The Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbor brings genealogy alive by revealing the hopes of millions of American immigrants.
By Joe Curreri
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … “
“” From a poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty
On January 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland “” using one hand to hold her suitcase and the other to hold a hat on her head “” was the first passenger to come down the gangplank and step onto Ellis Island. With ship bells clanging in her ears, the bewildered young girl was whisked past an army of dignitaries into the main immigration building, where she was given a $10 gold coin. It was the most money she had ever possessed in her life.
One of the most fascinating chapters in the history of humanity had begun, with Annie as the first person to land from overseas at Ellis Island. The isle in New York Harbor (currently federal property with shared territorial jurisdiction within the states of New York and New Jersey) once was synonymous with American immigration.
The United States has been called a nation of immigrants. It is true. Approximately 40 percent of the people in America today can trace their roots to ancestors who came through Ellis Island. They brought with them fear and glory, strength and courage. They faced bigotry, lawlessness, and slums. But they had a dream. They had the drive to survive. And, most important of all, they had the opportunity to give their children a better life.
“There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came,” wrote President John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants (Harper and Row, 1964).
George Washington once wrote to John Adams, envisioning immigrants “assimilated to our customs, measures and laws. Native-born citizens and immigrants would therefore soon become one people.”
Today Ellis Island National Monument is a memorial to all who have made the United States of America their adopted home. Today 2 million visitors each year arrive, not to become Americans, but to see where the Old World met the New.
Imagine what it was like back then, the echoes of thousands of immigrants, speaking a cacophony of languages. Their voices, as visitors to the memorial today learn, were “filled with great anticipation, and great fear, because they didn’t know what was going to happen.” It’s enough to bring a lump to your throat.
For five years Ellis Island bristled with huddled masses. Then, in the early morning of June 15, 1897, fire destroyed the wooden structures on the island. Thankfully, no one died.
On December 17, 1900, a new, fireproof French-Renaissance-style building reopened. What awaited it was one of the greatest mass migrations in human history. That first day, 2,251 people passed through Ellis Island and into the country.
Not all immigrants were required to pass through Ellis Island. First-class and second-class passengers were quickly processed on board ship in New York Harbor and allowed to enter the country. But those who arrived as steerage passengers were brought to Ellis Island on ferries and barges. Crossing the ocean in steerage meant sharing an unventilated cargo hull with as many as 2,000 men, women, and children, sleeping in tiers of narrow metal bunks.
In the Registry Room, inspectors questioned each individual. Included among the 29 questions were name, hometown, occupation, and destination. One immigrant recalled: “Finally, I went before a tired, stern-looking official who fired questions at me: ‘Can you read and write? Do you have a job waiting for you? Who paid your passage? Have you ever been in prison? How much money do you have? Let me see it now.’ On and on went the questions until I got more and more confused.”
By the early 1900s, 5,000 people were arriving at Ellis Island each day. A record of 11,747 came to America on a single day: April 17, 1907.
My father, Francisco Curreri, age 21, was one of those who arrived in 1907. He boarded in steerage on the Italia from Messina, Italy, with $12 in his pocket. His occupation: laborer. He told me how awestruck those aboard were when they saw the Statue of Liberty. “I saw this magic statue standing there. Now I’m going to go to heaven.”
An Italian saying went: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here I found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”
John Dawyd of Levittown, Pennsylvania, was only 8 years old when he and his Ukrainian parents came to Ellis Island after living in a Nazi farm labor camp during World War II. “I don’t remember seeing the Statue of Liberty, but between the skyline and the stars it was beautiful,” he said.
All told, more than 12 million people immigrated through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, when the immigration center closed. Buildings deteriorated after the closing, but restoration began in the 1980s, and the beautiful museum opened in 1990. Today 200,000 square feet of exhibition space examines such a broad swath of the “Great American Melting Pot” that modern visitors easily could surpass the five hours it took the average immigrant to pass through Ellis Island.
A few years ago, my son, his wife, my two grandchildren, and I retraced our common ancestors’ footsteps at Ellis Island. Visitors will reach the island much as the immigrants did “” by taking a ferry. I was awed by the spectacular view of New York’s skyline, taking photos centering on the Twin Towers. Little did I know that only days later there would be a hole in the skyline of New York City. Those pictures are now treasures.
Admission to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is free. However, the audiotape tour, which costs $6, adds to your enjoyment of the visit.
As soon as you enter the Main Building, the immigrant experience is re-created before your eyes. This grand building has stood in good times and bad, and now in glory once again, as one of freedom’s greatest cathedrals; a gateway, for all intents and purposes, to the human future.
Visitors first encounter the baggage room, where new arrivals left their precious cargo while they went through the immigration process.
A 30-minute film titled Island of Hope, Island of Tears introduces visitors to Ellis Island. After watching the film, you can ascend the stairs to the registry room. While climbing the stairs, you will walk where immigrants passed by medical officials, who noted limps, shortness of breath, and other visible disabilities. At the top of the stairs, you will stand where officials marked the immigrants’ shoulders with chalk “” “L” for lame, “H” for a bad heart, and so on.
At the registry room immigrants waited to answer queries from officials. The room appears much as it did then. Visitors can hear, via audiotape, recollections of a Jewish immigrant from Russia, who noted the uniforms worn by immigration officials: “We were scared of uniforms. It took us back to the Russian uniforms that we were running away from.” Those allowed to pass continued downstairs, exchanged money, bought provisions, and perhaps railroad tickets. A third of those who entered the United States stayed in New York City; others headed elsewhere. Only 1 to 2 percent of those who arrived at Ellis Island were denied entry.
Stay on the second floor and go west, “Through America’s Gate.” This collection of 14 rooms has more audiotapes of immigrant reminiscences. Just pick up a phone and you can hear more than 2,000 powerful, emotional interviews. Photographs, personal papers, and artifacts depict every stage of one’s entry into the United States.
Go up the stairs to the third floor, where from a mezzanine, you can look down upon the Great Hall, the vaulted ceiling, and the immense chamber below. You’ll see only benches now, but you’ll listen for the voices of the past.
Continue to the east wing of the third floor. “Treasures from Home” displays more than 2,000 possessions that immigrants brought from their homelands “” a teddy bear from a Swiss immigrant; shoes worn by a child from Austria; and women’s high boots (with 21 pairs of eyelets) that came from Sweden in 1924, accompanied by a note: “My mother’s shoes tell the whole story.”
The American Family Immigration History Center is where you may search for your family’s beginnings in the New World. You and your family can use one of 41 computers. Type in a name, and, within seconds, your own special journey of discovery is set in motion. The records are indexed back to 1897. Imagine the excitement you’ll share with your family as you use the latest technology to sort through a vast computerized archive and see your family’s own personal story in America come to life before your eyes.
Outside the Main Building is the memorial to America’s immigrants. Through monetary contributions, some 600,000 names are inscribed on a wall. While we were there, a visitor who was reliving the past remarked, “I’m nobody, and there’s my name.”
Their dream, in coming to this country, was one of opportunity in freedom. They worked “” indeed, they slaved. They took the menial jobs usually offered to any immigrants. Each immigrant, from every culture imaginable, added to our national profile.
Since September 11, 2001, immigration rules have tightened. Times have changed. But that does not detract from the overall drama of America’s 300 years of immigration, and the story of how so many of these strangers built this country with their own hands.
Today’s visitors to Ellis Island come away inspired. The stories of my “” and your “” ancestors can be treasures to our children and grandchildren. A visit to Ellis Island makes yesterday come alive. Each day, with each new arrival, we gained something as a nation. We rose out of the so-called melting pot as one people, made of many.
Free, all of us free.
The Ellis Island Experience
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Ellis Island National Monument
New York, NY 10004
The museum is open daily year-round from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except Christmas. Admission is free. The facility includes a gift shop with apparel, books, children’s items, stationery, genealogy items, and home decor. It also has a cafeteria that serves a variety of American fare.
You may rent an audiotape tour of the museum for a $6 fee. A security deposit is required when renting the headset. Check at the information desk for schedules of guided tours and other activities.
The museum’s American Family Immigration History Center has a $5 per family entrance fee for 30 minutes of computer use. For $25 you can get a printout of passenger manifests; photos of their ships also are available for a fee. You also can access the same information from your home computer online at www.ellisislandrecords.org. For further information, phone (212) 883-1986.
The Statue of Liberty is located on Liberty Island, a separate isle in New York Harbor. Tours outside the statue have been available, but after September 11, 2001, the statue interior was closed. The good news is that a portion of the interior reopened to the public on August 3, 2004, and reservations for the tour may be made by calling (866) 782-8834. Tour tickets are also available on a walk-in basis (first come, first served). For more information, visit www.nps.gov/stli/ or phone (212) 363-3200.
Circle Line “” Statue of Liberty Island Ferry Inc. sells round-trip combination tickets to Liberty Island and to Ellis Island (they are sold only as a combined trip) for $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $4 for children ages 4 to 12. The ferry leaves from Battery Park in lower Manhattan and from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. Ferries run seven days a week and leave every 30 to 40 minutes between 9:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Reservations are not taken.
The ferry from New Jersey’s Liberty State Park is more convenient for motorhomers, as it has more ample parking. For more information, contact the ferry directly at (212) 269-5755 or visit www.statueoflibertyferry.com.