Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

One of the most iconic symbols of the United States is the Statue of Liberty in New York City.  Completed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel (who, soon afterwards, built Paris’ Eiffel Tower) in 1886, France gave this statue to the United States as a gift.  Her fame grew after Ellis Island opened in 1892, as a federal immigration station that processed new immigrants to the United States.  Since Ellis Island is next to the Statue of Liberty, her beacon welcomed approximately 12 million immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island, upon reaching their new home.

Ellis Island functioned as an immigration station from 1892 until its closure in 1954.  Upon arrival, officials processed who would be entering the United States.  Although other ports accepted new immigrants to the United States, Ellis Island accepted the most.  According to the History Channel’s article about Ellis Island, approximately 40% of today’s U.S. population can trace an ancestor to Ellis Island.  Throughout its time in operation, the United States passed a variety of immigration laws preventing different groups from entering the country, including polygamists, criminals, and the mentally ill.  That meant that officials had to check each person, to see if they qualified to enter the country.  This inspection included a medical checkup.  Immigration officials usually inspected the would-be immigrants while they were still on the boat, before their arrival to New York.  However, those with the lowest-class tickets had to wait on Ellis Island itself to learn about their fate.

Today, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are owned by the National Park Service.  Both sites are free, however, visitors must purchase tickets through Statue Cruises to get to the two islands.  Ferries run every twenty minutes from Battery Park on Manhattan Island.  The ferry from Battery Park first goes to Liberty Island, where visitors can get off and see the Statue of Liberty.  Once they are ready, they can then take a ferry to the next stop, which is Ellis Island.  Audio tours are included with your ferry ticket, so if you are like me and want to listen to all of it, you could be touring the islands for hours!

In addition to the basic tour options, you can also purchase tickets through Statue Cruises to go up to the Statue of Liberty’s crown.  However, because only a few people can go up at a time, you must purchase these tickets far in advance. In the past, people used to also be able to go up onto the Statue’s torch, but not anymore.  I did not get to climb up to the crown, but I did get a ticket that allowed me to go inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, which has a museum describing the history of the Statue.  As of 2019, visitors can now also visit the new Statue of Liberty Museum, located near the Statue of Liberty.  Since I visited the Statue of Liberty before 2019, I sadly did not get to visit it

The Statue of Liberty’s original torch was in poor condition, so it was replaced in 1984. Above, is the torch in the Statue of Liberty’s Pedestal, but it has since been moved to the new Statue of Liberty Museum.

Prior to Ellis Island, many immigrants entered New York through Castle Garden.  Originally a fort called Castle Clinton that was built during the War of 1812, it eventually became an entertainment center.  Then, from 1855-1890, it transformed into an immigration center that processed approximately 8 million immigrants.  After Ellis Island opened, Castle Garden became an aquarium.  Today, you can visit Castle Clinton (it is known by its original name now) while waiting for your Statue of Liberty ferry, however, there is not a lot to see there.

When the government decided to make Ellis Island an immigration center, they enlarged the island using landfill soil (including soil taken out while building New York’s new subway system).  If you choose to use the audio tour on Ellis Island, you will find yourself walking throughout the entire main building there.  This includes the impressive main hall, with the high, tiled ceiling.  Along the way, you will also hear some stories of different immigrants’ experiences.  If you decide to skip the audio tour, you can still read a variety of signs about the facility placed throughout the building.  If you are interested in taking a virtual tour of Ellis Island in the meantime, a link to it is available here. The virtual tour allows you to view the Island in either summer or winter. https://www.nps.gov/hdp/exhibits/ellis/Ellis_Index.html?html5=prefer

One common myth about Ellis Island is that immigration officials often changed the names of new immigrants to make them more Americanized.  However, Ellis Island attempts to dispel this myth.  According to signage there, the reality was that the immigrants themselves changed their own names prior to arriving at Ellis Island.  The immigration officials only checked to make sure that the immigrants were qualified to enter the country.  Changing names was not their job.  This myth has even persisted in my own family lore.  I apparently had a relative whose last name was Asch (supposedly a distant relative of the Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch).  Since the name “Asch” sounded too much like “Ass,” he (probably not immigration officials) changed his name to Flax.

I should also mention that there are many other buildings surrounding the main building on Ellis Island, such as a kitchen, measles ward, laundry room, etc.  However, since these buildings are expensive to maintain, most are in poor condition.  For those who are interested, Statue Cruises does sell tickets for hard hat tours of some of these buildings.  As the name implies, you must wear a hard hat during the tour, because of the decrepit condition of the buildings.

Since so many Americans came to the United States through Ellis Island, Ellis Island hosts an awesome database, where you can search all of their passenger records for free.  All you have to do is create an account: https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger.  Additionally, on the third floor of the main Ellis Island building, there is the Bob Hope Memorial Research Library (Actor and comedian, Bob Hope, came to the U.S. from England at the age of four, in 1908.), where people can perform extensive research if they like.  Included at the library are the oral histories of approximately 2,000 immigrants.

Sources and Further Reading

Andrews, Evan. ”9 Things You May Not Know about Ellis Island.” History Channel. February 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-ellis-island (accessed July 19, 2020).

Ault, Alicia. “Did Ellis Island Officials Change the Names of Immigrants?” Smithsonian Magazine. December 28, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really-change-names-immigrants-180961544/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Castle Clinton: History & Culture.” National Park Service. May 16, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/cacl/learn/historyculture/index.htm (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” History Channel. April 8, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/ellis-island#:~:text=Located%20at%20the%20mouth%20of,their%20ancestors%20to%20Ellis%20Island. (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island.” Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. https://www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/overview-history/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Ellis Island: Virtual Tour.” National Park Service. April 22, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/elis/learn/photosmultimedia/virtual-tour.htm (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Passenger Search.” The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue Cruises Ticket Options.” Statue Cruises. https://www.statuecruises.com/statue-liberty-and-ellis-island-tickets/ (accessed July 19, 2020).

“Statue of Liberty.” History Channel. July 1, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/landmarks/statue-of-liberty (accessed July 19, 2020).


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