THE BURNING OF THE 'VOLTURNO' - PAGE 22
ELLIS ISLAND - PAGE 1
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I cannot possibly hope, in these pages, to cover in depth the subject of Ellis Island. One would surely need a whole library to be able to do that. But what I can do is give you a little of its history, and hopefully some idea, through words and images of what an immigrant in 1913 might have gone through upon his arrival.
The Ellis Island pages are in progress. And will evolve and get corrected as time goes by!
WHAT AND WHERE IS ELLIS ISLAND?
I suspect that no U.S. citizen will really need to be given the answer to that question, since Ellis Island has played such a major role in the history of the United States.
Ellis Island is, in fact, a man made island in New York harbour, close to the New Jersey shore & very close indeed (a little over 1/2 mile) to Bedloes Island, now Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty is located. It was created initially by the dumping of ballast from visiting ships, was 2 or 3 acres in size in the 1600s & at that time, I read, nearly disappeared at high tide! It was increased in size to 3 acres in 1892 & to 17 acres in 1898 by the addition of landfill to accommodate the use of the island as an immigration centre. And increased in size later also. It effectively closed in 1932 but actually was closed only in 1954. Today it is 27 1/2 acres in size & since 1965 has been a part of the 'Statue of Liberty National Monument'. Now renovated, at substantial expense, it today attracts two million plus visitors a year. The Island has had many names & many owners & has been used for a great many diverse & interesting purposes. I must direct you elsewhere for that detail. And Ellis Island? Named for Samuel Ellis, one of the many owners along the way & a butcher, I read (but I have also read a farmer. The most detailed reference I have so far read says he was a dealer in general merchandise in Manhattan, & owner of a farm in New Jersey's Bergen County). He owned the island in 1780. And the name has remained.
I now provide a map that shows clearly the location of Ellis Island in relation to Liberty Island & the tip of Manhattan. It is a bit 'beat up', dating from 1969 & showing the effects of being in my auto's glove compartment for a very long time. The scale, which I moved to where you can see it, is in miles. And beside that is part of an Aug. 2003 image, taken from the Empire State Building, that shows the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island quite clearly. Ellis Island is the big island to the right of it. The image is a portion of a much larger image by Stephen & Lucy Dawson. Available on this page. I understand that usage of images from that site is permitted on 'not for profit' web sites as this one certainly is. The 'Dawson' site, with a vast number of images on many subjects indeed, is available here.
I note with interest that the dotted line between the States of New York and New Jersey 'ends' in the middle of nowhere. At the date of the map, in 1969, the ownership of Ellis Island was in dispute, a matter only resolved by the Supreme Court in 1998. It had been in dispute since the late 18th century! The original 3.3 acres was decreed by the Supreme Court to be in New York State and the other 24.2 acres of the island was decreed to be in New Jersey! So now we could extend that dotted line, I guess!
THE FIRST IMMIGRATION CENTRE AT ELLIS ISLAND?
Just a short paragraph on this subject. The first immigration centre opened on Ellis Island on Jan. 1, 1892. Apparently because there was the least objection to the use of Ellis Island, of the possible choices, for such a purpose! It was designed to accommodate what proved in retrospect to be far too small a flow of immigrants, which flow changed however quite dramatically from year to year, as the result of world events & changing U.S. laws. That immigration centre, described as looking like a 'watering place hotel' or a 'ramshackle pavilion', (take your pick!), was constructed of wood & galvanised iron. A big mistake, I guess. On Jun. 14, 1897, just 5 or so years after it opened, it burned to the ground. Not totally but almost so. In less than three hours. With gratefully no loss of life. There is lots to read about that building, but again I must direct you elsewhere for the interesting detail.
THE REBUILT IMMIGRATION CENTRE AT ELLIS ISLAND
The immigration centre was rebuilt of course & the new facility opened for business on Dec. 17, 1900. It was built of brick, stone & steel & as a result of a design competition won by Boring and Tilton, architects, of New York. It had four prominent corner towers, capped by copper domes. It was vast. And accommodated every need - dormitory facilities, bathrooms, hospital & isolation wards, kitchens, laundries, mess halls, administrative offices, appeal rooms, railway ticket offices, & a host more functions. Even a morgue! It featured an enormous & awe-inspiring examination room called the 'Registry', 200 feet long & 100 feet wide with a quite magnificent & high vaulted ceiling. All very intimidating indeed to the average immigrant. Approached first by passing under an exterior canopy of glass & cast iron & then, after leaving luggage on the ground floor, by climbing a grand staircase from ground level. It was all intended to impress & it surely did. The whole facility had to be functional & it was. To a degree. It proved, in use, to be quite inadequate for the numbers of immigrants that were to arrive. And the building, indeed every building on the island, was enlarged as the years passed by to accommodate the incredible flow of human traffic. And when they eventually had a facility that was large enough, the flow of immigrants slowed down dramatically.
Anyway the Registry room had 12 aisles, & a balcony above, the aisles separated by iron railings, in which one took one's turn & waited & waited & waited until one advanced to the inspection desks at one end of the room. But before you even got to that area you had been through the medical officers. I was interested to read however that first and second class passengers on the arriving ships were inspected on board ship. And never had to set foot on Ellis Island.
The image I next offer shows, at left, ex Illustrated London News & dating from 1906, a lady of some importance being examined by a doctor at Ellis Island (a copy of that print is available, via e-Bay, as this page is updated). Now it would seem, as I have said, that such a passenger would likely never have had to actually set foot on Ellis Island. Unless there was a reason, I guess. Most likely trachoma in this lady's case. For which there was then no cure. And which, even today, almost 100 years later is a devastating disease in a large portion of the third world. And at right the experience of most less affluent steerage passengers being examined for a similar purpose. A long line up! Massed humanity. Dressed in the very best clothes one had available, I would presume, to make that so very important 'good first impression'.
I have read that the inspection for trachoma was brief but quite painful. And can well understand why the 'instrument' that was used in the inspection would not be made visible in either of the above images. For very good reason!
In fact they used a hook rather like a today's rug rook but without the latch, called a buttonhook. At right is such a hook (my link to the source of that image seems to no longer be operative).
Ouch! I show it because this was an important part of the immigrant experience, at a time when no cure for trachoma existed. And signs of the disease, i.e. granulations under the eye-lid, caused rejection.
I read that a buttonhook was, in fact, a hook used for buttoning gloves! I have bought a similar hook recently & wonder whether the image above is of a hook that was actually used at Ellis Island; but I do not know the answer to that question.
Initially one stood in line in those aisles. Later, benches were installed so one could at least sit down. Can you imagine the difficulties one would experience with young children in such a scene. And here is that Registry room. At right in a 1912 image. And at left in a postcard image said to date from 1909. (It sold for U.S. $30.51 in late May 2004 and another copy sold for U.S. $11.00 in Jan. 2005.) The benches were in place by then. One can, I understand, 'date' the left image by the visible stairway. It took up a lot of floor area & in 1911 was moved elsewhere in order to create more usable space in the hall.
Now I understand that immigrants flowed through the system in groups by vessel, & to control the process, each immigrant was given & displayed a prominent card which identified the manifest page on which he or she was listed & the exact line number on that page.
Those cards seem not to be visible in the above pair of images, so I show you at left part of an image published as a stereo card by Underwood and Underwood in 1904, & an actual such identity card which sold in Jun. 2004 via e-Bay - of a Norwegian passenger who arrived via the Celtic on Sep. 14, 1907.
When this page was first created, I searched for many months for quality images of an identification or inspection card, which I think would round out this section of the Ellis Island data. I could find very little except what appears above & that is really not of sufficient quality for inclusion here. But ... a fine large image of the front of an inspection card is available here & the rear of the card is available via that link also. The card was worn by Carl Johnson of Sweden, born Karl Johansson, as he left the ship at Ellis Island on Nov. 11, 1905 - Jone Johnson tells us it even has pin holes in it where it was pinned to Carl's clothing! The webmaster wrote seeking permission for inclusion of the image here & hopes yet that it may be possible to do so in due course.
In 1906, H. G. Wells described the scene with the following words:
All day long, through an intricate series of metal pens, the long procession files, step by step, bearing bundles and trunks and boxes, past this examiner and that, past the quick, alert medical officers, the tallymen and the clerks. At every point immigrants are being picked out and set aside for further medical examination, for further questions, for the busy little courts; but the main procession satisfies conditions, passes on. It is a daily procession that, with a yard of space to each, would stretch over three miles, that in any week in the year would more than equal in numbers that daily procession of the unemployed that is becoming a regular feature of the London winter, that in a year could put a cordon round London or New York of close-marching people, could populate a new Boston, that in a century - What in a century will it all amount to?.....
On they go, from this pen to that, pen by pen, towards a desk at a little metal wicket - the gate of America. Through this metal wicket drips the immigration stream - all day long, every two or three seconds an immigrant, with valise or a bundle, passes the little desk and goes on past the well-managed money-changing place, past the carefully organized separating ways that go to this railway or that, past the guiding, protecting officials - into a new world. The great majority are young men and young women, between seventeen and thirty, good, youthful, hopeful, peasant stock. They stand in a long string, waiting to go through that wicket, with bundles, with little tin boxes, with cheap portmanteaus, with odd packages, in pairs, in families, alone, women with children, men with strings of dependents, young couples. All day that string of human beads waits there, jerks forward, waits again; all day and every day, constantly replenished, constantly dropping the end beads through the wicket, till the units mount to hundreds and the hundreds to thousands.....
That was all after you got to Ellis Island, of course. Passenger ships would first go into a quarantine area in the southern part of the Lower Bay of New York Harbour. There they were examined from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for possible contagious diseases. The Port itself was open only from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Vessels would enter the harbour after going through quarantine & dock, so cabin class passengers & returning U.S. citizens could disembark speedily. Often many vessels arrived at once & each would take its turn to transfer passengers to Ellis Island. The wait could be of many days. A lighter or ferry would take you, when they were good & ready, & often after a long & cramped wait on that ferry, with zero facilities, it would seem, from your vessel to Ellis Island. And in due course you would leave the island the same way - by ferry to Manhattan or to New Jersey if you were admitted to the U.S. as most immigrants were. Or back to your vessel, if you were one of the unfortunate few who were rejected.
A couple of images that show you what Ellis Island looked like in the early 1900s. The visually interesting image at left is, I believe, a photograph taken at today's museum at Ellis Island with an overhead light visible. I lost track of where I found that image but believe it may well be on this fine page, thanks to Robert Dominis. At right is an old postcard showing the ferry boats that delivered their human cargo from their ships in the harbour to Ellis Island.
H. G. Wells talks of 21,000 immigrants coming into New York in a single day & 50,000 in a week. He said that 1,100,735 arrived in 1906. But maybe he had his numbers wrong! 1907 is I understand the peak year, with 1,004,756 passing through Ellis Island in that year & 11,747 through Ellis Island on a single day. (The total through the port of New York was 1,123,842 in 1907, the difference being the cabin class passengers who were cleared on ship). Perhaps 12,000,000 or 16,000,000 or even 17,000,000 in total over the many years Ellis Island was in operation (I have read all of those numbers). The numbers are regardless quite staggering. Their descendants today surely must constitute a high percentage indeed of the total population of the United States. The official Ellis Island site (link below) says 40% & 12,000,000 in total. How amazing! Equally amazing is that Ellis Island now receives over 2,000,000 visitors a year. Double the number that immigrated through Ellis Island in any year. But there is truly no way to compare those numbers!
The official Ellis Island Website is here. A most comprehensive page with resources relating to Ellis Island can be found here. A page about the Statue of Liberty is available here. More Ellis Island pages on this site are 23, 24, 25 & 26.
If any visitor can clarify (or correct) or provide more information or images about any of these matters, I would truly welcome their help.
Ellis Island I do try to make this site as accurate as I reasonably can. While acknowledging that I am not a historian nor have access to historical records & documents. I find it frustrating that virtually every book I have read has the detail different, so very different, in fact, that one wonders where all the 'misinformation' comes from. The most detailed book I have so far read on the early history of Ellis Island, would seem to make no references at all to the island being formed from ships' ballast but rather says the island was 'nothing more than a small sand-bank, consisting of about three acres of soft mud and clay, so low that it barely rose above the high tide of the Upper Bay' That suggests that the 'original island' was not man-made at all.
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