Story of Ellis Island is a family story

The same ferries that churn away from Battery Park carrying visitors to the Statue of Liberty also transport visitors to nearby Ellis Island.

Both islands attract thousands of visitors from around the nation and around the world.

The Statue of Liberty has been a beacon to immigrants who entered the U.S. through the "golden door" of nearby Ellis Island.
The Statue of Liberty has been a beacon to immigrants who entered the U.S. through the "golden door" of nearby Ellis Island. Photo: Photo by John L. Hart

It is the visual impact of Lady Liberty that draws long lines of people to her; to trek her flights of stairs, touch her green robes and peer out 22 stories high from her oxidized crown. The Statue of Liberty is spectacular; a stationary firework that draws "oohs" at first glimpse and instills a lingering sense of awe at America's majesty in residence.

In contrast, the neighboring Ellis Island is obscure, hidden off to one side just as its attraction is hidden in history. But at least as much magnetism pulls at the hearts of visitors at Ellis Island as at Liberty Island, though in more subtle ways. Replacing audible "oohs" of the more famous island, here at Ellis Island come little bursts of insight, shown by the nodding of a head or a pause in conversation. Here, visitors learn of the processing of 24 million immigrants that poet Emmas Lazarus described as "huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Perhaps what strikes most tenderly at the heart of the visitors here is that immigrants from the world's impoverished lands "the tired, the poor, came as families, who placed the future of each father, mother, son or daughter now as individuals in the hands of the uniformed immigration inspectors who listened to their chests for healthy heartbeats, searched their hair for lice and wrote their names as they spoke them. Those pronounced healthy were sent on their way, but those with some liability of body, mind or character were returned to their homelands at the expense of the steamships that brought them, usually dividing forever a family without means.

So the story of Ellis Island is a family story. Here families succeeded; here families divided. It is still easy to visualize them waiting by thousands in the great hall for their final certificates. Surrounding the great hall are rooms where the inspections took place.

"This is the kissing post," explained an official in one of those rooms, pointing to a pillar where families met to be reunited.

"These are the stairs of separation," he explains further, showing where people who started out together at the bottom were sorted by destination on the way up and "the homeless, the tempest tossed" went their separate ways at the top. At one corner of the building are the hearing chambers where rejected immigrants made one last appeal to stay in America. In this court, judgments were summarily gaveled out with dismaying finality. But most immigrants were granted citizenship and they are the ancestors of an estimated 100 million of today's Americans.

The ferry boats at Battery Park in New York City truly carry people to see monuments of liberty. The Statue of Liberty is the torch of freedom, lifting her lamp beside the golden door, which is Ellis Island.

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