Ellis Island

A brief history of the place where so many Jewish immigrants entered the U.S.

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Excerpted with permission from Hadassah Magazine. 

Samuel Ellis was a New York merchant who at some point during the American Revolution became owner of a muddy little island in New York's bay. But the history of this unimposing bit of land began way before that. Native Americans named it Gull Island after the seabirds that flocked there. The governors of Nieuw Amsterdam bought it in 1630, renamed it Little Oyster Island and proceeded to harvest shellfish. When pirates were executed there it became Gibbet Island.

In 1808, when it was still owned by the Ellises, the defense-conscious federal government bought it for $10,000 and it became a fort. But the Ellis name remained.

After the War of 1812, the island was used for munitions storage until 1890, when the House Committee on Immigration decided that it offered the perfect alternative for the problem-fraught Castle Garden immigration station where prospective new citizens slept on the floor, went hungry, and were routinely cheated by money-changers and other con artists.

Immigration Center Opens

Two years, $500,000, and a lot of landfill later, a splendid Georgia pine arrivals building topped by a quartet of turrets opened its doors. The first immigrant to step inside was 15-year-old Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland. She was followed by about 700 more newcomers that day alone--450,000 the first year. Then the numbers decreased until 1900 because of tightening immigration laws, a cholera scare, and the economic depression that began in 1893.

In December 1900, a palatial new arrivals building--of fireproof red brick and sculpted limestone, adorned with elegant ironwork and festive towers--was inaugurated. To the steerage passengers (first- and second-class passengers proceeded immediately to the mainland) emerging from weeks trapped in mobbed, dank, filthy, noisy, stinking, disease-ridden quarters, it was truly a vision of hope and promise.

New immigrants waiting to be discharged from Temporary Detention Room,
Discharging Division, Ellis Island, New York City.
Photo: American Jewish Historical Society.

Unfortunately, the ethics of some of the people employed here were not as fine as their surroundings. Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant. But in 1902, a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding "kindness and consideration."

Still, the average immigrant, exhausted and unable to speak or understand English, quaked at the prospect of getting the door to the New World to open, the "hundred forms and ceremonies, grindings and grumblings of the key," as Henry James decorously put it.

Even the kindest and most considerate person in uniform could appear terrifying. "We were scared of uniforms," a Russian Jewish woman recalled. "It took us back to the Russian uniforms that we were running away from." And there were so many questions--about "character, anarchism, polygamy, insanity, crime, money, relatives, work," as Washington Irving wrote. What seemed like the right answer could be the wrong one. For instance, saying "yes" to "Do you have a job waiting?" could get you detained or deported since contracting for foreign labor was illegal. On top of everything else, unsophisticated refugees were easy marks for swindlers and even white slavers lurking at the docks.

Helping Jewish Immigrants

East European Jews faced a special problem. After a journey that may have outlasted their kosher food supplies, they discovered that Ellis Island had none to offer them. Kosher food wasn't provided until 1911. But the founding of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1902 by a group of Russian Jews, recent arrivals themselves, improved conditions considerably.

At Ellis Island and at other ports of entry, HIAS representatives served as mediators and interpreters for the immigrants, found them housing, and fed them until relatives or friends showed up, searched for relatives and friends who didn't show up, and put in all-nighters scouring the late editions of newspapers for jobs.

During Ellis Island's peak years, 1904 to 1909--1907 was the biggest year of all--the HIAS mediator was Alexander Harkavy, better known as the compiler of a famous Yiddish-English dictionary.

World War I brought the influx of newcomers almost to a halt. But the decline in the island's population turned out to be a blessing. When saboteurs blew up munitions-loaded cargo at Black Tom Wharf on the New Jersey shore, none of the 500 immigrants and 125 employees was seriously hurt, although the blasts were heard all the way to Philadelphia.

End of an Era

Immigration picked up after the war, but restrictive laws of 1917, 1921, 1924, and 1929 slowed it to a trickle. During World War II, the island doubled as a detention center for enemy aliens and spies. At the end of 1954, when only 21,000 people came through, the immigration center was closed. The island became a Coast Guard station. In 1965, it was taken over by the National Park Service and made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

In 1982, Lee Iacocca was asked by President Ronald Reagan to head a fund-raising campaign to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The Main Building, brilliantly transformed into the Ellis Island Immigration Museum at the high cost of $170 million (the largest restoration of its kind in American history) welcomed its first visitors on September 10, 1990. Preservation of the other buildings on the island continues.

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Elin Schoen Brockman is a writer based in New Haven,Conn.