We said goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, boarded the ferry on the south side of the island, and set sail for our next destination; Ellis Island. Ellis Island has always captivated my attention, has always drawn me into the stories of the lives that stepped foot there. This spot of history had become essential if I were ever to go to New York City. Finally, I would see this place that had only been pictures in my head.
None of my own family, that I know of, came through Ellis Island. Much of my family came to the United States in the years before Ellis Island, dating back to some of the earliest settlers. Others, my Russian Molokan family, came at the turn of the century, escaping political prosecution for their religious beliefs through Galveston, Texas.
Our boat docked between two sections of the island. To the north was the Registry Room which is open to the general public. To the south was the quarantine hospital, a building in decay and only open as an additional tour, the fee going to Save Ellis Island, a non-profit created to restore the 29 unused buildings on Ellis Island.
Hard Hat Tour
We donned our hardhats and traveled down the long brick hallways, moving from one island to the next. The red brick was stained white; damage from the waterline of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This slowed and reversed some of the restorative work being done on this part of Ellis Island.
While the hospital on the main island could care for 275 in 1910, contagious diseases often needed to be cared for in specific quarantine hospitals on the mainland. This created a need for a quarantine hospital on Ellis Island itself.
Besides the main island with the registry room and standard hospital, two other islands were created with only a narrow strip of land connecting them. (Today, the two southernmost islands stand as one, the water between them now turned into an empty park using the dirt from the development of the New York Subway system. This area is off-limits to tourists.)
As we walked down the hallways, you could imagine what this space had once been, with doctors and nurses in their uniforms traveling back and forth. The quarantine took children from their families and loved ones from their partners. Children in the quarantine hospital were required to be cared for with money sent from families allowed to go ashore or through help from charity aid societies.
I imagine my grief at being allowed passage after a long journey, escaping some horror in my homeland, only to have my child taken from me because of a suspected illness. My child feeling like she had been abandoned or forgotten in the twisting hallways. I imagine trying to start a new life and make enough money to pay for my child to stay at the hospital until she is better so that she will not be returned to our homeland.
Down the hallway, we come to a large room, the ceiling has fallen from time and weather. There are leaves piled on the floor. We turn to the right and find ourselves in an ancient laundry. The shadows of memories stand in the window, the installation of French artist, JR. These pieces will peak at us through our entire tour, designed to decay with the building.
The electric box stands open on the wall, large switches in the position, their boxes filled with leaves. There is no power currently on this part of the island or none that I can see. Our tour walks in the sunlight which travels through broken windows.
The enormous industrial washing machines and dryers stand open in the middle of the room. The ground is dusty, the paint has peeled and been scraped. I imagine the workers and the constant washing of garments, especially the garments of those with contagious diseases. My mind sees orderlies rushing around, keeping constantly busy.
We step from the laundry, passing what was once the ward for those thought to be mentally unfit. We pass the outdoor recreation pavilion, a narrow covered brick space that would have once sat on the bay. In many illnesses of the time, it was believed that fresh air was one of the best medicines for a patient. This covered pavilion would have allowed patients to sit or lay and look at the water. Fresh air was also used in the hospital, even when snow fell and the wind was ice.
Moving past the outdoor recreation pavilion, we move to the southernmost island. The dormitory buildings here do not line up, they stretch off a central corridor and no doors are ever across from each other.
It was believed at the time that viruses in the air could not turn corners. Therefore, quarantine dormitories could not face other quarantine dormitories. The ceilings did not have sharp corners in these rooms because it was believed that viruses would fill those corners and get stuck there, never moving out through the open windows.
Illnesses of the same type were kept together. Children with measles were kept in a single room with other children with measles. Their windows were kept open, even at the coldest time of year, so that the virus would not be concentrated in the room. It was believed that viruses could not be blown overwater, this is why the island was separated by the bay with only a connecting pathway. Radiators sat against the wall to keep the rooms warm against the chill of the weather.
The art of JR follows us and allows us to see the ghosts of this place as they dream of a new life. They are faded but still present. Beyond the images, you feel the presence of what was once here, the sadness and the hope.
A beautiful, sad, haunting look at the quarantine hospital is seen in a film also created by JR and stars Robert Deniro, called “Ellis”. You can watch it on YouTube here, or I have included the link below. It allows you to understand what it is to walk these halls, to feel the history of the hospital.
In the Tuberculosis ward, patients were not kept together as they were in other spaces. The rooms were not across from each other, but alternating down a hallway. Each patient had their own room with two sinks; the first to wash and the second to spit.
Tuberculosis spit is highly contagious and these sinks had their own plumbing which was flushed to the incinerator. Their windows were not left open the way other rooms were but rather vented in a way that the patient could not escape.
One of the saddest stories was in the room looking out over the Statue of Liberty. While some believed the statue gave them hope for a new life, others saw her standing with her back turned on them. It was a daily reminder that the United States had turned its back on them and their dreams of taking a step in their new land.
The installation in the director’s house at the far end of the island somehow touched me the most. “This Place Matters.”
The place matters, it truly does.
This is the foundation that our country was built upon. Immigrants placed all of their hope, all of their dreams within their chosen country. Many were turned away, families were broken, but more were allowed their new home.
This woman reminds me of my great-grandma when she came from Russia. They have a similar look to them, and the lines on their face tell a similar story.
The hospital was one of the best in the country and one of the best in the world. Patients were treated well as per the standards of the time and within the fight of anti-immigration sentiment and law.
No contagious spread of disease was ever traced back to a patient who left the hospital, and most patients did eventually leave the hospital and start the new life they dreamed of.
The History of Ellis Island
Originally, Ellis island was called Kioshk, or Gull Island, by the Mohican Native American Tribe living along the shore of the Hudson River. The island itself was a small sandbank lined with waterbirds. In the 1630s, a Dutchman named Michael Paauw purchased the island from the native people and renamed it Oyster Island for the shellfish beds surrounding it.
Through the turmoil of history and as the settler’s claim to this land was questioned and fought over, the ownership of the island itself continued to change hands. At one point it was called Gibbet Island in reference to the public execution of pirates hung there. In the 1780s Samuel Ellis came to own the island giving it the name it carries today, using it for recreation. Ellis sold it once again in 1988 for $3,200 to John A. Berry, the last private owner.
In 1808, the United States War Department bought the island for $10,000. There was fear due to rising tensions of the Napoleonic War and so the government purchased the island to become a fort, Fort Gibson, and be used as a line of defense to protect what is now Lower Manhattan. During the War of 1812, the British blocked the harbor but never attacked any of New York’s fortifications. Fort Gibson itself was used to jail prisoners of war.
The War of 1812 did not officially end until February of 1815 and Ellis Island was left deserted. In the 1830s, the island was used for storage of gunpowder and became a munitions dump during the Civil War. Its close proximity to both New York and New Jersey created fear through the possibility of the munitions being attacked or hit by lightning and causing devastation to the communities around it. In 1890, Congress passed legislation to clear the island of munitions and passed a bill for $75,000 to improve the island for purposes of immigration.
In 1847, the Irish Potato Famine sent approximately one million Irishmen to look for new homes. (The famine itself is estimated to have killed another million, the population of Ireland declined by approximately 25%.) Ellis Island was suggested as a place for immigrants to recover from their journey across the Atlantic, but New York decided instead to renovate Castle Clinton on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Immigration, as it seems is always the case, became a conflicting issue for the people of the United States. On one hand, immigrants brought skilled workers, strong bodies, and an economy that could help strengthen the country. On the other hand, some saw immigrants and the hungry poor with contagious diseases that would strain the government through social support.
This became the foundation of immigration; who would be admitted and who would be denied.
In 1882, two laws were passed. The first banned all Chinese and denied citizenship to any Chinese already established in the country. The second law denied entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”
In 1891, the law banned paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or any person with a dangerous contagious disease.
In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law was passed. This law was meant to protect American workers from companies importing cheaper labor while protecting immigrants from manipulation. The law led to corruption within Castle Garden and embarrassment to the Federal government as stories of abuse were the headlines of the newspapers of the day.
In 1890, the contract with the New York State immigration commissioners was terminated and immigration inspection was given to the federal government. An island was sought in an effort to keep separate anyone needing to be detained.
Governors island was chosen first, but the War Department refused. Chosen next was Bedloe Island where the Statue of Liberty stands. There was an ironic outcry; the public did not want “Europe’s garbage” to be put at Liberty’s feet.
Finally, Ellis Island was selected, despite the fact that the water was too shallow for boats to dock there.
Ellis Island was doubled in size using ship ballast (heavy material placed low in a ship to maintain balance) as landfill; a deep ferry landing was built.
On January 1, 1892, Annie Moore, 15 years old from Ireland, was the first immigrant to enter Ellis Island. The building was designed to process 10,000 immigrants a day.
The depot quickly fell into disrepair and in 1897, a fire burned it to the ground.
In planning for a rebuild, a second island, attached by only a narrow connection, was planned. It would be built from landfill from the new subway system being developed in New York City. The main building was designed to process 500,000 immigrants a year, but immigration had slowed and only approximately 250,000 souls were arriving through New York annually.
The main (and current building) opened on December 17, 1900. In 1901, 389,000 immigrants came through the registration room. In 1907, immigration peaked when over one million came through. Between the 1840s and 1924 (when Congress instituted “ethnic quotas) approximately 34 million immigrants landed in the United States through Ellis Island.
Ships filled with immigrants sailed into the Upper Bay and were boarded around The Narrows. First-class (and sometimes second-class passengers) were inspected. It was generally assumed that if they could afford the ticket, they would not be a burden on society and were considered less likely to be carrying a dangerous and contagious disease.
These passengers did not have to go through Ellis Island immigration but disembarked before the rest of the passengers were taken via ferry to be inspected.
Third-class passengers were called “steerage”. The trip was often crowded and unsanitary in the bowels of the steamships; disease was common. These passengers were moved onto open-air ferries without toilets or medical care. Death by exposure was not uncommon. It is thought that of children arriving with measles, 30% died due to exposure on the ferries.
We like to think of a ferry as a quick trip across the bay, however, the bay was often filled with steamships, with thousands of passengers waiting to disembark. They were often left in steerage for days, waiting for their turn. The ferries then lined up, waiting to disembark at Ellis Island.
When the time came that an immigrant stepped foot on the island, carrying everything they owned, a number was pinned to their clothing identifying their position on the ship manifest. This allowed inspectors to know where they came from and whether they had a “right” to be there.
An average of 2% were denied entry. While that number may seem small, it is 2 of every 100 people, thousands over the course of a month.
The lines stretched from the docks and around the buildings, through baggage rooms, upstairs, and into the 2-story Registry Room. They were met by doctors who looked for any little sign of disability, even before the immigrant knew they were being watched. Children were taken from their mother’s arms and made to walk to be sure that they were able; they were asked their names to be sure that they could hear and speak.
Doctors checked for 60 different symptoms which would point to disease or disability. Two that I had never heard of, which were common at the time, were favus (a fungal infection of the scalp and nails) and trachoma (an eye infection from a strain of Chlamydia, which could lead to blindness and death in people living in the same home.)
Doctors checked every immigrant for trachoma by using a buttonhook or hairpin to flip back the eyelid looking for inflammation of the inner lid. These doctors were called “buttonhook men” and immigrants describe it as the most painful part of their inspection.
Immigrants with signs of illness or disability were marked with chalk on their clothing. They were taken to the Ellis Island main hospital for observation and care. More complicated illnesses were taken to the quartine hospital. When they recovered, they could continue to their legal inspection.
If they were incurable or disabled, they were returned to their country of origin at the expense of the steamship that brought them over. This put the responsibility on the ships to filter out who they brought to New York.
Beyond the chalk mark, people were marked with specific letters for specific conditions. Pregnant women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until they had given birth; they were marked with Pg. (Over 350 babies were born on Ellis Island and there was some debate if these children were born American citizens.)
If an immigrant was thought to be feeble-minded (and approximately 9 out of every 100 immigrants were pulled out and detained) they were marked with an X and were required to go through further testing. These tests varied and included things like putting together a puzzle or counting. The tests varied as different cultural backgrounds did not work for each test.
After the medical inspection, immigrants wound in lines through the main part of the registry room for legal inspection. It took, on average, 5 hours to pass through the inspection process.
Inspectors stood with translators who worked to figure out that immigrant’s language and dialect. They verified information from the ship manifest, names were recorded with an attempt at spelling it correctly. (However, countries that do not use the Latin lettering system of English took some interpretation. My Russian last name would be translated from the Cyrillic alphabet which is why any spelling of Loscotoff is most likely related to my family in some way; Loscutoff, Loskotoff, Luskatov.) Inspectors asked questions that would identify where they would fit into this new society.
In 1917, immigrants began to be required to pass a literacy test in their own language, with many being required to read the Bible in their own language.
If an immigrant could not prove their right to be here, they were forced to attend a hearing. They were not allowed a lawyer as they were not legally entitled to come to the United States. They were, however, allowed to have friends and family speak on their behalf. Most were approved, those who were not could appeal to Washing DC and could hire a lawyer at this point.
Women and children without guardians were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until a letter or ticket from a relative assured the government that they had a place to go. Single women were not allowed to leave with a man who was unrelated.
Immigration brides were common, with letters and pictures being sent across the sea. Men would crowd barges to meet bride ships, with brides holding up pictures to match to their fiances. Many of these couple married on Ellis Island in order to be allowed to leave. Women unhappy or who felt fooled by their choice were required to stay on the island until they could find a new husband or a woman’s charity came to their aid.
After passing the medical and legal inspection, immigrants moved down from the registry room to the “Stairs of Separation” which led to their new lives; railroad ticket offices, meeting points with waiting families, and ferries to take them off the island.
Due to the increase in laws against immigration, Ellis island came to a rapid decline in the early 1920s. After World War I, embassies around the world were established which took care of immigration paperwork and medical inspections. After 1924, Ellis island was used for war refugees and those having trouble with immigration paperwork. During WWII, it became a detention center and was managed by the United States Coast Guard until 1954.
Unfortunately, all hospital records on the island were destroyed while under the care of the Coast Guard.
We returned to New York City, now imagining what it would be to have sat on a boat in the bay, seeing this new world for the first time and not knowing if you would ever step foot there; not knowing if your family would be torn apart. As we boarded the subway, I imagined all this earth forming the foundation of three small islands in the bay, and how this dirt supported the immigration of America.