Millions of Americans have made the United States the most multicultural nation in the world. From the time Ellis Island opened in upper New York harbor near the Statue of Liberty in 1892 to the time it closed in 1954, it served as the portal for the vast majority of new immigrants.
Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in the United States from 1892 to 1954. More than 12 million immigrants were processed here. Over time, the immigration station spread over 3 connected islands with numerous structures including a hospital and contagious disease wards. It is estimated that over 40 percent of all citizens can trace their ancestry to those who came through Ellis Island. In its early years, when the greatest number of immigrants entered the country, Ellis Island mirrored the nation's generous attitude and open door policy. After passage of immigration laws in the 1920s, it was used more for "assembly, detainment, and deporting aliens," and symbolized a closing door. Immigrants were required to pass a series of medical and legal inspections before they could enter America. The actual experience of going through inspection or detainment on Ellis Island was often nerve wracking. Those who did not pass these inspections were returned to their country of origin on the boats that brought them here. Even though only 2 percent of those coming to America were turned away at Ellis Island, that translated to over 250,000 people whose hopes and dreams turned to tears .
Immigrant arrivals reached approximately one million each year during the peak immigration period, 1900-1914. The ever-growing numbers that taxed the facility with long lines and overcrowding. Ships dropped anchor outside the Narrows, where Quarantine officers would come aboard to check for signs of epidemic diseases. If a ship was free of disease, doctors would then examine the first and second class passengers, most of whom were given permission to land as soon as the ship docked. Steerage-class passengers were ferried to Ellis Island for inspection.
Arrival and Processing at The Registry Room
Sometimes new arrivals had to wait aboard their ships for days before being transferred to Ellis Island. Once there, they were often confined to the overcrowded barges for hours without food or water, waiting for their turn to disembark for inspection. The barges, chartered by the steamship lines lacked adequate toilets and lifesaving equipment, they were freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in the summer. When disembarking at Ellis Island, some immigrants were so encumbered with large bundles that they kept their health certificates handy by clenching them between their teeth. Their assortment of baggage contained what must have been their most prized but portable belongings: clothing, feather beds, dinnerware, as well as photographs, family prayer books and other mementoes of the homeland.
The medical inspection began as soon as the immigrants ascended the stairs to the Registry Room. U.S. Public Health Service Doctors stationed at the top of the stairs watched carefully for shortness of breath or signs of heart trouble as the immigrants climbed up the steps hefting their baggage. U.S. Public Health Service doctors sometimes had only six seconds to scan each immigrant during the line inspection. If a doctor found any indication of disease, he marked the shoulder or lapel of an immigrant's clothing with chalk: "L" for lameness, "E" for eyes, for example. Marked immigrants, some of whom had received several of these mystifying letters, were removed from the inspection line and led to special examination rooms. There a doctor would check them for the ailment indicated by the chalk mark and give them a quick overall physical. Many had to be sent to the hospital for observation and care. Patients who recovered were usually allowed to land. Others, whose ailments were incurable or disabling, were sent back to their ports of origin.
Free to Land
After being inspected and receiving permission to leave the island, immigrants could make travel arrangements to their final destinations, get something to eat, and exchange their money for American dollars. Relatives and friends who came to Ellis Island for joyous reunions--often after years of separation--could escort the immigrants to their new homes. Immigrants boarded ferries to New York and New Jersey and, at last, were free to land in America.
Only one third of the immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island stayed in New York City. The majority scattered to all points across the country via a railroad that crisscrossed the entire continent and offered easy access to all of America's major cities. After immigrants had arranged their travel plans they were given tags to pin to their hats or coats. The tags showed the railroad conductors what lines the immigrants were traveling and what connections to make to reach their destinations.
Ellis Island Today
In recognition of the significant role Ellis Island played in American history, the Main Building was refurbished in time for the immigration depot's centennial in 1992. Centerpiece of the restoration project was the construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Covering three floors and 200,000 square feet, the museum tells the poignant story of the immigrants who entered America through the golden door of Ellis Island. The museum features exhibits, restored areas, and educational facilities including an interactive learning center for children.