Ellis Island: The Front Door to America    

We should all be thankful our government decided to preserve Ellis Island.

It almost didn’t survive, and that would have been a real shame since 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Now under the stewardship of the National Park Service, it is an interesting and iconic memorial to our country’s heritage.

It is, however, still a work-in-progress. While on this visit to NYC, we did the Hard Hat Tour of the hospitals on the island that are now under restoration. A project of the Save Ellis Island Foundation, one facility was a general hospital and the other for infectious diseases. Of course, their roles evolved throughout history as the island was eventually used more for detention, and more patients were confined with mental issues.  The facilities also housed sick and injured veterans from WWII.

White area on bricks shows the waterline from mega-storm Sandy.

Part of the “Unframed-Ellis Island” art installation by French artist JR.

Super Storm Sandy really set back the restoration, and as you can see in the picture here, the storm surge was quite dramatic. The current art installation (see photo) provides an interesting feel as you are led through the long hallways and into the various rooms. Each scene is created from original historic photos.

We tromped around soggy grounds, dodging showers and it was COLD. I was surprised to learn they used to keep their oversized windows open 24/7 since the experts of the time thought fresh air was better for a cure. Of course, we know fresh air is good – but it must’ve been freezing in those wards. Also of note, none of the staff contracted any of the infectious diseases they treated, and most patients did eventually find their way to the mainland of the United States.

The one remaining cage used to restrict mental patients needing fresh air.

First and second-class passengers got to skip the entire process of the Ellis Island Registry Room since they were processed onboard their ships. Only third-class passengers were screened.  Most were healthy because the steamship companies were responsible for return transport and fined for passengers not allowed to stay. As a result, they did their own screening before allowing passengers to board.

I particularly enjoyed the Treasurers from Home Exhibit, which features items brought by immigrants. They had little room and brought select personal treasures from their homelands.  Families have donated the items on display, including beautiful needlework, clothing, photos, musical instruments and more. Can you imagine what items you would select to take if you knew you could never come back?

If you are searching for relatives who came through Ellis Island, you can buy 30 minutes ($7) on the computers at the American Family Immigration History Center.  You can also access the Center’s info free online, but it was nice to interchange with the staff and we did find some new material. We were continuing to document information about my husband’s family who came from Russia and Austria at the beginning of the 1900s. I love the hunt for information.

My favorite trivia of the day:

Ellis Island is mostly in New Jersey.

Only the 3 acres where part of the main building sits is in New York.  The remaining 90% of the island, including part of the main building and the hospital facilities, is in New Jersey. The 160-year-old fight between the two states was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998.



The adults-only Hard Hat Tour includes your ferry ticket and is $58.50, $54 for seniors.  Regular adult tickets include an audio tour of the main facility and are $18.50, $14 for seniors; children 4-12 are $9. Plan 90 minutes to get through the airport-style security line and ferry ride to the island, and that’s if you have already bought your ticket online.  Allow more time if you have to buy a ticket. If you buy online, go to: https://tickets.statuecruises.com  Many other sites will charge more, and be wary of ticket sellers on the street, they are reported to sell counterfeit tickets.

To get to Battery Park and the ferry station, you need the South Ferry stop on the 1 Line; this is the same as the Whitehall Street stop on the 6 Line, some subway signage doesn’t name South Ferry.

There is a cafeteria-style Café on site.

Routine armed escort from NYC to Ellis Island.


3 Comments on “Ellis Island: The Front Door to America    

  1. Interesting! Never been but know my fathers parents came thru (from Finland )around 1915!

    Debbie Tuttle


  2. I must go the next time in NYC, sounds fascinating.

  3. Always so informative with great photos

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