The Romance of Ellis Island

An important place for me in New York is Ellis Island. Often overlooked by many visitors, it is literally the next boat stop after the Statue of Liberty. But what’s it to me? Well, without it I might not exist as its through here that my maternal grandparents met.

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My grandparents grew up in early twentieth century West of Ireland and although their respective villages were only 6 miles apart, they were separated by a lake so unless you had the wherewithal and the wish to cross it, they were very unlikely to have ever met: the equivalent route by land was 30 miles and would have taken half a day.

My grandfather was the third son and not in line to inherit the family smallholding. With little available work, the obvious and only choice for him was the land of opportunity: America.

My grandmother had lost her parents when she was very young and with her brother, was brought up by an aunt. Neither had anything to their name and were therefore faced with the same choice: America.

They would have made the journey on foot or horseback to the nearest seaport to board a steamship with the trip across the Atlantic Ocean taking one to two weeks. The ships divided passengers by wealth and class and whilst first- and second-class passengers would have stayed in staterooms and cabins, my grandparents, like most of the people travelling from Ireland to escape poverty, would have been in third class – ‘steerage’ – effectively a large open space at the bottom of the ship, with as many as 3,000 people crowded aboard.

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Tired and dirty after what would have been a rough trip, you can imagine the excitement amongst passengers when the Statue of Liberty finally came into view in New York Harbour. Health officers would have boarded the ship when it docked at New York City to check for disease and if the ship passed, doctors would then check the health of first- and second-class passengers who would be processed quickly and allowed to leave. Third-class passengers however would have to wait for hours or days until a smaller ferryboat arrived to take them to Ellis Island for immigration processing.

Ellis Island is a small island in New York Harbour, near Manhattan and owned by the federal government. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the nation’s first immigration station with the largest building on Ellis Island, made of red brick, opening in 1900 and becoming the famous symbol of American immigration.

When the ferryboat docked at Ellis Island, it would have been surrounded by uniformed officers shouting and directing the passengers towards the main building where they would receive a numbered identity tag. Bearing in mind many that many of those arriving from Europe did not speak English, including many of the Irish, it would have been very confusing as they struggled off the boat carrying their trunks, sacks, and suitcases and making their way in an orderly line to the imposing red brick building.

Wearing their numbered tags, they entered the Baggage Room on the building’s ground floor, where they had to leave their belongings until the inspection was complete. As they made their way up to the Registry Room where the medical and legal inspections took place, they would have been observed by doctors looking for any obvious signs of ill-health.

The Registry Room was known as the Great Hall due to its size – 200 feet long and 102 feet wide and most would never have seen such a large indoor space before. The waiting area had long metal rails that helped maintain the orderly line as people went through the inspections with wooden benches added in 1903. The noise in this room could be intense with the sounds of thousands of voices bouncing off its vaulted ceilings as officials decided whether each person could enter the country right away or required further review.

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The doctors at Ellis Island developed a system to identify immigrants who needed medical attention. The first test was a ‘six-second physical’ with a uniformed doctor looking for any signs of illness or contagious diseases, whether they limped or were short of breath, whether they had any eye infections or acted in a disturbed or abnormal manner.

If someone was considered a risk to the public health, their clothes were marked by a piece of chalk with an identifying letter to denote a particular condition, with those who were marked taken out of the line and kept for further examination. Immigrants who passed the six-second exam continued through the maze of metal rails toward the far end of the hall for the legal inspection.

Each arriving boat provided the officials at Ellis Island with a list of names (the manifest) of the passengers on board. The manifest had the name and a description of each passenger, and one by one, they would be called forward to speak with a uniformed inspector, seated behind a desk, with interpreters on hand to help the immigrants communicate.

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Twenty-nine questions were asked of every immigrant which included: Where were you born? Are you married? What is your occupation? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? How much money do you have? What is your destination? An immigrant could be detained for further inquiry if his or her answers differed from those listed on the manifest.

For those who failed the health and/or legal inspections a period of great uncertainty awaited. Legal detainees lived in a third-floor dormitory room for anything from a few days up to a month when their case would be reviewed in the Hearing Room. Anyone with medical issues was either treated at the island’s hospital or kept in quarantine, with treatments sometimes lasting weeks or months, at the end of which a Board of Special Inquiry would review an individual’s medical report and decide whether to allow them into the United States or to send them back.

After the medical and legal inspections, the immigrants arrived at the top of another staircase at the other end of the Great Hall. This staircase had three aisles with those who were going to be detained often brought down the centre aisle. People who were traveling west or south walked down the right side of the staircase. Those going to New York City or to the north walked down the left side.

At the bottom of the stairs was a post office, a ticketing office for the railways, and social workers to help the immigrants who needed assistance. There was also an office to exchange money from their home country for U.S. dollars with exchange rates for currencies around the world posted each day on the blackboard. An area on the first floor of the building became known as ‘the kissing post’ because it was where family and friends waited for their loved ones, for whom the long journey was finally over: they were in America.

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Between 1892 and its closure in 1954 more than 12 million immigrants made their first stop in America at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. It became a museum in 1965 and is part of the U.S. National Park Service. It is believed that over 40 percent of Americans can trace their family history back to Ellis Island.

It is unlikely that my grandparents travelled on the same boat or encountered each other at Ellis Island but they did go through there. They were to meet in Boston at one of the many centres that grew up to serve its ever-increasing Irish community.

But fame and fortune weren’t to be found in America. News came that my grandfather’s older brother had passed on, and with the second brother, who was also in America, unable to return to Ireland, responsibility for the family smallholding fell to my grandfather and he returned home, followed soon after by my grandmother and their burgeoning relationship resumed – separated by that mere 6 miles of water which was not enough to keep them apart and they duly married.

We all take travel for granted nowadays but back then it was a burden and a danger that was forced upon you by circumstance rather than pleasure. It also meant that once people had been separated they were unlikely to ever see each other again. It’s only in recent years – with the rise of ancestry websites – that we have been able to re-connect with the two strands of our family in America. A particularly touching moment for me though was going to see my grandmother in hospital in her final days and when I entered the ward she was convinced I was her brother, all the way back from America to see her. What could I do but play along, I’d never seen her look so happy.

So, when I went to New York, Ellis Island was the ‘must do’ for me. It represented the start of so much for so many, and equally for me.

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