Part I: The Story of Ellis Island… As a Museum
May 10, 2016


Today, Ellis Island is one of the most popular destinations in the National Park system, with over 3 million visitors each year who come to see the rooms and halls where twelve million immigrants took their first steps on American soil. But in 1924, when the last great waves of immigrants filed onto the ferries that would take them to New York City and points beyond, Ellis Island wasn’t considered a particularly valuable, or even interesting, place. The Island and its buildings went through a variety of incarnations before being ultimately abandoned, and were only refurbished and reopened to the general public as a museum in 1990.  How did an island full of run-down buildings become a shrine to our nation’s immigrant past, and a place to remember those who made the difficult journey to start anew on American shores?

Before years of landfilling increased its size tenfold, Dutch and English settlers called the small tidal flat in the middle of New York Bay’s oyster banks Oyster Island. Purchased and named by Welsh merchant Samuel Ellis around the time of the American Revolution, the United States government soon took the Island over for use as an arsenal. Shortly after the War of 1812, the War Department turned the Island into Fort Gibson, which remained a military post until 1890.

In the years before the Federal government began regulating immigration in 1890, individual states were responsible for processing and admitting newcomers. In 1855, New York State opened Castle Garden (today called Castle Clinton), an immigration station at the tip of Lower Manhattan.  Castle Garden welcomed eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, before it was shut down in favor of Ellis Island in 1890. Although Ellis Island later eclipsed Castle Garden in the popular memory, at the time, Castle Garden was so synonymous with the experience of entering the U.S. that Yiddish-speakers adopted the adjective “Kesselgarden” to describe “noisy chaos.”

The Ellis Island federal immigration station opened on January 1, 1892. The campus housed the main arrivals hall, baggage rooms, hearings rooms, a library, dormitories, a hospital, laundry, gardens, and a massive dining room that seated 1,000. Annie Moore, a teenager who arrived from Ireland with her two brothers, became the first immigrant to pass through the station, receiving a gold coin and a handshake from the Commissioner of the Island in recognition.  In the course of the next 60 years, twelve million immigrants would enter America through Ellis Island.

But the heyday of Ellis Island as an immigrant processing center would end quickly; the restrictive Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 stemmed the unrelenting tide of immigrants and rendered the massive inspection station obsolete. After 1924, the few prospective American immigrants accepted for entry would be processed at American embassies in their home countries, and Ellis Island’s roll was limited to a detention center for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. During World War II, the Island’s hospital was used to house disabled American servicemen, while the main buildings were used to intern Italian and German prisoners of war, as well as “enemy aliens,” Axis nationals in the U.S. accused of attempts at sabotage and spying. At the end of the war, Ellis Island continued to hold foreigners and immigrants who were under investigation for communist and fascist views; at one point as many as 1,500 individuals were detained on the Island.

The detention center closed in November 1954, as changes to immigration policies led to a sharp decline in the number of detainees. The Island was officially abandoned by the Coast Guard and the buildings, declared surplus property by the Federal government, fell into disrepair. Unsure of what to do with the site, the government asked state governments and non-profits to submit proposals for its use. Suggestions ranged from a homeless shelter and retirement home to a clinic for alcoholics, a school for the disabled to a public university. One of the strongest voices, however, came from members of the New Jersey state Senate, who proposed connecting the Island to New Jersey and creating a park and museum commemorating the immigrants who had passed through the Island.

While the grand buildings, giant murals, and historic location might have naturally lent themselves to a memorial or historic site, the suggestion to create a museum on the Island was surprisingly controversial; debates over the possibility of an Ellis Island museum would shape the Island’s fate through the latter half of the 20th century. The biggest stumbling block to its creation was the plan for the American Museum of Immigration (AMI), set to be built in the base of the Statue of Liberty and supported by some of America’s leading philanthropists, including the DuPont family, and descendants of both Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant. Concerned that a museum on Ellis Island would jeopardize their ongoing fundraising, the leadership of the AMI set out to foil any plans for Ellis Island’s historic redevelopment.

In 1956, after folding to pressure from the leadership of the AMI, the government announced that Ellis Island would be put up for sale for commercial development. Ads were placed in the Wall Street Journal listing the sale of “one of the most famous land marks in the world.” Ellis Island was advertised as an excellent location for an “oil storage depot, import and export processing, warehousing, [or] manufacturing.” The sale would include 27.5 acres of land, 35 buildings, and, as a bonus, the ferry boat “Ellis Island,” suitable for shuttling workers to and from the Island site. By September, the government was collecting bids.

Will the gardens that once welcomed weary immigrants soon be stacked with shipping containers?  How far will the AMI board stoop to block an Ellis Island Museum?  Will New York and New Jersey fight to the death over rights to the Island? Tune in next week to find out . . .