in the world, and intended to use them all up quick.”
Often the immigration process couldn’t be completed in a day and today you can see an original, basic dormitory on the upper levels where those waiting for their applications to be completed would have paid to stay. When further checks needed to be completed on immigrants, people could end up staying at Ellis Island for months on end.
Until the 1920s, there was an open door policy to immigration in the United States – anyone that met the criteria would be admitted if they went through the process. But in 1924 this was turned on its head and applicants needed to apply for immigration in their home country and could only travel to the United States once this was granted. Visas were awarded on a country-by-country quotas system.
From 1924 Ellis Island became redundant as an arrivals centre and so was instead used as a place for processing deportations. It performed this role until the 1950s, apart from during the Second World War when it acted a Prisoner of War camp and a military hospital.
The whole complex was then abandoned for many years until the 1980s, visited by only a few photographers who captured the crumbling buildings. But after a $160 million restoration – which coincided with when the Statue of Liberty was being restored – the Main Building was as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990.
Outside, the American Immigrant Wall of Honor attempts to remember at least some of the individuals, with the names of 700,000 immigrants who arrived here inscribed into the monument. More people are expected to be added here given that relatives can add their ancestors who were processed at Ellis Island by making a donation.
Not all of the complex has been re-opened to the public however. On the other side of the island to the registration centre – on artificial land – stands an abandoned hospital complex, once one of the largest in the US and the front line in combatting imported diseases, which comprises a morgue, laundry, kitchen and wards. It was also closed in the 1950s and can only be visited if a hard hat is warn, while funds are awarded for it to be restored.
Categories: United States