I’ve just been to New York City – for the first time in my life! The trip was great despite overwhelming heat and humidity which was taxing for my Scandinavian constitution, and despite Manhattan being almost too big to take in during my stay of a mere 14 days.
Being the historically inclined nerd that I am, I knew I had to visit Ellis Island, America’s once-upon-a-time gateway. The trip took most of our day, but in my opinion was well worth it. Since Ellis Island is, well, an island, you sail from Battery Park on the same ferry that takes you to the Statue of Liberty, should you be so inclined. The musem is technically free, but you pay for admission to the ferry and there is no other way of getting to the islands.
Ellis Island, for those who may not know, was where all 3rd class passengers, immigrants to the USA, must dock before being given admittance to the USA. If they made it through they would become citizens of America but this was not always a given. In any case, it is a fascinating piece of history.
Once you arrive at the Battery Park you may be overwhelmed by the size of the queue. It is huge. We were told there would be an hour wait to get on the ferry, which almost disheartened several of my family members who unlike me are not that interested in history, but once we actually got in the queue it only took about half an hour. You’re in a line overlooking the New York harbour and you’ve got a view of Lady Liberty and the small islands, so it isn’t that bad, in my opinion. Just don’t be an idiot and forget sunscreen like yours truly.
There is an inside airport style security check and once you’re through, you get on the ferry. They run every 15 minutes and there are several so don’t worry about missing one. Your ticket is good for the whole day, so you don’t have to worry about rushing through the museum to reach a ferry back. We didn’t get them online because we didn’t have a printer but they have some sort of time/queue-saving feature if you do that which could be worth looking into if you’re not up for queueing. I’m sure it could be much worse than 30 minutes.
As you can see we had great weather for the ferry trip. Again, remember to wear sunscreen. I had a mean sunburn by the time we went home, mostly from sitting on the ferry deck on the trip out. The ferry docks at Liberty Island where you can choose to get off, but we stayed on the boat and went from there to Ellis Island.
The ferry docks by the main entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. It’s a peculiar red and white building, and to me it doesn’t look very austere and foreboding, but I imagine that 3rd class immigrants docking at the same site would experience the sight very differently from me. Of course, my future life doesn’t hinge on whether or not I make it through the building, about which, more later.
The entrance hall is very big and at first sight rather confusing. You’ll be offered audio guides which are well worth accepting. Back in the day this hall was both the entrance and exit hall for the immigrants arriving from overseas and hopefully, after they were cleared for entry, for a short ferry ride to the land of their dreams. The large hall is divided in two by a display of old suitcases. A guide told me the entrance hall had been laid out a bit like a ship, but I didn’t see it. On the other side of the display is a chronological exhibition called Journeys: The Peopling of America. This exhibition detailed the reasons why people left home and what happened once they arrived starting with the religious colonies and tying the immigrant history in to the immigrant present of the USA. For those of us who paid attention in history class there was little new to be found and I mostly spent my time “Scandinavia-spotting” that is looking for mentions of my countrymen who left for America. There were a couple mentions of Danish mormons but mostly it was the Swedes who left for America.
The exhibition also had these little booths you could lean into. Once you did an audiotrack would play that only you could hear if you leaned in. These were all from diaries and notebooks and speeches and letters written by immigrants, or about immigrants from different periods in time. There was an excerpt from a Puritan woman’s account of crossing the Atlantic while “big with child”, a freed slave’s account of his time spent on the slaveship that brought him to America, an Indian chief’s exasperated account of his people being beat, an Irish child’s story of arriving as an indentured servant, an excerpt from an anti-Chinese and a pro-Chinese immigration speech and so on. This was by far the most interesting aspect of the Journeys: The Peopling of America exhibit because it was so personal. Once we were through this exhibit we went upstairs to the Ellis Island-specific exhibits.
The upstairs is mainly a big hall. When Ellis Island was in use, it was the waiting room which the immigrants would be ushered into upon arrival. Here they would wait for quick medical checks and hopefully they would be ushered through quickly. If you were unhealthy or deemed unfit for entry for other reasons, you might suffer detention on Ellis Island or even be sent home.
As you can see above the waiting immigrants would be waiting in long queues until they finally could go up to the clerks at the front of the hall. The clerks would perform brief medical checks, like checking their eyes, whether they had any handicaps and for visible signs of mental illness. If you were suspected of having, say, a mental illness you would be marked with chalk on your clothes and brought into an adjacent, smaller room where you would be expected to assemble a puzzle so the clerks could determine whether you were mentally ill or not. If you had an eye illness that was feared, you might be detained or even sent back to where you came from.
Most of all, the early 20th century state wanted to make sure the immigrant in question would not become a burden of the state. You must be able to provide for yourself and not have to rely on charity for your keep. The most haunting story I heard was of an Italian woman who had arrived with her children and grandchildren, but because of an illness, had been sent back to Italy while the rest of the family was given admittance into the country. Her granddaughter, by the time she told this story (it was an audio-recording) was an old woman who was still torn up by the memory.
Clerks would also ask immigrants to read from a card in their native language, to make sure they were literate, or they would ask them how much money they had, to make sure they would not need to rely on charity to make their way in America. One woman, arriving from Hungary, explained how her mother, a woman in her 30s with several children, had been taken in to a small room and with her daughter acting as the translator, had been asked to put together 2 and 2. The clerk wanted to be certain she would not need help to maange her household. The woman explains how her mother, a housewife and mother of many years, had stared at the clerk in disbelief and then asked her daughter: “He asks me this, whether I know what 2 + 2 is?”
On either side of the Great Hall there is a series of small rooms. In the one end, they lead you through the small rooms that were used for more private examinations, medical and otherwise. They lead you through all the eventualities that might happen to you at Ellis Island as an immigrant. Maybe you coasted right through and were able to meet up with your loved ones at the Kissing Gate downstairs. Maybe you were detained because of an illness, or maybe you had to pass tests designed to determine mental illnesses. Maybe you would be sent to the hospital. Maybe you would be sent back.
Ellis Island had everything. It had dining rooms, and one was kosher for the many Jewish immigrants. It had a hospital with children’s wards, maternity wards, mental illness wards, surgical wards. It employed several thousand people at its most busy and millions of immigrants came through.
This exhibition ended in the last stops for immigrants at Ellis Island. There was money to be exchanged. I indulged in a little Scandinavia-spotting with my sisters and we found these items.
There were many, many, many different religious societies in America at the time, and they all extended charity towards those of a similar religious persuasion when they arrived at Ellis Island. Jewish charities would sponsor Hebrew and Yiddish religious texts to the Eastern-European Jews when they arrived, and I believe it was also with the help of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers, Ellis Island had a kosher kitchen installed.. Mormon missionaries would sponsor Christmas gifts for Mormon converts. Catholic churches would collect clothes from their members and give them to the Catholic immigrants. With the state at this point very unwilling to provide charity for its citizens, the religous communities took it upon themselves to help where they could.
Since single women were not allowed entry into America without a male relative, women who arrived as picture brides, would often be married on Ellis Island and then leave with their American husbands.
On the other side of the Great Hall there is another exhibtion. This one deals with the reactions both in in the US and overseas to the mass immigration that took place during Ellis Island’s years of operation. This was really interesting because it showed not only what happened to immigrants before and after immigration, but also official and societal reactions to their arrival, whether good or bad.
I’m taking a break from the racist responses to immigration but believe me, I have more proof. And it ain’t pretty.
This exhibition had much, much more to see. There was so many adverts for transatlantic cruises I couldn’t distinguish one from the other, there were walls covered in passports, and photographs taken in the homes of immigrants, as well as the many responses, good and bad, to their arrival. There was proof of people who flourished and people who, to put it mildly, didn’t. It was a really interesting testament to the immigrants who arrived during these years and probably my favourite part of all of Ellis Island.
There was also a nice referal to Angel Island, located in San Fransisco. This was where the Asian immigrants would arrive, and it served much the same function as Ellis Island did to the European immigrants in New York. If I’m ever in San Fransisco (I live in hope) I really want to visit!
The vast majority of immigrants who came through Angel Island were Chinese. Other nationalities were processed quickly but it was common for the Chinese immigrants to be detained for weeks, if not months, before allowing them admission to the US. The Chinese were also the first specific nationality to be targeted by racist laws concerning their admission into the US by the US government.
That was my visit to Ellis Island! I’ve got a few more NYC centric posts planned. In the meantime, enjoy this picture I took over Iceland, with the sun rising, on my way home!