View from the shore of Ellis Island

Every time I visited Cobh in County Cork, Ireland, I would go and stand by the statue of Annie Moore down by the quayside. You see, Annie Moore was an Irish teenager, who travelled to New York with her brothers across the Atlantic Ocean to join her parents in Manhattan. Annie was the first person to enter the United States via the new immigration centre on Ellis Island on 1st January 1892. New Year. New life.

So many of my own family made the same journey, many never to set foot on Irish soil again. In my town in the mid west of Ireland, we have a place called the Bridge of Tears, a place where those heading to Cork to make the voyage would say goodbye to loved ones for the last time.

I dreamed of seeing the sister statue of Annie on Ellis Island, so when I finally conquered my fear of flying across the Atlantic, it was top of my to do list. So what exactly is Ellis Island and why was it a symbol of hope for so many?

Read on to find out and discover why our visit to Ellis Island was the highlight of our trip to NYC.

Annie Moore statue

What Is Ellis Island?

This piece of land on the Hudson was the habitat of the Mohegan tribe who called their home ‘Kioshk’ meaning ‘Gull’ Island. It was then purchased by a Dutchman in 1630 who renamed it ‘Oyster’ island due to the abundance of shellfish.

It then took on a more sinister name, that of Gibbet Island. In the eighteenth century, captured pirates were hanged here as a warning to others. During the American Revolution the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis, a businessman who built a tavern here to quench the thirst of local fishermen.

I will look at the timeline for immigration in the U.S in the next section, however the now vacant tiny island was purchased by the Federal Government who had taken over immigration control. They more than doubled the area of Ellis by using landfill from among other things, rubble from the construction of the New York subway tunnels.

As the influx of immigrants increased over the decades, the island needed to grow with it. Two new islands were constructed in the early 20th century using landfill, – the first being used for the hospital administration buildings and contagious diseases, the second for the psychiatric ward and maternity wing.

In 1897 the main immigration building burned down, all records with it. It reopened in December of the same year as the building you set foot in today.

Ellis Island from the Ferry

Ellis Island went on to have multiple uses including an internment camp for Germans awaiting deportation during the First World War, a Navy way station, munitions storage, military hospital and a coast guard station. It finally closed in November 1954 and in 1965 it was declared a National Monument.

Immigration Into the U.S.A.

Artwork based on images of a Immigrants by French artist JR

There was little in the way of immigration control until the Naturalisation Act of 1790. This meant that any foreign national who was an adult white male and resident in the United States for at least two years was given legal residency status.

Immigration was still fairly lax until a major influx from Europe during the early nineteenth century. The first state run immigration depot was opened at Castle Gardens in The Battery, which looks out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

In the decade following the Irish Famine, over one million Irish left to seek a new life, of course not all of them made it. The ships they were on were known as Coffin Ships, as they had poor hygiene standards and were overcrowded. Sadly some 30% of passengers on each ship would die.

Words of Irish Hope

Prostitutes, criminals, those deemed lunatics and idiots were banned from entry during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, as well as those thought to be carrying disease, unaccompanied children and any nationality that had an apparently unstable, facist or communist government. The authorities were terrified of America being overrun with radicals and overwhelmed by disease and criminal activity. They were also worried about the burden of becoming responsible for children, the sick and those with a disposition that left them unable to gain lawful employment.

When Annie Moore set foot on Ellis Island, she was one of 700 that day and over the following half century, 12 million more would seek entry into the land of the free.

As new laws came into place and more restrictions were enforced at the start of the twentieth century, immigration numbers declined. During the Great Depression, for the first time ever, there were more folks emigrating than entering the U.S.

Who Are You?

So what happened when you arrived into American waters and saw Ellis Island for the first time?

After weeks at sea, hungry, exhausted, you were still subjected to hours of gruelling inspection and questioning.

Main Hall, Immigration Centre

The first task was to check for outward signs of illness or disability. Doctors would walk the lengthy process queues and anyone thought to require further assessment would be marked with chalk.

If you made it past the medical inspection stage, you would be questioned to see if you were deemed financially self sufficient, had an understanding of the American way, did not harbour fascist or rebellious tendencies and were not with mental defect. These questions were often complicated, especially when you were exhausted and spoke little English.

One of the main illnesses that was checked for was an eye condition called Trachoma which could cause loss of sight and fatality. The examination involved the use of a button hook to turn the eylid inside out for closer inspection.

If you had crossed the Atlantic Ocean into New York in First Class, you were deemed to have financial stability and a clean bill of physical and mental health. Money talks.

The fortunate were given leave to enter the United States of America, the rest? Some were deported of course, but others spent much time on Ellis Island, a no man’s land with Lady Liberty teasing at a freedom and new life yet to be decided. The hospital was home to many and believe it or not was way ahead of its time. I will tell you more as we go building by building through our visit.

View of the Statue of Liberty from a Room on Ellis Island

Health, Hospital and Hope

Corridor at Ellis Island Hospital

On our visit we not only visited the immigration centre, but took the ‘Hard Hat Tour’ which takes you through the abandoned hospital buildings and to parts of the island you would never normally see.

Our guides for the Hard Hat Tour were Pam and Tori. In a strange twist of fate, one was from NYC and one from New Jersey. There was an ongoing battle between the two states regarding ownership of Ellis Island. In 1995 it was decreed that the landfill element including the hospital buildings belonged to New Jersey and the Immigration building belonged to New York. It was strange to stand in one place and be in two different States!

Our tour began by walking from the immigration centre to the abandoned hospital buildings.

Pam and Tori explained that the tours were run by Save Ellis Island, a group dedicated to the restoration and maintenance of the historic buildings that hold a huge relevance in the history of the United States.

We visited the huge laundry room where workers would use the heavy machinery to make a wage.

We then continued to the first of the outbuildings, which was the psychiatric unit. In a concerning twist, we were informed that the maternity unit was situated on a floor above the psychiatric ward!

Psychiatric ward and Maternity unit

Due to an unprecedented level of care, despite the potential, there was zero infant mortality on Ellis Island. Even pregnant women who faced deportation were given first class care. It was ensured that mother and child were in top health before departure. Unfortunately single mothers were not allowed entry into the U.S as they were considered a burden on the country.

The medical facilities on Ellis Island were well ahead of the times. They followed the Florence Nightingale methodology, with doors and segregated corridors to stop the spread of disease. Big windows were also introduced to increase light and positive frames of mind as well as an increase in Vitamin D to speed recovery.

The kitchen on Ellis Island was well stocked and maintained. Inhabitants were well fed, all with a view to aid improving health so they could be processed for either deportation or for the lucky- a new life in America.

Kitchen of Ellis Island hospital

It was also a teaching hospital, so there was a classroom setting in the mortuary. Investigations into causes of death and new methods of treatment were constantly being tested, evaluated and introduced. Mattresses were hygienically cleansed and there were separate facilities for various diseases.

Teaching mortuary
Body storage units
Inside body storage unit

Despite this, there were still over three and a half thousand deaths on Ellis Island.

As a paranormal investigator, it is not a stretch to imagine the ghosts of some of these traumatised individuals remain. So many were not so much seeking a new life, as escaping an old one. They were so close, yet disease, madness or malnutrition were their ultimate demise, the image of the Statue of Liberty the last thing they would see.

How The Other Half Lived

We were taken to the grand house that the Chief medics resided in, so typical of the well to do houses of Manhattan of the time, views over a rising skyline of progress, yet so close to life and death and desperation. There is a letter in the house from a woman who grew up their, living as any other child, quite unaware of the battle for health and freedom intertwined with turmoil and heartache just feet away.

Journey To The New World

As we stood on the shoreline looking out to Manhattan, our tour was at an end. It was moving, insightful, educational and so incredible. If you visit Ellis Island, please do not miss this tour.

Dominic on the shore of Ellis Island

Returning to the Immigration centre, it was almost an anticlimax. We walked through the interactive experience in the centre, but sadly the look up for family records was unavailable at the time but thankfully available online. It was still wonderful to stand where my relatives had stood to gain entry and explore the various areas of the centre. You also get to create your own certificate as a keepsake which is emailed to you – a nice touch.

My own certificate
Freedom View -Window over Manhattan from the Immigration Centre

There is a fine cafeteria and a few gift shops with fun and interesting memorabilia as well as informative books.

As we boarded our ferry to return and took in our view of an ever enlarging Manhattan skyline, I looked back and realised the few hours spent may not have been enough. I could do the Hard Hat Tour over and over again. And how much would I love to do a paranormal investigation here?!

A New Life in New York

Ellis Island and particularly the Hard Hat Tour is quite possibly top of the to do list in NYC. Don’t miss it.

My thanks to Save Ellis Island, our guides and information from the Ellis Island page and History Channel. All photographs property of Ann Massey.


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