From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was America’s largest and most active immigration station, where over 12 million immigrants were processed. On average, the inspection process took approximately 3-7 hours. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island truly was an “Island of Hope” – the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. For the rest, it became the “Island of Tears” – a place where families were separated and individuals were denied entry into the United States.
Henry Hudson arrived in what is now New York Bay in 1609. In 1624, the Dutch established a fur trading station on Governor’s Island and in 1625 founded New Amsterdam in Lower Manhattan. In 1664, the English took possession of New Netherland from the Dutch, renaming it New York. Between 1674 and 1679, Ellis Island, at that time called one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York Harbor, was granted to Captain William Dyre (the collector of customs and future mayor of New York) by the Colonial Governor of New York, Sir Edmund Andros. During Dyre’s ownership, this Oyster Island was renamed Dyre’s Island.
For the next 100 years, the island went through a succession of owners and names. In 1774 the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant. “That pleasant situated island,” as Ellis called it in an ad for its sale in 1785, was a favorite spot for those who wanted to dig for oysters or enjoy the view of New York’s bustling harbor while visiting the tavern that he built there. Ellis failed to sell his island, which was inherited by his descendants after he passed away in 1794. In 1808, New York State bought the property, which by that time had several claimants, and then conveyed ownership to the United States government.
In the early 1800s, the young American government realized that Ellis Island, with its clear view of the entrance to New York Harbor, had strategic value as a defense post. Since the British had easily invaded New York with very little resistance during the American Revolution, the protection of New York became a top priority for the new government. Preceding the War of 1812, the United States War Department constructed Fort Gibson on Ellis Island. Fort Gibson consisted of a barracks for a small garrison, a powder magazine, and a battery of guns located along the island’s eastern edge.
Other newly erected or refurbished forts along New York harbor included: Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island; Fort Wood on Liberty Island; Fort Clinton in Manhattan (now known as Castle Clinton), and Fort Columbus and Fort Williams on Governor’s Island. Like its counterparts around New York Bay, Fort Gibson never saw action. During the war, the British blockaded the harbor but never directly attacked the city.
In 1891, the federal government assumed responsibility from the states for regulating immigration through the Immigration Act of 1891, which established the Office of Immigration (later the Bureau of Immigration) to administer immigration affairs. The government also appropriated money to build a new immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. The Immigration Act assigned the Marine Hospital Service (later the Public Health Service) the responsibility of examining the health of immigrants entering the United States.
Before construction of Ellis Island’s first immigration depot began, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip was dredged and a dock installed next to the main building site. A number of older buildings from the island’s time as a military post were adapted for re-use. Ellis Island’s first immigration building, constructed of Georgia pine, opened on January 1, 1892.
Due to the economic depression at the time, immigration was light and Ellis Island inspectors had no difficulty in processing the fewer than 20,000 immigrants who arrived annually. On June 15, 1897, a fire destroyed the complex of wooden buildings. Although 140 immigrants and numerous employees were on the island, no one was killed.
The government announced almost immediately that Ellis Island would be rebuilt with fireproof buildings. The first building to be built was the new Main Immigration Building, which opened on December 17, 1900. Following its completion, the Kitchen and Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were erected in 1901 and the island was enlarged by landfill to make room for a hospital complex. In March of 1902, the Main Hospital Building opened. The hospital had the space and equipment to care for 125 patients but it was still not enough–the hospital was overwhelmed with patients diagnosed with trachoma, favus, and other contagious illnesses that warranted exclusion. Over the next seven years, additional buildings were added to the hospital complex including the Hospital Addition/Administration Building, the New Hospital Extension, and the Psychopathic Ward. The island was also enlarged once more using landfill, which allowed for the construction of a Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards, as well as additional support buildings.
On a typical day at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, immigrants came face to face with inspectors, interpreters, nurses, doctors, social workers, and many others. As a large federal facility employing approximately 500 employees at a time, Ellis Island was a well-organized workforce.
The complex work of processing thousands of immigrants a year required a full complement of staff. Some names are known; others remain anonymous, but all of them contributed to the primary function of the Immigration Station on Ellis Island — to make sure that newcomers to the United States were legally and medically fit to enter the country.
The Emergency Quota Act, passed in 1921, ended U.S’s open door immigration policy. The law significantly reduced the number of admissions by setting quotas according to nationality. The number of each nationality that could be admitted to the United States was limited to 3% of that nationality’s representation in the U.S. census of 1910. The law created havoc for those on Ellis Island and thousands of immigrants were stranded on the island awaiting deportation. The island sometimes became so overcrowded that officials had to admit excess-quota immigrants.
The First Quota Act was replaced with the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. This act further limited admissions of each nationality to the United States to 2% of that nationality’s representation in the 1890 census. The act sought not only to limit admissions to the United States but also to curtail immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, who by the 1900s comprised over 50% of the immigrant flow. Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1924 allowed prospective immigrants to undergo inspection before they left their homeland, making the trip to Ellis Island unnecessary.