Ellis Island Immigration Station
For many visitors, the trip to Ellis Island can be an emotional one, especially when you consider that many millions of Americans today can trace their roots back to an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island on the journey to a better life in America.
The natural island is only a little larger than the current museum; the rest of the island was constructed from landfill between 1890 and 1892 using dirt from the excavation of what became the New York subway system. The other section of the island was used as a hospital for those who did not pass the initial health checks when entering the checkpoint. This part of the island is closed to the public today because the buildings have not been renovated.
Enter the main building to see where 12 million immigrants once stood between 1892 and 1954 with the hopes and dreams of starting a better life. Some were allowed in, but many others did not pass the necessary health checks and were either sent back home or treated at the nearby hospitals.
First- and second-class passengers to the United States did not have to go through Ellis Island on their way to America. Instead, they had to go through a courtesy check on the mainland (the belief was that if they could afford first- and second-class tickets then they wouldn't cause any problems). It was quite different for the third class passengers, or "steerage" as they were called. These people had significantly worse travel conditions and were often traveling with everything they owned, which was very little. They gave up everything for the chance to start over in America, but some never got that chance.
If their papers checked out and they were in reasonably good health the process took about five hours at Ellis Island. Because so many people came to the island, doctors were only able to give extremely quick health checks, called "the six-second physical," which could not have been very thorough. However despite the limited time, doctors were able to spot people with illnesses remarkably well.
The island is also sometimes referred to as "The Island of Tears" for the crushed hopes and dreams of those who could not continue. In reality, only 2 percent were turned away and the most frequent reasons were health or crime. You can immagine how frightening the process must have been for some families who spoke not a word of English, being herded here and there and not knowing if everyone would stay together or see each other for the last time.
Today the building serves as an excellent museum about the history of the island and its immigrants. There are several films ("Island of Hopes, Island of Tears") that explain much of the process and you can walk around various rooms to see the entire process of immigration. The displays cover everything from posters of immigrants packing in their home countries, to the medical checks and legal checks at Ellis Island, and even what life was like for immigrants after they entered the United States: where they went and what they did.
One can easily spend hours here and the museum's contents deserve taking the time to see such an important piece of American history. The immigrants who came through this island shaped what America has become today.