For the twelve million immigrants who came through Ellis Island, and their now 100 million descendants, these 27.5 acres are sacred ground.
Hundreds of thousands of would-be Americans were processed at Ellis Island each year between 1892 and 1924, when immigration was strictly curtailed. Its busiest year was 1907, when just over a million people were processed. Its busiest day ever was that April 17, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. The center stayed open until 1954, serving mainly as a site for processing those to be detained or deported.
The vast majority of arrivals came aboard huge steamships. Those traveling first and second class received a brief screening aboard ship, but weren’t processed at Ellis Island. The belief was that if you could afford those tickets, you had the resources to make it without public assistance. Upon arriving in New York, they were free to go.
Those traveling third class or “steerage” had an altogether different experience. If their papers were in order and they were reasonably healthy, their processing took somewhere from three to five hours. Doctors were so used to seeing certain conditions that they were often able to pull the sick out out by a visual inspection. These became known as “six-second physicals.”
Ellis Island became part of the National Park Service in 1966 as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, its neighbor a half mile to the north. There’s an amazing museum on Ellis Island today, and you can get there by ferry from Jersey City or from the lower tip of Manhattan.
Here are just some of the notable people who entered the United States as immigrants on Ellis Island: Isaac Asimov, Charles Atlas, Irving Berlin, Frank Capra, Claudette Colbert, Xavier Cugat, Max Factor, Bela Lugosi, Knute Rockne, Rudolph Valentino, and Henny Youngman.