Sailing to the Statue of Liberty and near-by Ellis Island is one of New York’s most popular attractions. And with good reason; the Statue of Liberty remains one of America’s most iconic landmarks– but it’s also estimated that a staggering 40% of all Americans can trace at least one ancestor who passed through the famous immigration halls of Ellis Island.
Between 1892 and 1954, around 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, which grew from a small facility to a vast complex that at its peak was processing over 11,000 immigrants in a single day.
Abandoned in the 1950s, forty years later, the main registry hall was restored into the gleaming, pristine tourist attraction it is today. With a first rate museum and research facility run by the National Park Service, every day, a never ending stream of boats bring tourists to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors as they first stepped foot in America.
But that is only half the story of Ellis Island, literally. Perhaps the more curious visitors to Ellis Island might turn around when they leave the ferries, and see a strange collection of empty buildings on the south side of the island. Buildings which are not as well cared for, that look forgotten and abandoned. They might also notice that there’s no-one walking around there.
For whilst the museum part of the island attracts countless thousands of visitors a year, the abandoned half of Ellis Island is closed off. And if you were an original immigrant to the island and sent to this half of Ellis Island, it was probably the last place you wanted to be. For these old, crumbling buildings were once the Ellis Island Hospital Complex.
If you were sent here it was because the forbidding prospect of further medical examinations awaited, or worse, quarantine for infectious and contagious disease. It is quite possible you might never have left this half of the island, for amidst this derelict complex is an old autopsy room and mortuary.
Today however, through the tireless work of Save Ellis Island, an organization largely staffed by volunteers, it is possible for small groups of adventurous explorers to take a hard hat tour of the old hospital. We went to explore this largely ignored half of an island that looms large in American history.
Ellis Island had originally started life as a small oyster shucking island. When the first large scale numbers of immigrants came to the United States in the early to mid 1800s, often from countries such as Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, ships would simply dock into the port city of Manhattan. But in the latter half of the 19th century, upheaval and persecution in Eastern and Central Europe saw the floodgates open. To cope with the vast numbers of families seeking refuge in America, Ellis Island became the gateway into the country. The immigrant processing centre soon had to cope with staggering numbers. The island was swiftly expanded through landfill, from just a few acres to nearly 27 by 1906. A year later, Ellis Island experienced its highest number of immigrants passing through in a single year, an astonishing 1,004,756 people.
One of the increasingly key problems at Ellis Island was what to do with those new arrivals who were sick. Or more importantly, given the over crowded tenements in New York where many of the immigrants were headed, what to do with those who were carrying contagious diseases that could threaten deadly epidemics.
To deal with these problems, a hospital complex was created on the southern half of the island.
Arriving at Ellis Island, immigrants would form a winding line upstairs into the main Registry Room. Here, teams of doctors managed to hone down an initial medical exam to just six seconds. Armed with a stick of chalk, anyone with a suspected illness or medical condition was marked on their clothes. ‘C’ meant conjunctivitis, ‘L’ for lameness, ‘H’ for heart.
In the other hand, doctors would hold a little hook shaped implement, used as a buttonhook for shoes. They would use this hook to lift eyelids to look for trachoma, one of the most feared of eye infections that could cause blindness. Those unfortunates would be marked with a ‘CT’.
Immigrants marked with chalk were quickly separated from their families, and sent to the now abandoned hospital. Today, donning a hard hat and stepping behind the locked gate to the south side is a slightly peculiar experience – going from the huge crowds visiting the museum and Registry Hall to being suddenly isolated in a collection of abandoned buildings, just a stones throw from the school groups and tourists. In the early 1900s, it must have been overwhelmingly terrifying.
“They put us into lines…..if you had visibly something wrong with you…..like if they saw your eyes red…they’d put colour chalk on you….if you were with a cane….it’s another chalk and you go into a certain other line”, recalled Katherine Beychock, a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1910. “It had a terrible effect on me…we were scared of uniforms. It took us back to the Russian uniforms that we were running away from.”
Once in the hospital, the immigrants marked with chalk were subjected to more rigorous examinations. Some stayed just days or weeks before being allowed to join their families. Others were kept in quarantine for longer. Worse of all, some who were deemed incurable were sent back to their ports of origin.
Walking through the empty buildings today, one can almost sense the human anguish that happened here. The upheaval of leaving home, and making a trans-Atlantic voyage in steerage class to a foreign country must have been overwhelming in itself. To be suddenly separated from your family, often not speaking English, much more so.
Often those marked with chalk were children. The low levels of hygiene on the steamships, meant many caught measles, diphtheria or scarlet fever on the journey itself. Nurses working at Ellis Island were warned ‘do not kiss a patient’.
Perhaps more alarmingly from our modern point of view was the increasing evaluations of immigrants based on eugenics and mental health. You now might be marked with a chalk ‘X’, signifying a suspected mental disorder, or a circled ‘X’, for insanity. Given that some immigrants couldn’t speak English, or had lived their lives in basic rural conditions, judging what constituted mental impairments was a grey area. Ellis Island physician Dr. Howard Knox developed visual tests for immigrants – some as simple as the ability to draw a diamond or build a wooden toy puzzle representing the steam liner they arrived on – to gauge mental ability.
© Save Ellis Island
“One case haunted me for years”, recalled future mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, who worked as an interpreter at Ellis Island between 1907 and 1910. “A young girl in her teens from the mountains of northern Italy….no one understood her particular dialect well, and because of her hesitancy in replying to questions she did not understand, she was sent to the hospital for observation. I could imagine the effect on the girl, who had always been carefully sheltered.”
Some parts of the hospital complex are in such decay that they are unsafe to enter. Part of Save Ellis Island’s mission is not just to spread awareness of what happened here, but to shore up some of these buildings. Working alongside the National Park Service and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, many of the buildings have been saved, at least temporarily.
Walking through the weed covered forecourts, and into the old contagious diseases buildings is eerie. The quiet and stillness in the abandoned hospital a far cry from the large crowds touring the north side. It is thought that around 3,500 people died on Ellis Island, including 1,400 children.
“Two year old Walter took sick and was admitted to the hospital. He was there six weeks….our days there were very long days, and only one of us could go visit our sick boy for minutes…once a week”, recalled Martha Strahm, a Swiss immigrant in 1920. “We had to put on a gown as we were not allowed close to him….out boy died at ten minutes after 11:00pm. After all these years the picture in my mind is so clear when they took him down the hall wrapped in a sheet.”
Conversely, it was also a place that saw new life, with 355 babies born here. “It is at once a maternity ward and an insane asylum.” reported one observer.
But as grisly as the Ellis Island Hospital sounds today, it was actually at the forefront of medical care. Perhaps due to its prominent position as the gateway to America, Ellis Island benefitted from the most progressive facilities available at the turn of the 19th century. Hygiene, methods and equipment were first rate, with psychiatric wards, advanced operating rooms, and x-ray machines. There was even a giant autoclave used to disinfect mattresses for those suffering from tuberculosis.
The importance of Ellis Island however, began to decline. The Government began to place restrictions on just who could enter the country through Ellis Island. In 1875, prostitutes and criminals were turned away. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, also including ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’. In 1917, laws were passed prohibiting immigrants diagnosed with mental impairments. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the numbers of annual immigrants to 165,000, all but spelling the end for Ellis Island.
During the Great Depression for the first time, more people left the United States than arrived. Barely used, Ellis Island began to fall into abandonment, gradually being reclaimed by nature.
Exploring the south part of the island with Save Ellis Island is a unique opportunity to experience the haunting side of one of New York’s most popular attractions, but one which is rarely visited.
The eerie nature of the derelict hospital is enhanced by life sized photographs of stricken immigrants, installed throughout the abandoned buildings by French artist JR. These ghosts of Ellis Island are due to remain up ‘until it decided to disappear’. Hopefully the efforts of Save Ellis Island will ensure that won’t be for a while yet.
You can book your hard hat tour of the abandoned Ellis Island here.