Ellis Island is one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City, yet most visitors only get to see a small portion of the island. The entire south side is closed to the public, and the buildings stand empty and deteriorating, unused since the island closed in the 1950s. Thanks to Open House New York, we got a chance to tour many of the buildings in this area and explore a new dimension of the island's history. The tour was sponsored by Save Ellis Island, which is working towards restoring and interpreting the neglected spaces of the island.
The entire south side of the island was dedicated to medical care. Any visitors or immigrants who exhibited signs of illness were treated here - 1.2 million of the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island were inspected or treated in the medical facilities, and a quarter-million were admitted to the hospital. All this care was at the expense of the American government, but Ellis Island was hardly a loss-making operation. Despite providing state-of-the-art medical care to thousands of indigent people each year, the immigration station generated revenue for the government. Between 1905 and 1907, the island had rough annual revenues of $6 million, yet it only cost $2.5 million to operate.
The first building we entered was the Ferry Building, a beautifully restored WPA-era structure that now houses an exhibit on medical care and the history of the island's south side (the Park Service offers regular tours of the Ferry Building, but it is not open to general visitors to the museum). Immediately across the ferry slip from the island's visitor's center stands a 450-bed hospital; unfortunately, we were not able to enter it because it is undergoing restoration, but we were able to visit a number of the other wards. In order to contain infectious diseases and keep patients quarantined, all of the buildings were connected by a corridor that snaked around the island. There were two surgical wards, a psychiatric ward, and several quarantine wards for various ailments that they tried to keep off America's shores (the map identifies them all as "Measles Wards," but this was just a generic term for any contagious disease). Connected to the wards were houses for the medical staff, many of whom resided on the island. During the island's heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 12 full-time doctors and 52 nurses to care for patients.
The south side sheds light on other little known aspects of the island's history. Following the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely curtailed entry into the country, Ellis Island was transformed from an entry to an exit, as it was used primarily as a detention and deportation center - the enclosed wards used to contain disease could be easily adapted to contain undesirables as well. The island also served a number of military functions. Wounded soldiers were treated in the wards, and buildings were converted for housing and training. The island was also used during wartime to hold enemy aliens and citizens suspected of spying or sabotage - 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese were detained on the island during World War II.
An important aspect of America's immigration history that is often omitted from the popular narrative is the role of shipping companies in bringing people to this country. We all know the stories about people being subjected to invasive and demeaning examinations and having the spelling of their names changed once they arrived at Ellis Island. In fact, the companies providing passage often subjected their passengers to rigorous medical and background checks before they left port in Europe. They checked them for any infectious diseases, mental disorders or disabilities, checked that they possessed the skills they claimed, and made sure they did not have links to anarchist organizations - all things that could cause American immigration officials to bar them entry. The reason was simple - if one of their passengers was deemed unfit to enter the country, the company that brought them would be responsible for their passage back and had to pay a hefty fine.
Another interesting sight on the tour was the Ellis Island ferry, though we could not see very much of it. Most passengers had to disembark from their ships in order to be vetted and inspected at Ellis Island, and the island's docks were too small for most ocean-going vessels. So passengers were brought to the island by launches and ferries, and once they received approval to enter the United States, the ferry Ellis Island would take them to Manhattan. Between 1904 and 1954, the vessel logged over one million miles, valuable service that made it undeserving of its fate. When it was no longer needed, the ferry was moored in the island's slip in 1954. Years of neglect and the elements took their toll, and in 1968, the ferry sank. It soon became a hazard to navigation, so the top deck was removed, leaving the hull in the water. At low tide, you can still see some timbers from the ferry poking out of the water, but not for much longer - next week, a dredging crew will remove the last remnants of the Ellis Island, and with it a valuable connection to the island's past.
The tour offered a new perspective on Ellis Island and the people who passed through it. While the immigrants of 100 years ago did have harrowing experiences being prodded and interrogated during their first hours in a new country, the medical care that they received was competent and compassionate. We also saw that an iconic symbol of this country's history is still in dire need of attention and repair. Just a few steps away from the hall where millions of visitors stop every year stand dilapidated buildings with equally important stories to tell. Luckily, Save Ellis Island is working to recover those stories, so we encourage you to visit their website and learn more about their projects.
You can see more photos of our trip to Ellis Island on our new Flickr stream.
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