I’ve been catching up on my reading, and I realized we’ve just passed another interesting anniversary.
Ellis Island formally closed on November 12, 1954. I visited the island while chaperoning a middle-school educational trip to New York City about 15 years ago and got to see the museum. More than 12 million immigrants passed through its gates in more than a half century of service.
This information came from one of my favorite sources, The Writer’s Almanac, November 12, 2015. Since immigration is such a hot topic now, I’ve decided to copy their description in its entirety.
“Before 1890, when President Harrison designated it the first federal immigration center, the states had previously managed immigration themselves. New York’s Castle Garden station had single-handedly processed more than 8 million newcomers in the previous 40 years. As conditions in southern and eastern Europe worsened, and demand for religious asylum increased, officials prepared for what would be soon be the greatest human migration in the history of the world, deciding to greet the “huddled masses” before they ever hit shore.
On January 1st, 1894, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first person to be ushered through the gates at Ellis Island. The original Great Hall was built of southern yellow pine and served well until a fire in 1897 burned it to the ground along with all the country’s immigration records dating back to 1855. The government rebuilt quickly with fireproof concrete this time. First- and second-class passengers arriving in the U.S. were waved pass the island and given just a brief inspection on board to check for obvious disease. After docking in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the poorer third-class and steerage passengers were ferried to the island by barge where they underwent more thorough interviews. Officials observed the immigrants as they climbed the staircase into the main hall and marked a simple chalk code on the coats of those they suspected to be sickly. If you were in good health and your story checked out, processing might only take about five hours. Only 2 percent of all immigrants that passed through the gates were turned away, often for infectious disease.
The facilities expanded constantly to meet the growing throngs of people, and engineers steadily increased the footprint of the island by dumping ship’s ballast and piling up landfill from construction of the first subway lines. The island was eventually expanded tenfold to roughly 30 square miles. In the year 1907 alone, more than a million people passed through the center. With the dawn of World War I, immigration from Europe began to slow. The Red Scare and a growing backlash against foreigners at home soon brought it to a crawl. After 1924, laws were passed allowing immigrants to be processed at foreign embassies, and Ellis Island was made into a detention center for suspected enemies.
On this day in 1954, the last detainee was released and the island was formally decommissioned. Abandoned for decades, in 1984 the island began the largest restoration undertaking in U.S. history, creating an Immigration Museum that has now drawn more than 30 million visitors. Today almost 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry through the gates of Ellis Island.”
The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media.