“In America Life is golden/ In America the flowers are more beautiful/ In America life is much better/ And that’s what I’m longing to be my dear…”
The above is a song which some immigrants sung upon entering New York harbor and seeing the statue of liberty for the first time. It speaks of their hopes for a better life in a land off freedom. Ellis Island closed on today’s date November in 1954. After the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island was the first view of America that most of the immigrants had. It was the main clearing house for the over 12 million people passed through it’s gates in the time that it was in operation, starting in 1892.
Originally built on 3.3 Acres
Ellis Island started out quite small taking up a mere 3.3 acres of land. Eventually it was expanded to 27.5 acres mostly by using landfill produced by the excavation of the New York Subwway tunnel system.
Named after Samuel Ellis, the original owner of the land from colonial days. In 1892, the first station opened. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed during that first year. On June 15, 1897 a fire destroyed the main building along with most of its immigration records back to 1855. Plans were immediately made for it’s rebuilding with one condition: it had to be fireproof. The new building resembled rather castle-like railroad station. The total cost for the new building was @ 1.5 million dollars. It included a baggage room, a large kitchen and dining hall, (above) a dormitory with 600 beds. 4 hospitals, and an outdoor recreation area and garden on the roof.
The Six Second Physical
All immigrants to America had to pass through Ellis Island, but those in first of second class had only a brief shipboard examination. Those in third class had a more rigorous course to navigate. Upon arrival the immigrants were inspected for any visible ailments; this became known as the “six second physical.” Those who failed were marked with white chalk for a full physical. Those who passed were sent to the “Great Hall” to be processed. This room (below) was a large cavernous place – 189 ft. long by 102 ft. wide with 60 ft. vaulted ceilings. The average
wait here was 4 hours. People coming through here asked three questions: their name, their occupation and how much money they carried. About 2% of immigrants were denied entrance due to disease, criminal background, or mental instability. About 1/3 remained in New York, and the rest spread out around the whole country. This main island also known as the “Island of Hope” or the “Island of Tears” processed 1,004,756 immigrants in its peak year of 1907. Among them were such men as Bob Hope (1908), Cary Grant (1920) and Irving Berlin (1893).
Ellis Island Winds Down
New legislation in the 1920’s effectively ended the era of mass immigration into the United States. Thus Ellis Islands operations slowed down considerably. It was used as a training and detainment facility during World War II. But over time neglect took it’s toll, and the old Ellis Island complex fell into disrepair. It was for a time a training and deportation station for illegal immigrants and other such detainees. The last such detainee was a Norwegian merchant seaman, released in November of 1954 afterwhich the facility was closed for good. Happily, Ellis Island has since been restored as a public museum in recent years. Visitors can research through millions of arrival records to find their own family history. And this should be a useful endeavor, as it is estimated 40% of Americans can trace some portion of their heritage to Ellis Island!!