Monday, April 07, 2008

Ellis Island

After visiting Ellis Island this weekend, I've decided I really didn't have it all that bad when I applied for my US VISA!

Ellis Island, a small island in the mouth of the Hudson river, is where the federal immigration station used to be, welcoming millions of immigrants to the United States between 1892 and it's closure in 1954.

This was the peak period of immigration to the United States and 12 million immigrants are recorded as having passed through the gates of Ellis Island, before arriving on the mainland of the United States to start their new life in the 'Land of Opportunity.' One in three American citizens today can trace their ancestors back to their arrival on this tiny, sixty acre island.

Getting to Ellis Island is a real slog. An hour of queueing at Castle Clinton, in Battery Park, will get your a $12 ticket on the Liberty and Ellis Island ferry - before another two hours in line (plus a security check that's just as strict as any at an airport) will get you on board one of the little white ferries pootling back and forth in the harbour.

Getting on and off these ferries seemed to resemble the experience new arrivals to the Americas must have had a century ago. Hundreds of people cram onto these little boats and surge on and off rickety gangplanks when you arrive.

The Ellis Island ferry also takes people to Liberty Island, where you can see Lady Liberty herself. Since it's been difficult to go up the statue ever since 9/11, we didn't bother visiting Liberty Island and went straight to Ellis - although we did get some nice views!

Ellis Island used to be a tiny little bluff called Oyster Island, before it was bought by the federal government and expanded to about four times it's original size with landfill (ironically, into New Jersey - making most of Ellis Island technically part of the Garden State.)

The first experience you have upon arrival probably mirrors that of the immigrants as well. While first and second class passengers were examined on board ship, most steerage and third class passengers were ferried from their ocean liners to Ellis Island on ferries similar to the ones that took us. They'd then wait for hours to filter in through the doors of Ellis Island's examination hall to await 'processing.'

The hall itself, restored to look much as it would have done during the 1920s, would be where immigration staff would give each new arrival a cursory check. Those who looked suspicious or sick would have their clothes marked with chalk, being hauled off for later examination. The rest would filter through to pass intelligence tests and give evidence of immigration status, before being allowed to stay, or threatened with deportation (although unlike today, only 2% of new arrivals ended up being sent back to their port of origin.)

It all seemed incredibly dehumanizing. The chalk marks were the most disturbing bit. Sometimes given less than ten seconds to examine each new arrival, immigration staff would mark those worthy of closer examination with a special letter.

B - Back
C - Conjunctivitis
CT - Trachoma
E - Eyes
F - Face
FT - Feet
G - Goiter
H - Heart
K - Hernia
L - Lameness
N - Neck
P - Physical and Lungs
PG - Pregnancy
S - Senility
SC - Scalp (Favus)
SI - Special Inquiry
X - Suspected Mental Defect
X (circled) - Definite signs of Mental Defect

Those detained for further examination, plus unaccompanied women and those destined for deportation, would be sent to dormitories upstairs, where they'd be crammed into miserable and conditions for days or weeks.

It made the expense and inconvenience of my VISA processing experience seem very minor in comparison!

The museum is fascinating - it's even possible to look up your family name to see if you can trace the specific arrival date of your ancestors. I tried looking up Tina's Italian and Russian ancestors, but Seimonovitz and Squilante and difficult names to spell (I don't think I've got them right there) so I came up blank.

Getting off Ellis Island is a bit of a drama as well, with more hours of waiting in line for the ferry to arrive (and disgorge it's cargo of tourists.) Fortunately it was a beautiful day and the views from Ellis Island were fantastic.

The actual experience swallowed up the best part of a day. We started queuing in Battery Park at around eleven and finally got back to Penn Station at about six. I certainly don't recommend the impatient, infirm or those with small children attempt a visit!

But if you're feeling frisky, have a good pair of shoes and enjoy learning about America's rich cultural history, a visit to Ellis Island is essential. It's amazing to think that more than a hundred million Americans can trace their history back to those intrepid immigrants who often arrived on America's shores with nothing more than a dream and a handful of dollars.

Tickets to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty cost $12 and are available from Castle Clinton in Battery Park. A visit can take many hours and it's recommended you bring water, good shoes, appropriate clothing (for rain or heat) and sun cream.


The Chronicles of a Fashionista in PDX said...

Ellis Island is just amazing! I was at Liberty Island and Ellis Island September 2006 and it was such a great experience! Although, the weather was crap, so there wasn't much of a line for us.

Meghan said...

What great pictures, and such interesting history to go with :) If I ever make my way to the east coast I shall hopefully partake.

Reverse_Vampyr said...

Cool post!

Being a genealogy buff, I've done a lot of research over the past few years trying to pin down exactly when my forbears entered the country. In my paternal line, it was back in 1652. On the maternal side, my mother's grandfather came through Ellis Island back in 1906 and her mother arrived in 1910. And although I visited the Statue of Liberty as a boy, I don't recall seeing much of Ellis Island. I enjoyed your pictures and will have to go there again some day soon.