Ellis Island, through my eyes
More than a hundred million americans can claim ancestors who came through Ellis Island.
The island had many different names – including Kioshk (Gull) Island, Oyster Island, Dyre’s Island and Bucking Island. And after a group of pirates were hung on the island, it became known as Gigget Island, before the Revolutionary war. Then the island was acquired by Samuel Ellis, shortly prior the Revolutionary War, a New York merchant who ran a small tavern on the island to cater to all the folks – primarily fishermen – who made their living on the waters in and around the island. The heirs of Samuel Ellis sold the island to New York State, in 1808. New York State sold it to the federal government later that year. Through these transfers and up to the present, it has maintained the name Ellis Island.
“There were probably as many reasons for coming to America,” wrote President John f. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants, ” as there were people who came.”
I remember, when I was 7 or 8, we had friends visiting and the main subject between my dad and his friends was always “USA” and “Canada”. My dad always wanted to come to the States and his friends were dreaming of Canada. They all had their dreams fulfilled.
Beginning 1892, the majority –some 12 million– too their first steps toward becoming Americans at Ellis Island. Today Ellis island is memorial to all who have made this nation their adopted home. He we can see where the Old World met the New.
Ellis Island (today)
Through America’s Gate
The exhibits in the wing describe step-by-step what most new arrivals experienced on Ellis island, the federal government’s first immigrant inspection depot. Ellis Island’s main function was to screen out those considered undesirable – the incurably ill, the impoverished, the disabled, criminals, and all the others barred by the immigration laws of the United States.
For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis island meant three to five hours of waiting for a brief medical and legal examination prior to admittance. for others, it meant a longer stay with additional testing or a legal hearing. For an unfortunate 2%, it meant exclusion and return trip to the homeland.
During Ellis Island’s busiest years, this wing contained legal hearing rooms, waiting rooms for witnesses, detention quarters, and staff offices. The wing has been carefully restored to its appearance during the period 1918 to 1924.
The Hearing Room
About 10% of all immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were held for a legal hearing. Those thought “liable to become public charges”, or suspected of being contract laborers or worse, received yellow cards marked “S.I.”, which meant that their case would be decided by a Board of Special Inquiry. Three boards were usually in session all day, and during busy seasons a fourth board was added. Each board held 50 to 100 hearings daily in the presence of an interpreter and a stenographer.
Each board based its decision on the testimony of the immigrant and of friends or relatives allowed to speak on the immigrant’s behalf. An immigrant who received an unfavorable decision from the board, could appeal directly to Washington D.C., with the help of a lawyer often provided by an immigrant aid society. In almost 8 out of every 10 cases, these boards ruled to admit immigrants into the United States. In total, only 2% of the over 12 million immigrants processed at Ellis island, were denied admission and sent back.
The United States Public Health Service operated an extensive medical service at the immigrant station, called U.S. Marine Hospital Number 43, more widely known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. It was the largest marine hospital in the nation. The station was staffed by uniformed military surgeons. They are best known for the role they played during the line inspection, in which they employed unusual techniques such as the use of the buttonhook to examine aliens for signs of eye diseases (particularly, trachoma) and the use of a chalk mark code. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. Some immigrants entered the country only by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off, or by turning their clothes inside out.
Ellis Island’s numerous dormitories were filled to capacity nearly every night with immigrants who were being temporarily detained. Many immigrants stayed in large dormitory rooms located here, along these balconies.
From 1900 to 1908, the dormitories consisted of two long, narrow rooms, one on either side of the balcony. Each room accommodated about 300 detainees, who slept in triple-tiered bunk beds that could be raised, thus converting the dormitory into a daytime waiting area. At night, immigrants received blankets to spread over their canvas or wire-mesh “mattresses.”
This room has been restored to its appearance in 1908, when the two balcony dormitories were refurbished and subdivided into 14 rooms.
The next round or major alterations took place in 1924, when the much-criticized bunks were replaced with single beds and real mattresses. Though large dormitories were still maintained for single men and women, private rooms were now available for detained families.
Registry Room Views (beginning)
Perhaps no other place in America conjures up as strong an image of the immigration experience as does this hall. The Registry Room on Ellis Island marked a great divide in the lives of millions of immigrants who had completed one long journey and were about to undertake another. This was their first stop in America.
While the enormous arched windows evoked the spirit of America’s 19th Century railroad stations – the principal gateways of our cities – the Registry Room’s floor plan accommodated the practical business of inspecting and sending immigrant travelers on their various ways. Ellis Island officials periodically rearranged the floor plan to guide the flow of humanity more efficiently or, in later years, to serve other purposes. Iron piped alleys and wire cages gradually gave way to wooden benches and open spaces.
Here are few photographs taken from this end of the balcony, showing how the Registry Room changed over the years.
How the Great Hall looks today
I sat here for few minutes, closed my eyes, it was an eerie feeling. I didn’t have any ancestors coming in through this Gate. My husband did. My mother-in-law’s uncle, a very young man than, waiting to board one of the ships, was approached by couple mid age ladies with a 14 years old young lady. They introduced themselves as working in an orphanage and wanting to send this 14 years old to the States to her relatives and since he looked an honest person could he be kind enough to just have an eye on her while traveling? Aram, that was his name, realized Alice, her name, was really shy and looked like a lost puppy, promised to take care of her. They became almost inseparable. Aram realized that Alice wasn’t sure where she was going. Who were her relatives. What she would be doing in the States. By the time they were in Ellis Island they were engaged to be married. They had three children, grand children and great grand children. Uncle Aram died just a month before I got married with my husband, but I had the honor to meet Auntie Alice, a true Lady, devoted to her family and Armenian Church till her last day. Sitting there on the bench these were my thoughts.
Sitting here, looking around me I was admiring the beautiful Guastavino tile ceiling, quarry tile floor, decorative Caen-stone plaster, and chandeliers installed in 1917, one year after a munitions explosion (set by German agents), on the nearby Black Tom Wharf in New Jersey, damaged much of the main building.
Some interesting sculptures at the main entrance:
Passengers and Ship Manifests:
Text, some internet and pamphlets
Photo: Houry Najjarian (Houry Photography)