Ellis Island is a sandy island just south of Manhattan where the Hudson River meets New York Harbor. During the 1700’s, it was known as Gibbet Island for the gallows on which pirates were hanged. About the time of the Revolutionary War, a New York merchant named Samuel Ellis bought the island and built a tavern on it, catering to local fisherman. Ellis died in 1794, and in 1808, New York State bought the island from his estate for $10,000.
The Federal War Department paid New York State for the right to fortify the island and it was used for military purposes during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
After the Civil War, Ellis Island remained vacant. New York State had its own immigration station, Castle Garden, at the foot of Manhattan. By the 1880s, Castle Garden was seen as a pit of corruption and theft.
Castle Garden was closed in 1890 and immigration oversight was turned over to the Federal government. $75,000 was appropriated for construction of the first Federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug and the island’s size was doubled to over six acres, using landfill created from incoming ships’ ballast and the excavation of subway tunnels in New York.
Ellis Island opened in 1892, and remained open until 1954.
During the sixty years it operated, Ellis Island saw more than 12 million immigrants pass through its gates. For many generations of Americans, and for almost all Italian Americans, Ellis Island is the first chapter of their family’s story in the United States.
Within a decade of its opening, Ellis Island was expanded again. Two new islands were created using landfill. Island Two housed the hospital administration and contagious diseases ward, while Island Three held the psychiatric ward. By 1906, Ellis Island has grown to more than 27 acres, from an original size of only three acres.
The processing at Ellis Island was a triumph of bureaucratic organization. At its height, from 1900 to 1914, 5,000 to 10,000 people were processed through the immigration station every day. Approximately 80% successfully passed through in a matter of hours, but others could be detained for days or weeks. Given the long lines, and the unfamiliarity of the immigration workers with European names, many newly arrived immigrants left the island with paperwork reflecting shortened or Americanized versions of their names.
On April 17, 1907, an all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants were processed through Ellis Island. 1907 was the highest number of immigrants received in a single year, with 1,004,756 arrivals. That year, a federal law was passed excluding persons with physical and mental disabilities, as well as children arriving without adults.
Starting in 1917, Ellis Island operated as a hospital for the U.S. Army, a way station for Navy personnel and a detention center for enemy aliens. The literacy test was introduced that year, which stayed on the books until 1952. Those over the age of 16 who could not read 30 to 40 test words in their native language were not admitted. Nearly all Asian immigrants were banned. In 1918, the Army took over most of Ellis Island and created a makeshift way station to treat sick and wounded American servicemen.
Passage of the Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which limited the number and nationality of immigrants allowed into the United States, effectively ended the era of mass immigration through New York. From 1925 to its closing in 1954, only 2.3 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island – which was still more than half of all those entering the United States.
In 1965, President Johnson issued a proclamation, putting Ellis Island under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Ellis Island opened to the public in 1976, featuring guided tours of the Main Arrivals Building. More than 50,000 people took the tour that first year. In 1982, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation led the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to raise private funds for the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The $156 million dollar restoration was completed in 1990. The Main Building houses the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, in which many of the rooms have been restored to the way they appeared during the island’s peak years. Since 1990, some 30 million visitors have visited Ellis Island to trace the steps of their ancestors.