Immigration · New York · United States

November 12, 1954–Ellis Island Closes

On November 12, 1954, the immigration station of Ellis Island and all 33 of its buildings closed. I’m going to admit–the MAIN reason I picked this topic today ended up being a myth! But I had a ton of fun researching interesting tidbits all about Ellis Island. I’ve listed the sections below that interested me the most.

Immigrants undergoing medical examination., Digital ID 416754, New York Public Library

Samuel Ellis bought the island around the time of the Revolutionary War. He wanted to cater to local fishermen, so he built a tavern on the little island. Ellis passed away in the late 1700s. An article I read states “in 1808 New York State buys the island from his family for $10,000.” Throughout the 1800s, Ellis Island was used by the US Department of War to store munitions–including storing ammunition during the Civil War.

Over the next several decades, immigrants began pouring into the US–with little to no regulations. It became clear that regulations were needed. When Castle Garden–New York immigration’s current locale–closed in 1890, they needed a new immigration station and so the federal government took over immigration.

“On January 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore, from Ireland, became the first person to pass through the newly opened Ellis Island, which President Benjamin Harrison designated as America’s first federal immigration center in 1890. Before that time, the processing of immigrants had been handled by individual states.” click here for more info

Ellis Island
Who Went Through Ellis Island?

I mistakenly thought that all immigrants during this time period went through Ellis Island. I learned that it was actually only “third class citizens” that had to go through Ellis Island immigration–higher classes were quickly given an on board inspection on their ship and allowed to disembark in New Jersey and New York ports and go through customs there. “People in third class, though, were transported to Ellis Island, where they underwent medical and legal inspections to ensure they didn’t have a contagious disease or some condition that would make them a burden to the government.” click here for more info

–Prostitutes and known criminals were not allowed in. “Restricted as well are “lunatics” and “idiots.'” Chinese were barred from immigration for around 10 years due to the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882. Chinese Exclusion Act

Hurdles to citizenship at Ellis Island
What Happened At Ellis Island?

Ellis Island was a customs and clearance program for all immigrants. The immigrants were checked for contagious diseases and other maladies, to make sure they would not become a “burden” on their new country. According to an article I read, only about 2% of those that came to Ellis Island were denied entrance to the United States.

One article states the following: “Doctors checked those passing through Ellis Island for more than 60 diseases and disabilities that might disqualify them from entry into the United States. Those suspected of being afflicted with a having a disease or disability were marked with chalk and detained for closer examination. All immigrants were checked closely for trachoma, a contagious eye condition that caused more detainments and deportations than any other ailment. To check for trachoma, the examiner used a buttonhook to turn each immigrant’s eyelids inside out, a procedure remembered by many Ellis Island arrivals as particularly painful and terrifying.” Beware the Buttonhook Men

As I was researching this topic, I was learning of the detainments and the times it took to be processed. I couldn’t help but think of food. How did they eat?? Well, the article tells us the following: “Food was plentiful at Ellis Island, despite various opinions as to its quality. A typical meal served in the dining hall might include beef stew, potatoes, bread and herring (a very cheap fish); or baked beans and stewed prunes. Immigrants were introduced to new foods, such as bananas, sandwiches and ice cream, as well as unfamiliar preparations. To meet the special dietary requirements of Jewish immigrants, a kosher kitchen was built in 1911. In addition to the free meals served, independent concessions sold packaged food that immigrants often bought to eat while they waited or take with them when they left the island.”

Inspection at Ellis Island

Eye inspections at Ellis Island
Name Changes

Ever since I was little, I’ve heard the stories of names being changed at Ellis Island. I’ve been working on this post all day–and yet, I’ve found nothing mentioning name changes! So…I had to specifically look up “name changes at Ellis Island.” What I found makes me smile:

“The legend goes that officials at Ellis Island, unfamiliar with the many languages and nationalities of the people arriving at Ellis Island, would change the names of those immigrants that sounded foreign, or unusual. Vincent J. Cannato’s excellent book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island explains why this did not happen:

Nearly all […] name change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched. (p.402)

Inspectors did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship’s passenger list, or manifest. The ship’s manifest was created by employees of the steamship companies that brought the immigrants to the United States, before the voyage took place, when the passenger bought their ticket. The manifest was presented to the officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists. The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island states that employees of the steamship companies,

…mostly ticket agents and pursers required no special identification from passengers and simply accepted the names the immigrants gave them. Immigrant inspectors [at Ellis Island] accepted these names as recorded in the ship’s manifests and never altered them unless persuaded that a mistake had been made in the spelling or rendering of the name. Nonetheless the original name was never entirely scratched out and remained legible. (p.176)” click here for the whole article

Why Did Ellis Island Become Obsolete?

After WW1, an article I researched states the following: “Following the war, Congress passed quota laws and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduced the number of newcomers allowed into the country and also enabled immigrants to be processed at U.S. consulates abroad.”

Ellis Island
Other Interesting Facts

  • Ellis Island is only partially natural. The island was expanded using landfill. Later, two additional “landfill islands” were created to include a hospital ward and a psychiatric ward. see the 1903-1910 section for this info
  • During WW1, Ellis Island was used as a retaining center (prison?) for suspected enemies to the U.S.
  • In 1897, the immigration station lit on fire. No one was killed, but all immigration records dating back to the Castle Garden records were destroyed.
  • In 1907, Ellis Island saw its highest immigration. Accordingly, they passed some immigration laws–banning those with physical and mental handicaps. They also passed a law against children arriving without adults. So, apparently this was a thing.
  • After 1924, Ellis Island was a “detention and deportation center” for illegal immigrants.
  • It was also a temporary hospital for wounded soldiers during WW2.
  • Ellis Island was also a Coast Guard training center.
  • In September of 1990, a museum was opened at the site.

dormitories at Ellis Island

Dining Room at Ellis Island


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