Ellis Island and Immigration Museum

“‘It was an old superstition, sometimes half believed by the simplest emigrants, that the streets in America were paved with gold. When they got here, they learned three things: first, that the streets were not paved with gold, second, that the streets were not paved at all, and third, that they were expected to pave them.”

Ellis Island is one of 40 islands around New York. Visitors to the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration, opened in 1990, will not find it difficult to visualise the scene when immigrants, mainly from Europe, arrived on American soil after long, crowded and often arduous voyages. Many feared desperately that they would be turned back for health or other reasons. However, 17 million new Americans were “processed” – each took about four hours – and were allowed entry between 1892 and 1954.

Close your eyes in the museum and you can imagine shuffling along in a seemingly never-ending line of weary hopefuls, pausing for medical checks, for the scrutinising of documents and for questions, questions, questions in an alien tongue, voices reverberating off the thick walls. Most had reached their promised land, and would be admitted to form ethnic neighbourhoods in New York, or to put down roots elsewhere in the USA. Others, about 10 per cent, were unacceptable, and ordered to be dispatched home. Some could not face this and quietly committed suicide. Some others flung themselves from the dock of the ship carrying them homeward, hoping to swim across to Manhattan’s shore and perished in the attempt.

Even from the shore, Ellis Island evokes an atmosphere of foreboding, its dark brick buildings reminiscent of a 19th-century workhouse. But it also generates a strong sense of not-so-distant history. Two in five Americans won US citizenship via Ellis Island in the early days, and for their descendants, as well as for overseas visitors today, the resurrected immigration station is a deeply thought-provoking experience.

The free Ellis Island Records database, provided online by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, allows you to search by name, year of arrival, year of birth, town or village of origin, and ship name for immigrants who entered the U.S. at Ellis Island or the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924, the peak years of immigration. Results from the database of more than 22 million records provide links to a transcribed record and a digitized copy of the original ship manifest. You can also research the history of the immigrant ships that arrived at Ellis Island, NY, complete with photos!

There is a “Wall of Honor” outside of the main building. It lists over 700,000 names of individuals or families processed there. It is the only place in the United States where an individual can honor his family heritage at a National Monument. Don’t miss the 30-minute documentary film “Island of Hope, Island of Tears“. Guided tours of the Ellis Island Museum are available.

To reach the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum,
  • take the Circle Line – Statue of Liberty Ferry from Battery Park in lower Manhattan or Liberty Park in New Jersey.
  • Open: daily, 9.30am-5.15pm
  • Closed: 25 December

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