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Standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island was the first American soil touched by hopeful immigrants upon arrival in the 'New World' between 1892 and 1954. The island's original native Indian name was 'Kioshk' (meaning Gull) Island, it was then known successively as Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson's Island before deriving its present name from Samuel Ellis, its last private owner during the latter part of the Eighteenth Century.
Due to its position in New York harbor, just off the coast of New Jersey, the island was of great strategic military value in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Following its purchase by the Federal Government from New York State in 1808, it was fortified and formed an integral part of the New York Harbor defenses as home to Fort Gibson. In 1880, as the result of a dramatic increase in the number of hopeful immigrants to the United States, the Federal Government took control of immigration from the individual states and a large facility, capable of processing thousands of immigrants was required.
Thus a new, purpose-built, immigration station was opened on Ellis Island on January 1st 1892. Since the arrival of 15 year old Annie Moore and her two brothers from Ireland, approximately 17 million souls have passed through the site.
In June 1897, fire swept through the island, destroying the original station and all immigration records from 1855 to that date. A new station was opened in December 1900 and over two thousand immigrants passed through it on its opening day. Over the next few years, the tide of immigrants swelled rapidly, with over one million immigrants processed at its peak in 1907. This prompted a rapid and costly program of building work to provide additional dormitory, kitchen and medical buildings for the facility. Since then, millions of people have passed through the immigration process at Ellis Island, with very few being refused entry.
As the United States entered World War II, the island once more became a valuable military asset and was used for the detention of suspected enemy aliens. It was reopened as an immigration station in 1920. Changes in immigration policy and a decline in immigration to the United States in general, Ellis Island became used more frequently as a detention center for 'displaced persons', prisoners of war (during World War II) or immigrants with inadequate documentation and, in 1954, the facility was finally closed.
Ellis Island was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. In 1984, following eight years of limited access to the public, a colossal refurbishment and restoration program began and, at the cost of $162 million, The Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened in September 1990.
The Museum and Its Exhibits
The museum's exhibits occupy three floors of the imposing Main Building, which has been painstakingly restored to appear as it did between 1918 and 1924. The Baggage Room, The Registry Room (the original Great Hall), and the Railroad Ticket Office show the appearance of the interior of the building during this period and are furnished with original and reproduction fixtures.
The Dormitory Room on the third floor is restored to its original 1908 appearance with separate sleeping quarters for male and female immigrants. Over 100 million modern Americans are descended from the original Ellis Island immigrants, and visitors can trace their own heritage at The American Immigrant Wall of Honor - one of the museum's most popular exhibits.
The wall is inscribed with the names of over half a million names and honors American immigrants who arrived via Ellis Island and other ports of entry. Names include the great grandparents of John F Kennedy and the great grandfather of George Washington. The wall is situated outside the Railroad Ticket Office, which also houses The Peopling of America - an electronic map which chronicles the various races that comprise the population of modern day America. For a more general history of Ellis Island itself, visit the Ellis Island Chronicles and the Peak Immigration Years exhibits.
There are two cinemas at the museum at which you can see 'Island of Hope, Island of Tears' - an award-winning film which tells the story of the Ellis Island Immigrants. Professional actors also perform a 30 minute play 'Ellis Island Stories' , based upon true stories and recollections from the Ellis Island Oral History Archive. Ellis Island Stories is performed each day at 10.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.
Admission prices are $3 for adults and $2.50 for children 4-17 and Senior Citizens. Further information is available by telephone on (212) 883 1986 ext. 742.
The museum is administered by the National Park Service and is open every day except December 25th. The site is fully accessible to disabled visitors and opening hours are:
July - August: 9.30am - 6.00pm
September - June: 9.30am - 6.00pm
Both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty can be reached by The Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry which leaves from: Liberty State Park in New Jersey and from the Battery in Lower Manhattan.
The ferry ticket includes the price of admission to Ellis Island and Liberty Island and departure times are 9.30am - 3.30pm in summer. Departure times at other times of year are subject to variation so it is advisable to telephone for further details on: (212) 269 5755.