History Of Ellis Island

Ellis Island History

Feature Photo: T photography / Shutterstock

Starting in 1892, Ellis Island became an immigration destination that welcomed new citizens wishing to make the United States of America their home. This historical site, located at the mouth of the Hudson River situated between New Jersey and New York remained in service until 1954, welcoming millions of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat. Today, almost half of what are now indigenous members of the American population are able to trace at least one ancestor back to Ellis Island and how it played such a big role as the nation’s gateway to freedom.

Owned by the United States, Ellis Island, has reportedly welcomed approximately twelve million immigrants during its sixty-two years of operation from 1892 until 1954. Situated at the Port of New York and New Jersey, this historical landmark has since become one of the most popular tourist sites in the world. Accessible only by ferry, the island’s main building now serves as a national museum, illustrating the history of American immigration. On the southside, the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital arranges guided tours for the public to learn more about the role it played while it was in operation.

Located in the Upper New York Bay, Ellis Island is north of Liberty Island and east of Liberty State Park. Of the island’s landmass of 27.5 acres, 22.82 acres of it came from land reclamation. The original 4.68 acres of it lies within New York’s jurisdiction while the rest is considered part of New Jersey’s. The majority of Ellis Island’s landmass was brought in by the landfill brought by ships. Additional materials were also excavated from the New York City Subway’s first line, as well as the railyards belonging to the Central Railroad of New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The development of Ellis Island’s expansion destroyed the oyster beds within the Hudson River and allowed the shoreline of this island closer to the others that were there.

In the Beginning

Before the present-day development of Ellis Island, this island situated in the Hudson River is believed to be the result of retreating glaciers that date approximately fifteen thousand years ago as a result of the Wisconsin glaciation. Once the glaciers melted away, the water surrounding the mass of the Upper New York Bay took its formation and was titled the Mohegan as Kioshk, which is translated to Gull Island in English. It earned this name due to the number of seagulls that flocked to Ellis Island as their refuge. Marshy and muddy when not underwater by high tide, Kioshk was accessed by Native American tribes living nearby to gather fish and oysters as soon as the opportunity became available to do so.

This changed in 1630 after Dutch settlers purchased Kioshk and gave it as a gift to one of the founders of New Netherland, Michael Reyniersz Pauw. Among the three islands situated in the Upper New York Bay area, the Dutch made Black Tom Island, Ellis Island, and Liberty Island their home. At the time, they were called Oyster Islands due to the oyster population in the area. Before becoming Ellis Island, it was referred to by the Dutch as Little Oyster Island until the early 1700s. The ownership of this island transferred many times over and served as a popular venue to host social gatherings during the colonial timeline.

The latter half of the 1700s witnessed Little Oyster Island become an execution site for pirates before it was acquired in 1774 by a colonial New Yorker named Samuel Ellis. For nearly a decade, he tried to sell the island but was unable to do so. When he died in 1794, the ownership of what became Ellis Island was handed over to Samuel Westervelt Junior, the unborn son of his daughter, Catherine. However, the son died shortly after he was born which resulted in the island’s ownership to Catherine’s sisters, Rachel Cooder and Elizabeth Ryerson.

On Ellis Island, Fort Gibson served as a military post since the mid-1790s for nearly eighty years. At the time, the United States of America sought to set up a system of fortifications as a means to protect New York City, as well as the nation, due to the rising tensions that erupted between it, Britain, and France. On April 21, 1794, New York City deeded the land to the state for public defense so it could prep Ellis Island for war. By 1805, after the threat of military conflict was never realized and tensions between nations eased, the old Dutch fort became rundown.

During this time frame, the Ellis Family still possessed ownership of the Island and it was suggested they sell it to the Federal Government. The deal was made on June 30, 1808, selling Ellis Island to the United States for $10,000 USD. By 1813, the inlets were filled in, expanding the island’s size, as the intent to build up the New York Harbor defenses continued. This was in response to the War of 1812, as well as the naming and development of Fort Gibson. The fort earned its name as homage paid to Colonel James Gibson, who was among the 4th Regiment of Riflemen killed during the Siege of Fort Erie.

Despite the War of 1812, Fort Gibson was not used as an actual fort. Instead, it served as a barracks and to hold British prisoners of war. Later, in 1847, the American Army attempted to use Ellis Island as an immigration convalescence site but that was met with failure. As for Castle Clinton across the New York Harbor, an immigration station began in 1855 that processed over eight million migrants during a timeframe that had each state have its own laws regarding the matter. This changed in 1875 after the federal government observed the abuse and mismanagement of Castle Clinton. Starting in 1890, the federal government assumed full control over immigration policies that would eventually lead to using Ellis Island as the location of choice. The United States Congress approved a bill to build a new immigration station on Ellis Island upon learning the lease of Castle Clinton was about to expire.

In 1890, it was ordered to reconstruct Ellis Island to accommodate what became the first federally-run American immigration station site. The Department of the Treasury officially took over full control of Ellis Island on May 24, 1890. Before the immigration station was completed, the processing of new immigrants took place at the barge office at the Battery Gibson. The rest of Gibson’s battery buildings were demolished during the construction process while at the same time the landmass of Ellis Island grew from its original size to eleven acres by the end of 1892.

Open For Business

On January 1, 1892, seventeen-year-old Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland, officially became the first immigrant the Ellis Island immigration station processed. She traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with her two brothers to meet up with their parents who were already on U.S. soil. The first day of operation witnessed over seven hundred immigrants registered. The overall amount of immigrants passing through Ellis Island’s immigration station during the first full year of operation witnessed over 400,000 people arrive in America. At the time, the processing of new immigrants involved a series of medical inspections and psychological evaluations before one would be accepted as an American citizen. Approximately one percent of the immigrant population was sent back to their home country after discovering they failed to meet the criteria to call the United States their new home.

Project Ellis Island

Now situated on over twenty-seven acres of land, Ellis Island which once served as the home of Fort Gibson during the 1800s also featured a naval magazine inspection station in 1892 before it was destroyed by fire on June 15, 1897. When this happened, immigration procedures were processed again through the Barge Office. Unfortunately, with so many immigrants flocking to Ellis Island, the reality sunk in the federal government needed to build a new immigration station.

On December 17, 1900, another island station opened and processed over two thousand immigrants that day. During the autumn season of 1901, a newly built hospital began serving as a facility for immigrant processing and medical quarantines. Despite these expansions, the number of immigrants coming to America was so great that many transatlantic passengers were forced to wait for many days before the immigration facilities on Ellis Island could process them. This prompted a series of new buildings and improvements so the island could accommodate, including a new psychopathic ward that was built in 1907.

While William Williams was the commissioner of Ellis Island’s operations, he oversaw the improvement of the island’s appearance, turning it from a barren landscape to park-like beauty. This process included expanding the island’s size to what became as large as 20.25 acres as of 1906. According to Williams, the lack of support received from Congress was the primary reason behind the struggles Ellis Island faced when it came to handling the flood of immigrants that sought to call the United States of America their home.

In the beginning, Ellis Island was referred to as one of three islands referred to as Oyster Islands. The other two were Black Tom Island and Liberty Island. Of these two, only Liberty Island remains standing as Black Tom Island was destroyed by sabotage on July 30, 1916, when its munitions depot exploded. A rocked New York Harbor, along with Ellis Island, evacuated the terrorized immigrants to safety. The actual amount of lives lost still remains uncertain but it did prompt the United States government to take action after witnessing this brand of terrorism by what was believed to be carried out by German black operatives.

Not only were lives lost, but extensive property damage as the Statue of Liberty was among many of the explosion’s victims to become pierced with shrapnel. During World War I, the facilities of Ellis Island were used by the United States military to detain prisoners of war and were done so again during World War II. In 1924, the island also served as a detention center for migrants until its closure. After several years, the facilities of Ellis Island have partially opened again in 1976 before becoming completely renovated in 1990.

The shape of Ellis Island looks like the letter “C” from the alphabet. Its landmass has two equal sizes of a northeastern and southwestern side that was once separated by a ferry pier. The first island was the original Ellis Island before a second island was created in 1899. The third was developed in 1906 before there was enough landmass filled in to create what is now known as the south side of Ellis Island. The cribbing and woodpiles used to create the fill to make Ellis Island a larger landmass has been encased with concrete and granite sea wall, eventually connecting the tips of the three islands to become one.

Currently, there are two ferry slips that are located on the northern side of the basin that serves as Ellis Island’s bisect.  In 2007, a concession was granted to Statue Cruises to replace 1963’s Circle Line as the transportation service catering to the public to access Ellis Park. From Jersey City, New Jersey, the ferries travel from its Liberty State Park while Lower Manhattan’s the Battery does the same from New York.

More About Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital

On Ellis Island, the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was situated on the south side, operating as a medical facility for newcomers to undergo treatment should they arrive ill or contending with medical conditions that were prohibited by the immigration laws that were set at that time. Among the patients who failed to pass the laws that were in place to allow entry into America, they were sent back to the countries they came from. During the time the hospital was in operation, there were over 275,000 patients treated and 4,000 fatalities. From this hospital, there were also 350 newborns.

Originally, this immigrant hospital was run by the Marine Hospital Service. This government-run service originally began as a source of treatment under 1798’s Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” This was America’s first federal health law that also taxed the wages of seamen at what was twenty cents per month at that time. The money was used to pay for the medical staff that was not only part of this facility, but the entire hospital network. Called the Marine Hospital Fund at the time, it was placed under the control of the Revenue Marine Service within the Department of the treasury.

In 1902, the Marine Hospital Service was reorganized and expanded, becoming the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service. In 1912, the name changed to the United States Public Health Service (PHS). The doctors of Ellis Island were registered as Commissioned Corps of the PHS while the rest of the medical staff, including nurses, were PHS employees. This team conducted line inspections and health examinations of all incoming immigrants upon arrival, detaining and treating any that were in need of medical attention. This continued until 1951 and has since become part of the Save Ellis Island Foundation’s restoration efforts to bring the hospital buildings and other structures on the island back to their former glory. The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was opened to the public in 2014 but offers only limited access as guided hard hat tours.

Emergency Quota Act

In 1921, a year after the immigration office of Ellis Island opened up again after the dramatic WWI was over, the federal government passed the Emergency Quota Act. This resulted in a sharp decline in immigrants coming to America. when stricter immigration policies were added in the Immigration Act of 1924, Ellis Island found itself becoming an immigrant detention center that would detain and/or deport migrants should they fail to pass medical and psychological inspection. When the stock markets crashed in 1929, the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. continued to decline. This resulted in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital officially closing its doors in 1930.

In 1931, Edward Corsi became the commissioner of Ellis Island. As a man who was also an immigrant, he sought to improve the island’s deteriorating condition. This started with modernizing the facilities. In 1933, the federal government appointed a committee to improve upon various facilities and operations they felt deserved it. This resulted in a 1934 decision to build a new class-segregated immigration center, as well as recreational and medical facilities, to be built on Ellis Island.

These improvements included expanding the island’s size by connecting the two nearby islands as one. However, between the strict immigration policies at that time and the lack of ideal accessibility to the immigration building on Ellis Island, the facility itself experienced a steady decline in its structural condition. By 1939, Ellis Island once again saw its immigration building become a prison facility when the military used it to hold prisoners of war during the time period of WWII.

New Jersey vs. New York

Ellis Island witnessed an expansion after the jurisdictional dispute between the states of New Jersey and New York was first settled by an 1898 US Supreme Court decision that sided with New York’s claim on all the surrounding islands inside the channel of the Hudson River and New York Harbor. However, the border issues between these two states didn’t completely dissolve as jurisdictional arguments erupted again when Ellis Island underwent renovations during the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. In 1997, New Jersey filed a lawsuit that has since seen the federal government express the expansion of Ellis Island’s landmass did trek into the bordering Hudson River water belonging to New Jersey.

As for the original land that was given to New York in 1898, including Ellis Island, this federal ruling has remained unchanged. As for what was deemed as new land since then, which stretches southward, this belongs to New Jersey. Since the dispute, both negotiated a post-trial settlement where the 2.74 acres of original Ellis Island, along with 1.94 acres of its surrounding area, is within New York’s jurisdiction despite its entire enclave being landlocked within the state of New Jersey. However, with the state claims aside, Ellis Island technically belongs to the United States government, which has been owned and administered by them since 1808. Since 1965, the National Park Service has been operating Ellis Island under federal jurisdiction.

Ellis Island Today

Today, Ellis Island is under the administration of the National Park Service. As for fire protection and medical services, these are also provided by the Jersey City Fire Department as most of the island’s demographics have been slated to New Jersey.’s jurisdiction. Only the original enclave of 4.68 acres belongs to the state of New York. However, it is the United States Federal Government that actually owns the entire Island. On September 10, 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum officially opened its doors to the public.

The first floor has a baggage room that also serves as the museum’s main lobby. Also on this floor are the Family Immigration History Center, People of America, and New Eras of Immigration. The second floor has the hearing room, the registry room, as well as Through America’s Gate and Peak Immigration Years display. On the third floor it has a dormitory room, plus the rotating displays of Ellis Island Chronicles, Restoring a Landmark, Silent Voices, and Treasures from Home. The museum also has auditoriums, theaters, a bookstore, and a gift shop.

The museum’s library was named by American Congress the Bob Hope Memorial Library in 2008, honoring the comedic actor who was an immigrant himself. This was a decision that was not favored by the National Park Service but the federal government remained steadfast with its decision. Another change was the museum’s name itself as it later became the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. This coincided with the opening of the new Peopling of America galleries that were introduced on the kitchen-laundry building’s main floor on May 20, 2015. This particular location of Ellis Island’s museum depicts the full tale of how American immigrants came to Ellis Island and what they experienced before, during, and after their experience.

On Ellis Island, there are 775,000 names on its Wall of Honor, which is located just outside of the main museum. These even include the names of people who were not processed on the island. The first wall was revealed in 1990 and was made of copper panels before it was reconstructed and completed in 2001. The concept behind this wall was designed to pay for renovations of Ellis Island, a process that is now funded by the fees charged to potential honorees by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Once paid, these honorees would have their names inscribed on the available panels. As of 2019, there were only five panels remaining from the 770 panels that have been constructed.

Today, the National Park Service uses Ellis Island and all of its educational resources at its disposal to teach thousands of students each year as a means to better understand current environmental, political, and social issues that continue to shape society as we know it. Ellis Island, along with Liberty Island, and the Statue of Liberty, has been part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument since 1965. In 1966, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and became part of the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1971. The main building of this island was designated as a New York City landmark in 1993 and was regarded as a World Heritage Site as of 2017.



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