Ellis Island National Monument

Ellis Island National Monument

History of Ellis Island


Located in the upper New York Bay, a short distance from the New Jersey shore, Ellis Island was originally known to American Indians as Kioshk, or Gull Island, named for the birds that were its only inhabitants. Consisting of nothing more than three acres of soft mud and clay, it was so low that it barely rose above the high-tide level of the bay.

The island was purchased by the colonial governors of Nieuw Amsterdam (later New York) from American Indians on July 12, 1630, for "certain cargoes, or parcels of goods." The Dutch called it, "Little Oyster Island" because of the delicious oysters found in its sands and used it as a base for oystering. Because the island was not good for much other than its oysters—certainly it was not a prime building site—it changed independent ownership many times during the next century. 

During the 1700s, the island was also irreverently known as, "Gibbet Island" due to its executions of state criminals who were hanged from a "gibbet" (or gallows tree). 

By means never officially determined, ownership passed into the hands of one Samuel Ellis about the time of the American Revolution. Ellis tried unsuccessfully to sell the island and still owned it when he died in 1794. In his will, he bequeathed the island to the unborn child of his pregnant daughter, Catherine Westervelt, on two conditions: that the baby would be a boy and that the child would be named after him. A son was born, but died in infancy. Title to the island was then disputed by other members of the family.

On April 21, 1794, the city formally deeded the only part of the island that was publicly owned, a narrow strip of mud between the water and the high-tide mark, to the state (Samuel Ellis had actually drawn up a deed transferring ownership of his island to the state, but he died before the deed could be completed). On this site, considered an excellent defense for the harbor, construction of the first fort on Ellis Island had begun, in fear of new attacks from the British. A few wooden buildings and 13 24-pound guns were ordered. As threats of war with Britain increased, the island was also used for training recruits. Amid all of this military activity, the island was still privately-owned property, which was leased for the anticipated military -fortifications. 

To speed up the transfer of the property, New York State ceded its right of legal jurisdiction over the island to the federal government in February 1808. After several inspections by U.S. Army engineers, it was concluded that Ellis Island's position in the harbor made it strategically invaluable to the safety of the nation, despite potential construction problems. A committee of New Yorkers was appointed to estimate the island's value. The agreed figure was "no less than $10,000," a very large sum for apparently unusable land in the early 1800s. 

On June 8, 1808, the state of New York bought Ellis Island at the committee's recommended price and was imme-diately reimbursed when the federal government took possession of the island on the same day. After feverish and difficult preparations, Fort Gibson, a full-scale stronghold boasting 13 guns and a garrison of 182 gunners, was in place just in time for the outbreak of the War of 1812. But Fort Gibson wasn't needed. As the years passed, the army and navy had little use for the island. It was used only to store ammunition until, in 1890, it was chosen by the House Committee on Immigration as the site of the new Immigration Station for the Port of New York.

Construction Begins

When Ellis Island was finally selected, $150,000 was authorized for improvements and buildings. To make the small, muddy island usable, every penny—and more—would be spent.

To begin, a channel 1,250 feet long and 200 feet wide had to be dredged to a depth of more than 12 feet. New docks had to be constructed. Landfill (from subway tunnels and from the Grand Central Station excavation) had to be brought in to create the "ground" for the new buildings. And because there wasn't enough fresh water on the island, artesian wells and cisterns were dug.

The first buildings were constructed of Georgia pine with slate roofs. The main building was two stories high, about 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. Four-story peaked towers marked the corners of the building. There were baggage rooms on the ground level and a great inspection hall above them.

Smaller buildings included a dormitory for detainees, a small hospital, a restaurant, kitchens, a baggage station, an electric plant and a bathhouse. Some of the old Fort Gibson brick buildings were also converted into dormitories and office space.

The number of employees varied with the number of incoming immigrants; the average staff ranged between 500 and 850 people. Often, as immigration increased, the need was greater than the staff available. Most workers commuted to the island by ferryboat from Manhattan. 

When the Immigration Station officially opened on January 1, 1892, its final cost had reached approximately $500,000 and it had become a city unto itself.

The 1891 Change in Immigration Law

As superior as the new facilities were, in comparison to the old accommodations, immigrants now faced stricter laws than ever before. The Contract Labor Law of 1885 was stiffened to exclude immigrants who were entering the country at the encouragement of American employers and it was illegal for Ameri-can employers to advertise. A more comprehensive immigration law was passed in the spring of 1891. 

While steamship companies had previously been held responsible for screening their passengers before leaving Europe, now they were also made responsible for returning deportees to their homeland and for the cost of their food and lodging while they were in detention in the United States. Aliens who entered the country illegally or became "public charges" within a year of their arrival, due to conditions that existed before they landed, were to be deported. Additional amendments were added to the law in 1893.

The combination of this stricter law, a cholera scare in 1892 and the financial panic of 1893, followed by several years of economic depression, began to show its effect. The number of immigrants arriving in New York consistently decreased until the turn of the century. 

The Fire of 1897

Fortunately, there were only 200 people on Ellis Island the night of June 14, 1897. Shortly after midnight, without warning, a disastrous fire broke out. The buildings of pine went up in flames as if they had been made of paper. The slate roof of the main building crashed in within an hour and by dawn there was hardly a trace of the station left. Yet, not one life was lost. 

Congress immediately appropriated $600,000 to replace the lost structures with fireproof buildings. During the two-and-a-half years it took to rebuild the structures on Ellis Island, the processing of immigrants was again conducted at the old Barge Office in Battery Park.

From the Ashes

Five architectural firms in New York City entered the government's competition to rebuild the structures on Ellis Island; a small firm called Boring & Tilton won the assignment. The Main Building, still considered one of the few grand-scale brick buildings in New York, was composed of red brick with ironwork and limestone trim, and concrete floors. Notable for its four cupola-style towers and the large, light and airy second-floor Registry Room, the Main Building was 338 feet long and 168 feet wide. A dramatic vaulted ceiling was installed in 1918 and carefully tiled by a family who were, themselves, -immigrants from Spain, the Guastavinos. Using the peculiar technique of vaulting, which involved weaving three layers of tiles together, the ceiling crept out from the side walls like a vine, without the support of central scaffolding. Dormitories were added on the floor above the Registry Room. Other floors housed administrative offices, records rooms and special inquiry board hearing rooms. The entire first floor was used as a baggage receiving room and railroad ticket office. 

The original island encompassed nearly 3.5 acres but was increased in size two times, first with the addition of the three-acre Island Number Two. This second island included hospital wards and an administration building. A third island of five acres was added in 1910 with additional hospital facilities for isolating immigrants with contagious diseases.

The new Ellis Island Immi---gra-tion Station cost more than $1.5 million to complete. It reopened on December 17, 1900. 

Despite the unquestioned physical superiority of the new immigration station, one "oversight" was to have repercussions for years to come. In planning the reconstruction, officials calculated that no more than a half -million immi-grants a year would pass through New York on their way to new lives in America. It would prove to be a gross miscalculation. 

"A Den of Thieves"

As gracious as the new receiving station appeared on the outside, its insides were riddled with graft, corruption and cruelty for the next few years. Inspectors demanded bribes from immigrants who appeared to have money; if the bribe was questioned, or slow in coming, an immigrant was detained. Other inspectors would admit pretty young women on the condition that the women meet them later at a hotel. Railroad agents sold tickets at inflated prices. Immigrants were compelled to buy box lunches they didn't want for many times their value. Employees at the Money Exchange simply lied about the exchange rates and then pocketed the difference. Some American immigration inspectors were discovered issuing fake certificates of citizenship for a fee and splitting the profits with ship officers. 

When, in 1901, this greed-infested situation was brought to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, the cleanup of Ellis Island began within a month. Several senior officials, including the commissioner of Immigra-tion and the head of the Bureau of Immi-gration in Washington, D.C., were replaced.

Cleaning Up the Corruption

In April 1902, William Williams, a young Wall Street lawyer, was appointed as the new commissioner. He awarded new contracts for the food, money exchange and baggage concessions solely on the basis of merit. He wanted the immigrants to have only the best services available. Employees were harshly reprimanded for drunkenness (once quite common), forbidden special favors (such as free passes from the railroads) and constantly reminded to treat immigrants with "kindness and consideration." Within a few months, his reform policies had completely changed the atmosphere at Ellis Island. And not a moment too soon, for the island's busiest years were still ahead. 

The War Years

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, immigration to America all but ceased. Many European nations closed their borders, seas were unsafe to travel and unemployment in America was on the rise. 

Ellis Island became host to those who could not be admitted to the United States yet could not be returned to their original homes. It served as an internment center for 1,500 German sailors and 2,200 suspected "aliens and spies."

The large hospital was turned over to the War and Navy departments for the care of almost 700 wounded soldiers and sailors.

Then a second catastrophe struck the island, again under the dark of night.

A Second Threat of Oblivion

The Ellis Island Immigration Station was almost blown out of existence on July 30, 1916. Black Tom Wharf, a railroad yard and barge-loading area, was located on the New Jersey shore only a few hundred yards from Ellis Island. Here, railroad cars and 14 barges loaded with dynamite and  munitions awaited transfer to freighters in the bay. At about 2 a.m., saboteurs exploded the cargo, which resulted in two separate shocks of such magnitude that they were felt in Philadel-phia, 90 miles away. Bullets, bombs and shells exploded into the air for hours. Nearly 500 immigrants and 125 employees were asleep when the first blast erupted. Almost every window on the island was broken instantly. Doors jammed inward and parts of roofs collapsed. With shells flying over their heads like fireworks, the staff led the immi--grants to safety at the eastern corner of the island, and from there, onto ferries that took them to the Manhat-tan Barge Office. No one was seriously injured, but the damage on Ellis Island amounted to $400,000. The saboteurs were never apprehended.

With the end of the "Great War," many Americans were eager to see immigration restricted. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League joined their voices with those of labor organizations anxious to reduce the number of incoming immigrants. In 1917, legislation was passed that specified 33 classes of foreigners who could not be admitted and also demanded literacy testing. The new law greatly reduced the number of immigrants for a while, but by 1921, the number of arrivals once again climbed to 500,000. New, stricter laws were enacted in 1921 and a quota system went into effect in 1924. Another provision of the new laws stated that every immigrant was now to be inspected at the American consular office in the immigrant's country of origin, rather than on arrival in America. That changed the immigration system forever.

Proposals to close Ellis Island were made as early as 1925, but immigrant processing did not cease entirely until the end of 1954, when only 21,500 immigrants, in all classes, passed through its portals. During World War II, the island served as a detention center for enemy aliens. In March 1955, Ellis Island was turned over to the General Services Administra-tion—and a major era in American -history came to a close.

Rebirth and Renewal

For more than 20 years, Ellis Island was abandoned. Attempts to sell the property were made, but many bitterly opposed the idea claiming: "To sell the island would be cheap and tawdry."

A study by the National Park Service was conducted during 1963—1964, outlining the reasons why the island should become a national monument, a reminder of part of our Amer-ican heri-tage. The recommen-dation was accepted and President Lyndon Johnson officially pro-claimed Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument on May 11, 1965.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan asked Lee Iacocca, chairman of the board of Chrysler Corporation of America, to help restore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

The Statue of Liberty--Ellis Island Foundation was formed to raise the $230 million needed for the restor-ation of these two important national monuments. In the largest restoration project of its kind in Ameri-can history, $170 million in individual and corporate donations were devoted to the Ellis Island main building project alone. To date, more than 20 million Americans have contributed to the restoration plans of the foundation.

Ellis Island was reopened and dedicated on September 10, 1990, as a unit of the U.S. Depart-ment of the Inte-rior's National Park Service, administered by the super-intendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. 

Today, preservation efforts continue. The island's remaining abandoned buildings are currently being stabilized and rehabilitation of some is already underway.