Ellis Island, at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor, is the location of what was at one time the main entry facility for immigrants entering the United States; the facility operated from January 1, 1892, until November 12, 1954. It is owned by the Federal government and is now part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, under the jurisdiction of the US National Park Service. It is situated in Jersey City, New Jersey and New York City.
Ellis Island was the subject of a border dispute between New York State and New Jersey (see below). According to the United States Census Bureau, the island, which was largely artificially created through landfill, has an official land area of 129,619 square meters, or 32 acres, more than 83 percent of which lies in the city of Jersey City. The natural portion of the island, lying in New York City, is 21,458 square meters (5.3 acres), and is completely surrounded by the artificially created portion. For New York State tax purposes it is assessed as Manhattan Block 1, Lot 201. Since 1998, it also has a tax number assigned by the state of New Jersey.
Originally called Little Oyster Island, Ellis Island acquired its name from Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker, possibly from Wales.
The Ellis Island Immigrant Station was designed by architects Edward Lippincott Tilton and William A. Boring. They received a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for the building's design. The architecture competition was the second under the Tarsney Act which had permitted private architects rather than government architects in the Office of the Supervising Architect to design federal buildings.
The federal immigration station opened on January 1, 1892 and was closed on November 12, 1954, but not before 12 million immigrants were inspected there by the US Bureau of Immigration (Immigration and Naturalization Service). In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, over 8 million immigrants had been processed locally by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Manhattan.
1907 was the peak year for immigration at Ellis Island with 1,004,756 immigrants processed. The all-time daily high also occurred this year on April 17 which saw a total of 11,747 immigrants arrive.
Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island's hospital facilities for long periods of time. Then they were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money they carried with them. Generally those immigrants who were approved spent from three to five hours at Ellis Island. However more than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers and immigrants were rejected outright because they were considered "likely to become a public charge." About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis island was sometimes known as "The Island of Tears" or "Heartbreak Island because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage.
Writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia in southeastern Europe in 1913. Adamic described the night he spent on Ellis Island. He and many other immigrants slept on bunk beds in a huge hall. Lacking a warm blanket, the young man "shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores" and dreams "in perhaps a dozen different languages". The facility was so large that the dining room could seat 1,000 people.
During World War I, the German sabotage of the Black Tom Wharf ammunition depot damaged buildings on Ellis Island. The repairs included the current barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Main Hall. During the war, Ellis Island was used to intern German merchant mariners and enemy aliens as well as a processing center for returning sick and wounded U.S. soldiers. Ellis Island still managed to process ten of thousands of immigrants a year during this time, but much fewer than the hundreds of thousands a year who arrived before the war. After the war immigration rapidly returned to earlier levels.
Mass processing of immigrants at Ellis Island ended in 1924 after the Immigration Act of 1924 greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies. After this time Ellis Island became primarily a detention and deportation processing center.
During and immediately following World War II, Ellis Island served as Coast Guard training base and as an internment camp for enemy aliens - American civilians or immigrants detained for fear of spying, sabotage, etc. Some 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese would be detained at Ellis Island.
The Internal Security Act of 1950 barred member of Communist or Fascist organization from immigrating to the U.S. Ellis Island saw detention peak at 1,500 but by 1952, after changes to immigration law and policies, only 30 detainees were present. In November 1954, Ellis Island was closed and unsuccessful attempts to redevelop the site began until its landmark status was established.
Today Ellis Island houses a museum reachable by ferry from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey and from the southern tip of Manhattan in New York City. The Statue of Liberty, sometimes thought to be on Ellis Island because of its symbolism as a welcome to immigrants, is actually on nearby Liberty Island, which is about 1/2 mile to the south.
Other notable officials at Ellis Island included Edward F. McSweeney (assistant commissioner), Joseph Murray (assistant commissioner), Dr. George Stoner (chief surgeon), Augustus Frederick Sherman (chief clerk), Dr. Victor Heiser (surgeon), Thomas W. Salmon (surgeon), Howard Knox (surgeon), Peter Mikolainis (interpreter), Maud Mosher (matron), Fiorello H. La Guardia (interpreter), and Philip Cowen (immigrant inspector).
Prominent amongst the missionaries and immigrant aid workers were Rev. Michael J. Henry and Rev. Anthony J. Grogan (Irish Catholics), Rev. Gaspare Moretto (Italian Catholic), Alma E. Mathews (Methodist), Rev. Georg Doring (German Lutheran), Rev. Reuben Breed (Episcopalian), Michael Lodsin (Baptist), Brigadier Thomas Johnson (Salvation Army), Ludmila K. Foxlee (YWCA), Athena Marmaroff (Women's Christian Temperance Union), Alexander Harkavy (HIAS), Cecilia Greenstone and Cecilia Razovsky (National Council of Jewish Women).
Noted entertainers that performed for detained aliens and US and allied servicemen at the island included Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Enrico Caruso, Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Lionel Hampton and his orchestra.
More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from County Cork, Ireland, on January 1, 1892. She and her two brothers were coming to America to meet their parents, who had moved to New York two years prior. She received a greeting from officials and a $10.00 gold piece. The last person to pass through Ellis Island was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen in 1954. After 1924 when the National Origins Act was passed, the only immigrants to pass through there were displaced persons or war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America through the island before dispersing to points all over the country.
An inaccurate myth persists that government officials on Ellis Island compelled immigrants to take new names against their wishes. In fact, no historical records bear this out. Federal immigration inspectors were under strict bureaucratic supervision and were more interested in preventing inadmissible aliens from entering the country (which they were held accountable for) rather than assisting them in trivial personal matters such as altering their names. In addition, the inspectors used the passenger lists given to them by the steamship companies to process each foreigner. These were the sole immigration records for entering the country and were prepared not by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration but by steamship companies such as the Cunard Line, the White Star Line (which owned the Titanic), the North German Lloyd Line, the Hamburg-Amerika Line, the Italian Steam Navigation Company, the Red Star Line, the Holland America Line, the Austro-American Line, and so forth.
A bridge connects Ellis Island with Liberty State Park in Jersey City. It was built during the restoration of the island and heavy trucks went across it. In 1995 proposals were made either to open it to pedestrians or to build a new bridge for pedestrians. They were defeated by two vested interests: the City of New York and the private operator of the only boat service to the island, the Circle Line. The supposedly inadequate bridge is still in use but closed to the public.
There is a "Wall of Honor" outside of the main building. A myth that it lists all of the immigrants processed there. It is actually a wall giving people the opportunity to make a donation to honor any immigrant into the United States.
Boston based architecture firm Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc, together with a New York architectural firm, designed the restoration and adaptive use of the Beaux Arts Main Building, one of the most symbolically important structures in American history. A construction budget of US$150 million was required for this significant restoration. The building was opened to the public on September 10, 1990.
As part of the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative, the south side of the island will be the target of a project to restore the 28 buildings that have not yet been rehabilitated.
More recently, the island was a scene used in Hitch, a motion picture starring Will Smith. He and Eva Mendes take a jet ski to the island and explore the building. Also, the 2006 movie, Golden Door, culminates with scenes on the island.
The IMAX 3D movie, Across the Sea of Time, about the New York immigrant experience, incorporates both modern footage and historical photographs of Ellis Island.
Ellis Island as a port of entry to the United States of America is described in detail in Mottel the Cantor's Son by Sholom Aleichem. It is also the place where Don Corleone was held as an immigrant boy in The Godfather Part II, where he was marked with an encircled X.
The opening scene of Brother From Another Planet takes place on Ellis Island.
The 2006 Italian movie, The Golden Door, (directed by Emanuele Crialese) takes place largely at Ellis Island.
A documentary on the hospital at Ellis Island was created by Lorie Conway.
On October 15, 1965, Ellis Island was proclaimed a part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, which is managed by the National Park Service. The island is on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. During the colonial period, however, New York had taken possession, and New Jersey had acquiesced in that action. In a compact between the two states, approved by U.S. Congress in 1834, New Jersey therefore agreed that New York would continue to have exclusive jurisdiction over the island.
Thereafter, however, the federal government expanded the island by landfill, so that it could accommodate the immigration station that opened in 1892 (and closed in November 1954). Landfilling continued until 1934. Nine-tenths of the current area is artificial island that did not exist at the time of the interstate compact.
New Jersey contended that the new extensions were part of New Jersey, since they were not part of the previous cession. New Jersey eventually filed suit to establish its jurisdiction, leading New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dramatically to remark that his father, an Italian who immigrated through Ellis Island, never intended to go to New Jersey.
The dispute eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 1998 that New Jersey had jurisdiction over all portions of the island created after the original compact was approved. This caused several immediate problems: some buildings, for instance, fell into the territory of both states. New Jersey and New York soon agreed to share claims to the island. It remains wholly a Federal property, however, and none of this legal maneuvering has resulted in either state taking any fiscal or physical responsibility for the maintenance, preservation, or improvement of any of the historic properties.