How Ellis Island became America’s busiest immigration center

Located in Hudson County, New Jersey, Ellis Island was the largest immigration station in the United States from 1892 to 1924.

The United States is widely considered as a land of many opportunities and hope. It is for this reason that thousands of people migrate to the country every year. While some come to further their education, others enter into the country to start a new life. This has been the case for many years. In fact, people were attracted to the country way before the First World War started in 1914.

This was one of the reasons why Ellis Island became very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Until 1924, the then 1.2 hectares of land was arguably the largest immigration base in the U.S. Between 1892 and 1954, over 11 million immigrants were processed at the center. And if you are of foreign descent, it is likely that your grandparents or great grandparents might have passed through this facility before making it into the country.

Located in Upper New York Bay, the center has become one of the most popular tourist sites in the world ever since it was closed for immigration duties in 1954.

Join us as we take a look at the history of the island and how it became one of America’s most popular immigration centers

History about Ellis Island

Aerial view of Ellis Island

The island has been in existence for over 10,000 years. It is believed that it was formed from glaciers during the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, a glacial period experienced in North America. It has also been said that the land was initially occupied by the Mohegans who named it “Kioshk”, which translates into English as “Gull Island” due to the presence of seagulls at the place.

The Dutch acquired the parcel of land in 1630 and handed it over to Michael Reyniersz Pauw, a Dutch explorer who helped establish New Netherland. It was later sold to a number of wealthy individuals before it was finally acquired by a New York merchant called Samuel Ellis in 1774. As the new owner, the island was named after him and has remained so to this day.

What happened to the island during the 1790s?

Several members of Ellis’ family controlled the island after his death in 1794. As the military tension between the United States and other European countries grew, the federal government secured the island for defensive purposes. In June 1808, the government took charge of the land after paying $10,000 (about a quarter of a million in today’s dollar) to the owners.

It was later assigned for military purposes. A well-armed fort was built on the island during the War of 1812. It was initially named Crown Fort, but was changed to Fort Gibson before the war came to an end in 1815.

How did the island become America’s busiest immigration center?

Before 1890, immigration was regulated by individual states instead of the U.S. federal government. When the federal government began regulating immigration in the country, it wanted a center around the New York Harbor where immigrants would be processed.

In 1892, the government selected Ellis Island as the place for all its immigration activities. As at the time that the station was opened, there were lots of movements from eastern and southern Europe into the country. People were coming in from countries like Poland, Greece, and Russia. The United States also served as the destination for many Jews who were escaping economic and political depression.

It’s estimated that between 1892 and 1925, more than 11 million immigrants came through Ellis Island. Image: Immigrants arriving in 1902

An office of about 400 ft. x 150 ft. was constructed on the island to manage all immigration activities. It served as the first point of entry for anyone who wished to move to the United States. Hundreds of people were processed at the station on a daily basis.

At the center, immigrants were taken through medical and personal examinations before they were granted entry into the country. Those who failed these exams were detained in a room at the station.

European immigrants, many of whom were fleeing World War I, arriving at Ellis Island, 1915

How were immigrants handled at the station?

The migrants, who were mainly from Europe, traveled to the United States via steamships. Passengers were divided into classes. Let’s assume that the wealthy ones came in first or business class flights, while the less-wealthy ones were put in economy class.

It is said that those within the first and second classes were given special treatments. They were granted permission to enter into the country after completing their health screening. Some historians have mentioned that members of these classes, when passed fit, were given a free pass without going through Ellis Island.

Those from the other class were made to wait for days before they were moved to the station for further processing. They were made to climb to the registry room for their medical exams. This was a tactic deployed by the immigration officers. According to sources, they observed the movements of the migrants to identify any health issues while they climbed to the room upstairs. This seemed to be a clever move.

At the 20,000-square-foot registry room, also known as the “Great Hall”, visitors were made to go through a number of medical tests, including a physical exam. They were tested for a number of conditions, including glaucoma, mental illness, and heart disorder. Those who weren’t able to meet the criteria were marked and kept at a different location for further examination.

Those who passed went to the next stage, that is, legal inspection. This was where their documents and any other personal information were checked. Anyone who fell short of the requirements was detained, and if necessary deported. Passengers who ticked all the boxes were then allowed entry into the United States.

By the end of 1896, the size of the land had been increased to 14 acres to accommodate the increasing number of immigrants.

Immigrants being inspected, 1904

Reconstruction of the center

The two-story immigration center on the island, which was made of wood, got burnt in 1897. The origin and cause of the fire is still unknown. The fire destroyed all immigration documents at the station. A small office on the island was then used for all immigration activities while the center was being reconstructed.

First Ellis Island Immigrant Station, built in 1892 and destroyed by fire in 1897

In 1897, a legislation for the rebuilding of the office was approved, and an architecture competition was held to get the best structure for the immigration station. The competition was jointly won by William A. Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton, and the two were tasked with rebuilding the station.

As part of their plan, the two architects proposed for the construction of another island which would be named Island 2. On the second island they built a hospital which is now located at the northern part of Ellis Island.

Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital

It is a famous tourist site today

The center has served as a tourist site since its closure in 1954. One may ask, how can a once busy immigration station become the center of attraction for many tourists? It is probably due to the history of the station. It is also possible that people visit the island to trace their origin. According to sources, about 40% of America’s population today can trace the history of their families to the island. This makes it an important site in the history of our country.

But what makes the island a must-see place? Named under the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and managed by the National Park Service, the island has been the house of many historic items over the years. The ferry trip before stepping foot on the island will leave you with a lasting experience. People who visit the station will have access to the baggage room where immigrants kept their luggage.

You are likely to see the famous Great Hall which is located on the second floor of the building. The 3rd floor contains a library and dormitory rooms which were once used by the immigrants. Outside the main building is the Wall of Honor which contains over 770,000 names. These are the names of slaves, immigrants, and natives. Millions of people have visited the place over the years.

Some interesting facts about Ellis Island

Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background

Below are some more interesting facts about Ellis Island:

  • The first immigrant to be processed at the station was an Irish lady named Annie Moore.
  • The land is nicknamed “Island of Hope” due to the belief that immigrants had during their trip to the country.
  • In the first year of operation, about 450,000 people were processed at the Ellis Island immigration center.
  • It is estimated that only 2% of the total immigrants who passed through the immigration station were deported.
  • Part of the 2013 film titled “The Immigrant” was filmed on the island. The movie, which starred Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, was shortlisted for many accolades, including the Independent Spirit Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

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