The History of Ellis Island
Ellis Island's history journeys much farther back than most think; back before opening of Ellis's immigration screening station, and even before the first documented immigrants entered the country. In the 1600's, Ellis Island, at the time known as Gull Island by the Mohegan tribe, was a mere two to three acres. During high tide, the island could scarcely been seen above the rising waters. After being discovered for its rich oyster beds in 1628, Dutch settlers renamed it Oyster Island. Following the hanging of Anderson the Pirate in 1765, the island was again renamed, this time known as Gibbet Island after the instrument used to hang him. Finally on January 20, 1785, Samuel Ellis purchased the property and gave it his name, which remains the name of the island till today.
After passing through a few generations of Ellis's descendents, the island was bought by the state of New York, then sold to the federal government in 1808 for ten thousand dollars. During the years of 1812 to 1814, the United States Army erected Fort Gibson, which was eventually dismantled by the government in 1861. In 1876, the United States Navy used Ellis Island as a munitions depot, storing 260,000 pounds of powder. However, complaints from nearby New Jersey residents lead to the removal of the depot in 1890. That same year, the House Committee of Immigration chose Ellis Island as the site for a new immigrant screening station. The original station, Castle Garden at the Battery in lower Manhattan, could not longer handle the flow of immigrants. To accommodate the size of the new facility, the island was increased to 3.3 acres by means of landfill and a ferry slip was built. In the following two years, Ellis was enlarged to fourteen acres in order to contain immigration depot and support buildings. By January 1st of 1892, Ellis's first immigration station, a two-story-high structure of Georgia pine, was open ready for business. A report in Harper's Weekly described the new building as a "latter-day watering place hotel, presenting to the view a great many-windowed expanse of buff-painted wooden walls, of blue slate roofing, and of light an picturesque towers."
On opening day, Col. John B. Weber, the new commissioner for the post of New York, presented a ten dollar gold piece to the first immigrant to pass through the gates of the new station. Fifteen year old Annie Moore's response to the gift was "she will never part with it, but will always keep it as a pleasant momento of the occasion."
The most impressive room in the building, though, was the registry room. It measured 200 feet by 100 feet, and had an impressive fifty-six foot vaulted ceiling. Twelve narrow aisles, divided by iron bars, channeled new arrivals to be examined by doctors at the front of the room. The officials who worked at the island, however, were not impressed by the architecture. In fact, they constantly complained of leaky roofs, and other problems within the building.
Eventually, in 1882, Robert Nielson and John Parker, architects hired by the Chairman of a joint House-Senate investigating committee, were hired to survey the condition of the reception hall. In their report they stated that "The main building was badly constructed, the materials very bad, the foundation insecure particularly that portion resting on wood piles, and the roof leaky, weak, and too flat." They also said that the section resting on wood piles "could not possibly last more than ten years, and probably not more than five."
Also, it was quite possible that heavy wind or snow could collapse the roof, and there was no flooring in the basement. Heavy doors that should have been set on three hinges were improperly set on two, causing the doors to not close properly, and sometimes fall off. Also, boilerplates and speaking tubes were paid for by the government, but never installed. After deliberation, it was decided by the architects that it would take $150,000 to complete the repairs.
After long and heated arguments between experts, it was decided that the Superintendent of Construction was extremely inexperienced, and that there was "recklessness in the handling of public money," on the part of the Treasury Department and the Immigration Bureau of Officials. The entire building, excluding the hospitals, had been built shoddily. After news of the problems with the building had surfaced in the media, several people involved with the construction of the building resigned their positions.
Nothing else was done until May of 1895, when another architect was sent to the island to inspect the integrity of the building. The architect, John J. Clark, reported that the roof was in good condition and was not in need of repairs. This report angered Ellis Island employees and officials, who were constantly plagued with leaky roofs and the fear that it might collapse in the winter. Ellis Island didn't just have architectural flaws, but also was congested with new arrivals due to inadequate living space and stricter inspection policies that slowed the inspection process. Finally, in 1987, it was decided that a 250-bed dormitory was to be added to the Ellis Island building.
Before the dormitory could be built, on June 15, 1897, a kitchen fire broke out, burning everything to the ground except the surgeon's quarters, the engine house, and the electric light and steam plant. Luckily nobody was injured or burnt during the fire, however, there were 200 immigrants on the island at the time. The prediction that Nielson and Parker had made in 1892 that the building would last only five years had come true. In a mere three hours, most of the station was destroyed. The slate roof in the main building crashed within the hour and by dawn there was hardly a trace of the station left.
The island was forced to shut down while an architect was chosen to come up with the plan for the new building. According to the Tarsney Act of 1893, a competition among architects would decide who would design and supervise the construction of the building. The winner of the competition would oversee the construction of the new building, but would have to answer the Supervising Architect in the Treasury Department. The New York firm of Boring and Tilton produced its plan for the building in 1898, and saw the doors of its creation open for the public for the first time on December 17, 1900. The new reception hall was better than ever. On one day it was recorded that "6,500 immigrants, each one of whom received some individual attention, entered, passed, and 'cleared' in nine hours." This was widely attributed to the building's amazing architectural likeness to train stations of the time, which were accustomed to dealing with thousands of people and tons of cargo in a single day.
In 1898, Ellis was expanded to a total of seventeen acres while a second island was built by dumping rock and earth taken from the subway tunnels and the Grand Central Station excavation. From 1905 to 1906, a third island was built using the same method as Island 2. Island 3 measured five acres in size and included a wooden bridge connecting it to Island 2. The total cost for the construction of the two new islands was estimated at $150,000. However, when the new Immigrant Stations opened, after all the costs for building improvements, the additions of dormitories, hospitals, kitchens, a baggage station, an electrical plant, and a bath house, and the hiring off all personal, including, Immigration and Naturalization Service officers, interpreters, clerks, guards, cooks, maintenance staff, and doctors and nurses, the total cost reached $500,000.
Due to harsher and harsher legislation, immigration through Ellis Island began to decrease. Finally, in 1954, Ellis Island was shut down by the Immigration Services and transferred its activities back to Manhattan.