In 1892, the US was being flooded with immigrants. Officials proposed building a new receiving facility on New York's Liberty Island (home of the Statue of Liberty), but newspapers warned that Lady Liberty would "be converted into a [Tower of] Babel" by these foreigners. So, neighboring Ellis Island became America's key immigration facility for the next 60 years.
As many as 11,000 people were processed on Ellis Island every day, most of them poor. (First- and second-class ship passengers were allowed to disembark in Manhattan.) Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans--some looking for financial opportunities and others to escape persecution--all entered the huge, barrel-domed Registry Room.
After being registered, they climbed the long, steep stairs and waited for the medical exam. Those suspected of illnesses were marked with chalk and put in cages. The chalk marks were a terrifying stigma for the 20 percent of immigrants who ended up in the "sad side" of Ellis Island (its infirmaries), but only the sickest 2 percent were actually sent back to their homelands as a result.
Ellis Island closed in 1954 and became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument 11 years later. In 1982, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, himself the son of a Greek immigrant, helped raise the funds to restore the main building and open it to the public as a museum.
Today, visitors board a ferry in Manhattan and arrive at the same docks onto which immigrants disembarked. Three floors of exhibits recreate the bewildering process of examinations the nervous arrivals underwent. Visitors can see old steamer trunks, documents, and photographs, obtain a printout of their ancestors' immigration records, and listen to hundreds of oral histories. For the estimated 40 percent of Americans who can trace their ancestry to someone who came through Ellis Island, the museum is a celebration of the American dream.
Copyright © 2001- , Terry Muse