Whenever I think of visiting Ellis Island, I think of the Great Hall and the Wall of Honor. While these are cool historical spots to see, it’s really hard for me to say that it’s worth the trip to the Island just for these things. When we went to Ellis Island, we were done with the museum and all of the exhibits in about an hour and a half – it took us longer to take the subway and ferry over!
Like any other museum does, Ellis Island offers different tours of the Great Hall and other major spots. If you think that tours are a thing that only tourists do (...hence the name “tourist), then you aren’t alone. Fortunately, my sister in law found something different, and it made our trip to the Island completely worth it.
As I mentioned in my last post, Ellis Island was the major immigration hub for the United States. But eventually, the government just…stopped using the Island, abandoning it in 1954 when the Immigration and Naturalization Service closed their offices and moved to Manhattan. With the help of the National Park Service and the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, the Great Hall was restored to its original appearance. But what about the other half of the island?
That was the first surprise for me during the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour – I didn’t even realize that there was another part of the Island to explore! The Hard Hat Tour (HHT) is a 90-minute tour that takes you to select areas of the Hospital Complex, including the laundry building, contagious disease ward, and the doctors’ quarters. Because this part of the island is literally in its original condition, you have to wear a hard hat and practice caution.
New York City is home to so many abandoned sites. It’s always surprising to me that so many places are just left to decay, especially since space in the city comes at such a premium. I love seeing pictures of urban decay (my dream is to…legally get to North Brother Island), so this tour was a completely unexpected treat! This half of Ellis Island simply hasn’t been restored yet, and your ticket cost goes towards the restoration and preservation of the south side buildings.
Our tour guide, Tiffany, started out by giving us a history of the Island and explaining exactly why it was shut down. Once Congress started implementing quota laws and other countries began to rely on emigrant visas, there wasn’t much of a need for an immigration hub. After the Immigration Service left, the Island was declared surplus Federal property, and the buildings fell into disarray. While most of the unrestored ones are still standing, many were damaged during Hurricane Sandy, and were not accessible during the tour. We actually got to see the water line from Sandy, and I’m surprised that the buildings were able to survive such high floods.
Ellis Island is partly manmade. The original natural island measures just 3.3 acres, while today it is 27.5 acres. Tiffany told us that they used excavated fill and concrete from the subway system to build the part of the island where the hospital sits. That’s right – Ellis Island is literally made from New York City. Of course, the part of the Island we visited on this tour is considered to be part of New Jersey. The two states have fought over Ellis Island for years, and it seems nothing has changed…
How did someone come to be treated at the hospital? When an immigrant arrived on Ellis Island, he or she went through a screening process and medical inspection on the north side of the island. If he or she was found to be suspected of a medical condition, a particular number was marked on his or her chest. These ranged from a heart condition (marked with an H) to a suspected mental defect (marked with an X).
What happened if you were found to have a mental defect? We learned on the tour that you would be placed under observation for 72 hours in the psych ward. Most patients were just dealing with the effects of the long trip across the ocean to the United States. Others were deported, as the majority of immigrants were unable to afford quality mental healthcare (my, how times haven’t changed).
After the hospital closed its doors in 1930, the space was used for a number of different reasons. The FBI occupied this space during the 1930s, and German and Italian prisoners of war were held in the area during World War II. The “cage” seen above was used to give POWs a way to have fresh air while they were held on the island.
The hospital features a pavilion style of architecture, and patients were led throughout corridors to avoid having to go outside. Different building styles were adapted from principles by Florence Nightingale, who emphasized serenity and cleanliness. Wards have many windows to allow for natural light and fresh air. If you look closely at the buildings, you’ll see that it is curved where the walls and ceilings connect, instead of a sharp perpendicular angle.
Ellis Island’s Immigrant Hospital houses 28 infectious disease wards, a bed sterilizer, administration offices, a kitchen, laundry room, and mortuary. Tiffany told us how the “autopsy amphitheater” became a popular teaching hall, and some of the top doctors in the country came to Ellis Island.
During a typical year, more than 10,000 patients were treated at the hospital. Despite the high numbers of patients, the death rate was surprisingly low. Tiffany said that only about 3,500 people died on the Island, a really low number considering that more than 12 million immigrants came through.
One of the cool parts of the tour was the random inclusion of artwork throughout the hospital. Renowned artist JR went through different parts of the hospital to include pictures of immigrants as they would have appeared during Ellis Island’s heyday. These images added a unique twist to the tour, and helped give off a haunted vibe.
The last stop of the tour took us to the doctors’ quarters. There were several doctors who served the hospital, and they (and their families) lived in this part of the Island. In the living room of one of the quarters is a printed letter from the daughter of Dr. Davis, which describes what it was like to grow up and celebrate Ellis Island during Christmas.
If you are taking a trip to Ellis Island, I cannot recommend taking part in the Hard Hat Tour enough! This was an incredible experience that let us take a peek inside a landmark. Part of me wishes that they wouldn’t restore these buildings – there’s just something really special about seeing these structures after nature has started to reclaim them.
For more information on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour, check out their website! In the meantime, here are some more shots behind the scenes of the hospital: