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Ellis Island was the entry point the United States for the immigrants coming from all over the world between 1892 and 1954. Most of these immigrants were the Jews persecuted in Europe, looking for a brighter future in the USA. Other immigrants were going to the United States to flee poverty, war, etc. Ellis Island closed in 1954, but was restored in the 1980s. Since 1990, Ellis Island reopened and it’s possible to visit Ellis Island, also called the immigration museum, in order to discover the ‘welcome’ process of the immigrants. It’s an interesting and essential visit if you go visit New York.
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History of Ellis Island
Before 1892, the immigrants were arriving at Castle Clinton (the current Battery Park) in the south of Manhattan. But the residents kept complaining so from 1892, the immigrants were arriving directly on an island, Ellis Island. It was named after Samuel Ellis, the former owner of the island, before the New York state bought it (before Ellis Island, it was called Little Oyster Island because of the vast oyster beds surrounding the island at the time).
The good thing about the immigrants arriving on an island, is that it limited the escape attempts. Moreover arriving in Ellis Island hit its mark, the island being just next to Liberty Island, the island where the statue of liberty is. It’s the first American monument the immigrants spotted when arriving.
I’m sharing all the info at the end of the article, but we go through the experience of the immigrants thanks to a free audio-guide. Most immigrants were Jews coming from Europe by boat, the trip lasted 10 to 14 days. It was a big investment for the immigrants to make this trip. America was a source of hope but there was also a certain apprehension when arriving.
Immigration process in Ellis Island
Travelers of first and second class were inspected on board when arriving, those of third class had to leave their luggage in the baggage room, before going to the registry room. They had to climb stairs to get there, and the doctors were already inspecting the passengers: Do they struggle climbing the stairs? Are they coughing? Are they limping? Are they tired?
They were asked to sit on the benches of the registry room, and they were inspected by the doctors, especially the eyes. A trachoma (leading to blindness) meant having to go back where you come from. The sick immigrants had a mark on their jacket written with a piece of chalk.
After the doctors inspection, the immigrants were questioned by agents (with the help of an interpreter for those who didn’t speak English). The questions were easy: what’s your name, where you from, where are you going, what’s your job… They had to have 20 dollars. If the answers were incoherent, they were asked to go to the hearing room. At this stage, 80% of immigrants were accepted in the United States.
The immigrants had to go through the stairs of separation: the left stairs for those staying in NYC, the right stairs for those leaving NYC (heading to the ticket counter), and the stairs in the middle for those going to detention.
On the threshold of a new world
The successful candidates could buy a snack for one dollar, exchange their money, buy a train ticket for those who were not staying in New York (two thirds of the immigrants were going elsewhere). For those who didn’t know how to read, a ticket was stapled on their coat so that the agent knew what train the immigrant had to take, where to get off… In Ellis Island, there were companies helping out the immigrants (lost luggage, clothes for sale…).
For the unsuccessful candidates, there were several reasons. The ones with a X written with a chalk on their coat had to take a mental test. Most of them passed the exam easily. Others had to go through a medical diagnosis (the hospital took 2/3 of the space available on the island!), others had to take a legal exam to check their claims. Some immigrants were detained because they were waiting for a family member, or for legal reasons, etc. Apparently, the detained immigrants were well-fed and they discovered food like banana, oatmeal…
A quota by nationality was established from 1921, which was mostly limiting the arrival of people from Eastern Europe (the Jews). Many Americans were against mass immigration (not all of them). The immigrants were also coming to find a job. Actually, it was the industrial boom era and the USA needed labor force.
Admission rate in Ellis Island
In the end, 98% of the 12 million immigrants who went through Ellis Island were admitted in the United States, including Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. For the immigrants admitted, it meant learning how to speak English, how to vote, how to be an American citizen… For the 2% unsuccessful candidates, Ellis Island became the island of tears.
During World War II, Ellis Island was also a training camp for the United States Coast Guard, and a place to detain prisoners of war (Germans, Italians and Japanese soldiers were detained there). Ellis Island closed in 1954.
Layout of Ellis Island
Today, thanks to the immigration museum, we get a glimpse of what the arrival of the immigrants in the United States looked like. Dorms, exam and questioning rooms, photos, documents… Everything is here! There’s also an exhibition about the history of immigration in the United States. On the third floor, you’ll find the Bob Hope Memorial Library, named after Bob Hope, the English actor who went through Ellis Island in 1908 when he was five.
On the first floor, there’s a cafeteria if you’re hungry. Finally, also on the first floor, the museum provides computers for the visitors. It’s possible to do research in the archives. Type your last name, maybe you’ll learn you have ancestors who went through Ellis Island…
How to get to Ellis Island
Ellis Island is located just next to Liberty Island, the island of the statue of liberty. From Battery Park in the south of Manhattan, you’ll see signs everywhere showing you where to buy tickets. For $18.50, you get the round trip by ferry, access to Liberty Island where the statue is, an audio guide and also the access to Ellis Island. Even if you just want to see the statue of liberty, you have access to Ellis Island with your ferry ticket! Click here to buy your ticket with fast-track access.
If you don’t buy your ticket online, get there early, otherwise the wait will be long to get a ticket! The ticket stand opens at 8:30am, the first ferries leave at 9am, the two islands (Liberty Island and Ellis Island) open at 9:30am. From the ferry, you can admire the Manhattan skyline! Ferries leave Manhattan about every 20 minutes.
How long to visit Ellis Island
It should take 4 to 5 hours to visit the statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. FYI, if you get on board after 2pm in Manhattan, you won’t have time to visit both islands. You’ll have to make a choice.
Ellis Island tips
- Ellis Island is open everyday except on December 25th from 9:30am to 5pm.
- If you plan to visit many monuments and museums in New York, get a New York Pass. You get access to many places with the pass, including the access to the statue of the liberty and Ellis Island. Click here to buy it.
- Here’s where to stay in New York.
- Traveling soon? Check out my travel resources page! This list of travel accessories can also be useful!
- Do not go to the US without a travel insurance! Here’s why get a travel insurance!
- Likewise, if you arrive from abroad, you’ll have to provide proof of onward travel!
- Want a tailor-made trip to the US? Get a free quote here!
- Always use a VPN when traveling. I use ExpressVPN and I love it. Here’s why use a VPN when traveling.