The best advice I can give you about visiting Ellis Island is to give yourself a lot of time because there’s so much to see. Take it slow and let all that history sink in. And try to take a ranger guided tour. (Check for times at the information center inside the building.)
In a short half hour guided tour you’ll get a great base of knowledge which will help you understand all the rest. Our ranger used the story of a sixteen year old girl’s experience as she traveled across the ocean and through the system at Ellis Island.
At the end he reveled that girl was his grandmother. And that his grandfather came across as a young man not too long after and lived only a few blocks away from his grandmother. And the rest, he says, is his family’s history.
Did you know that only the third class and steerage passengers had to go through Ellis Island? I didn’t either. First and second class passengers got the run of the ship, and were able to begin their new lives here in America as soon as they arrived. Those who only paid about $300 (in current dollars) for their passage were brought to the island to be inspected.
The luggage was left in the luggage room and they were sent upstairs to wait. As they climbed the stairs they were observed. If they appeared sick people at the top of the stairs marked their coats with chalk. Those people were examined more carefully.
The rest waited in benches in a huge and beautiful room.
Perhaps they had never seen such a place before, or if they had, as the ranger said, rooms such as this would have been built in castles, not for people like them.
But this was America, where anything was possible. Note the curved tile ceilings and the mosaic floors.
An immigrant could wait for a few hours, or days for their name to be called, but once it was they moved forward to answer the inspector’s questions. They were the same questions the ship company asked; What is your name, Where are you going? Where will you live? How much money do you have? If you answered correctly and passed the eye exam and a cursory physical you were allowed to leave and begin your new life.
If you did not pass, say you forgot the address of the family member taking you in, you were sent to have a hearing. You could bring in witnesses to collaborate your story. Many immigrants had never seen government treat them so fairly. It was one of their first lessons about freedom in America, and ninety-eight percent of those that arrived were eventually allowed into the country.
Still, it was a terrifying experience, to travel in the belly of a ship, arrive in a strange place, listen to strange languages, be told where to sit, be questioned by uniformed strangers. What hope and strength they must have had to travel toward such an uncertain future.
They told us that forty percent of Americans today can trace a relative through Ellis Island. Forty percent of us owe our lives to someone that took the risk and came to make a better life.
If you’re ever in New York take the time to visit this historic place. Look at the views of Manhattan from the windows of the grand building. Think about what it must have felt like to sit looking across that water at the place you’d dreamed about.
And think about all they had left behind; family they’d never see again, familiar homes and towns. Think about what it must have been like to have only a few possessions, a few dollars, to know only a few people here in the new country.
Then think about how lucky we are to have been born here. Regardless of your political views, regardless of the stress of an election year, regardless of economic times, this is still the greatest country in the world.
We should take time to appreciate that.