Island of Tears

Ellis Island ferry-boat, New York City (1981)

Ellis Island ferry-boat, New York City (1981)

When I first visited New York City in 1981 my host, my school contemporary Malcolm, insisted there were two places I must visit – the Cloisters and Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was the major immigration reception station for the United States, handling 90% of arrivals from the Old World, from whom 40% of the present-day population are descended, between 1892 and 1954. 

Here the “tired…huddled masses” first set foot in the New World, and the stringent examinations they underwent determined whether they would be allowed to remain.

The “island of tears”, out in the bleak expanse of New York Harbour, has a powerful emotional pull on American consciousness.

When I first visited Ellis Island the facilities were much as they’d been left after the station finally closed on November 29th 1954.  The minimal security team had had little success in preventing pilfering on the otherwise deserted island.  Water in the central-heating system froze during the winter, and the buildings deteriorated inexorably as the vegetation took over the grounds.  The ferry Ellis Island was left at its moorings, where ultimately it sank.

Since then, Ellis Island has been transformed into an immaculate museum by the National Parks Authority, commemorating the contribution that immigrants have made to American life.  Inevitably, it has lost the patina of decay which badly needed arresting.  I’m glad I saw it in its unrestored state:  it was a powerfully evocative place back then.

The modern visitor can still see the baggage-handling facilities, the scene of much overcrowding and of notorious “losses” of immigrants’ possessions, the staircase which formed part of the “six-second medical”, in which signs of undue exertion were regarded as diagnostic evidence, and the great Registry Room, in which inspectors had to decide, by interview using interpreters in any of up to thirty languages apart from English, whether an immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt” eligible to land.

The history of European colonisation is a complex and controversial aspect of international history.  Malcolm was right in urging me to fit in one of the building blocks of my understanding of the USA by visiting Ellis Island while I was in New York.

Admission to Ellis Island is free, but it is – obviously – only accessible by boat.  The public ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan is bookable at  Details of the facilities on the island are at the voluminous website

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.


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