Ellis Island Immigration Museum, part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, reopened to the public on Monday, October 28 for the first time since Superstorm Sandy submerged the island exactly a year ago. Coincidentally, it is also the 127th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, which also was closed after the Sandy, but was able to reopen on July 4th.
“We are delighted to be able to share Ellis Island’s uniquely American story with the world once more,” said Superintendent David Luchsinger. “I can think of no better way to celebrate Lady Liberty’s 127th birthday than to welcome visitors back to the place where those ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ first came to our shores.”
Visitors can once again walk the halls of the immigration station where 12 million people began their life in America. They can visit the Baggage Room, the Great Hall where immigrants were inspected, and explore the new exhibit, Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550-1890. This first-floor exhibit, developed with the support of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, tells the story of American immigration prior to Ellis Island’s years of operation. Visitors can pick up a free audio tour, join a ranger program and watch an introductory film.
Outside, you can spend time at the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, with 700,000 names so far inscribed on metal that wraps a park-like setting like a ribbon (people donate money which supports the museum). There are also the remnants of the 1812 Fort Gibson which was on Ellis Island, and fabulous views of Manhattan, New Jersey and the Statue.
There is a pleasant cafe and lovely places to eat inside and outside.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum remains a work in progress at least through the spring, however. Repairs to the water and sewage systems have already taken place. An entirely new electrical system will be installed along with a new air conditioning system for climate control of the park’s million documents and artifacts. Elevator access to the Great Hall on the second floor is not yet available, but should be restored by early next year. A temporary ventilation system will be replaced by permanent equipment later this year.
But because of the storm -and the fact that the building is now being steam-heated by the original radiators which were installed when Ellis Island was restored in the 1980s to be accurate and were never used but were put into service to get through the emergency – most of the museum collection is currently stored in a climate-controlled facility in Maryland.
It is expected that the collection – one million artifacts that include the photos, paper documents, clothes people wore when they arrived and costumes they brought for ceremonial occasions, musical instruments (they have Irving Berlin’s original piano), spinning wheel, the Teddy Bear and toys and shoes – will be back next Spring.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York Harbor on October 29, 2012, Ellis Island was completely covered by water – we saw where the water level rose nearly to the roof of the lower level. The storm surge destroyed electrical, communications, heating and cooling systems. After the Statue of Liberty reopened on July 4, the park shifted its efforts from repairs at Liberty Island to planning the more complex task of reopening an historic structure that preserves a delicate museum collection.
The repairs to Ellis Island are costing $21 million and will take 18 months to complete; but with the mitigation program – for example, moving the electrical systems to higher ground – in the event of another major storm, the damage would cost only $500,000 ($300,000 to replace fans and motors that will remain at the lower level and $200,000 in labor) and take just 2-4 weeks to complete. Altogether, the cost of repairing the damage to both Liberty and Ellis islands was $70 million.
You still walk up the ramp from the ferry, feeling a little as the immigrants who were off-loaded from their steamship and put onto ferries to come to the island (the first class passengers were processed onboard their ships and never came through Ellis Island).
Their first glimpse would be of this fabulous, palatial French-Renaissance style building, with turrets.
“This was a young country This was built to impress,” Luchsinger says.
They would be carrying all the worldly possessions they could take with them from Europe – the items that were the most cherished, most important, most valuable to them. And then they would be told to leave all of their belongings in the Baggage Room as they arrived in the building.
Imagine what that was like.
“This is a special place, a hallowed place,” says Superintendent Luchsinger, who had two sets of great grandparents come through Ellis Island (two other sets came through Castle Clinton). “The balance of power shifted here” because of the human capital that came through these halls.
Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants were processed here – it is estimated that 100 million Americans today have ancestors who came through Ellis Island. They came to escape religious persecution, political strife, unemployment, plague, famine, and they came for the opportunity to work, for family, to build a new life. They were part of the greatest migration in modern history.
In the decade after the American Revolution, about 5000 people a year emigrated to the United States. By the early 1900s, immigrants arrived at Ellis Island at the rate of 5,000 a day. At the peak of immigration, in 1907, more than 11,000 were processed in a single day. In the decade 1901-10, six million immigrants came through Ellis Island.
But with World War I, there was growing pressure to curtail immigration; new laws were passed in the 1920s that set quotes based on national origin, and Ellis Island became a deportation center.
Ellis Island pays honor to all those brave souls who left all they knew to come to a strange land and make the United States their adopted home – it tells the story of immigration before Ellis Island (from the 1850s, Castle Clinton in Battery Park was the processing station) and throughout the time that Ellis Island served as the federal immigration processing station. Ellis Island was closed when the responsibility shifted to the states; in the future, exhibits will continue the story of immigration after Ellis Island closed.
We leave the Baggage Room to walk up the stairs to the Great Hall. The new arrivals would have been studied as they climbed the stairs to see who was having trouble breathing, or who had a limp. Those who needed further examination were marked with chalk.
There was the 90-second medical examination; a buttonhook was used to peel back the eyelid to inspect for infections like glaucoma or pink eye.
The Great Hall today is vast and cavernous and mostly empty except for a few of the original wooden benches played off to the side, and three stations where officials would have stood. American flags fly above’ giant windows that light stream through and today give views of the the Freedom Tower and Empire State Building on one side, and the Statue of Liberty, in those days the tallest structure in New York City, on the other. In those days, the room would have been crammed with benches, and the hall, which echoes today, thundering with cacophony of humanity. The Great Hall was restored in the 1980s to the way it was then, though when the restoration began in the 1980s, it was dilapidated.
In the Registry Room, each individual underwent questioning by inspectors – 29 questions including name, home town, occupation, destination and the amount of money they carried. It was intimidating – especially for refugees like Jews escaping the pograms of Europe who feared the officials in uniforms.
If they were cleared, they would continue on down the stairs to where they could exchange money, buy provisions and rail tickets. About one-third of the arrivals stayed in New York City while the rest headed elsewhere – some because they had relatives in other cities, others because they had a job and a place to go, still others on a whim, and some by mistake if they confused the name of the city – like the story of the immigrant who wound up in Houston, Texas, instead of Houston Street, New York City. Only one to two percent of the arrivals were denied entry.
There is an absolutely marvelous movie, “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” that you can see, as well as guided tours (45-90 minutes depending on the Ranger).
The south of the island has buildings that were used as hospital wards for those who were quarantined. These buildings have never been restored but today there are wood planks over the window frames.
An exhibit about the medical facility had been in the ferry building, but was destroyed by Sandy and not yet restored.
At the moment, Superintendent Luchsinger said, “We’re short on exhibits, but tall on character.”
He shows us where the lower level was flooded to the ceiling, but the water did not reach the first, second or third floors where the artifacts and exhibits were.
Superintendent Luchsinger has been here 4 1/2 years – he was supposed to retire last year after 35 years with the National Park Service. But after Sandy hit, he felt an obligation to stay on.
He’s had plenty of experience rescuing national park facilities from disaster. – Hurricane Gloria, 9/11; he went to New Orleans after Katrina to oversee the repairs to Jean Lafite National Historical Park and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
“There is a sense of satisfaction, always, but especially for this place. It is an international icon, not just US.”
Indeed, as we greet the first visitors off the ferries, we meet people from Sweden, France, Canada.
Luchsinger plans to retire finally at the end of the year. But he glowed when the first visitors came through the doors, “It feels wonderful. We haven’t seen visitors in a whole year. It means the world to me and the staff to have people come.”
Ellis Island operated as a federal immigration processing station between 1892 and 1954. A 1965 presidential proclamation added the island to the National Park Service as part of Statue of Liberty National Monument. After years of neglect, major restoration work on the Main Building took place in the 1980s, opening as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. The National Park Service works with its partner organizations, The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and Save Ellis Island, to improve and enhance operations at the park.
Visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which are operated by the National Parks Service – and the tours by the Rangers, audio tour (9 languages) and the movie are free (but when you arrive, you get timed tickets for tours and the movie). But to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, you need to purchase tickets for the ferry, operated by Statue Cruises. The ferries operate about every half hour from Castle Clinton in Battery Park, Manhattan, and from New Jersey. The website contains information about ferry ticket prices. (877-LADY-TIX or 201-604-2800, www.statuecruises.com).
For more info on visiting the Statue, see http://www.nps.gov/stli/planyourvisit/index.htm.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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