Chances are if you grew up in New York or New Jersey, at some point you took a field trip to Ellis Island. Chances are if you took a field trip to Ellis Island, you didn’t care about what you were seeing.
Ellis Island sits in between New York and New Jersey, although the courts found that most of the Island is in New Jersey, but we won’t fault it for that. This tiny island was the gateway for more than 12 million immigrants to the United States for more than 60 years. While the island isn’t used anymore, today it is a popular immigration museum that sees millions of visitors each year.
Your trip to Ellis Island starts on the southern tip of Manhattan. After going through security, you take the ferry over to the Island. The ferry ride gives you some of the coolest (and windiest) views of Manhattan!
I remember coming to Ellis Island when I was a little kid on a field trip. It was extremely boring then, but I figured it would be fun to go back as an adult when I could comprehend the idea of immigration. Inside the National Museum of Immigration, there are audio tours, exhibits, and photos of the Island during its most popular times.
My brother, sister in law, and I signed up for the Hard Hat Tour. While we waited for our tour time, we walked around the museum. I thought it was interesting to see all of the different reasons that people had to come to the United States. Of course, it’s also not surprising to see the resistance against “different” people coming to our country – I guess not much has changed.
Outside the museum is The Wall of Honor, which we didn’t realize required a donation to have your name included. We were looking for some of our relatives…but alas, no names to be found. Inside the museum is the records room, where you can look up information about the people who passed through the island.
The Museum consists of several floors, each with its own special exhibit. You can see the “Great Hall,” where immigrants were processed after they first got to the Island while they waited for inspection and registration. Some days, 5,000 people would come through the hall!
While Ellis Island was a major immigration hub, times started to change, and the Island closed in 1954. Like most places that close, Ellis Island just kind of…sat there. It was cool to see an exhibit ("Silent Voices") with photos of the buildings in disarray after they were abandoned.
One of the cooler parts of the museum was the “Treasures from Home” exhibit, where we got to see personal photos and belongings by some of the families that came through Ellis Island. When you hear that millions of people passed through the Island, sometimes you forget that that large number refers to actual people. These weren’t “immigrants” – they were people, each with his or her own story, family, and dreams for a future in America. Seeing their belongings lets you put a face to the names.
The last part of the museum goes into the history of the forming of Ellis Island. This piece of land was purchased by Samuel Ellis, who later leased it to the government. Before it became the Ellis Island we all know, it was used as a barracks and as a federal arsenal. Today the Island sits as a museum, but there is still a lot of work to be done to restore Ellis Island to its former glory…more on that next in part 2!