Ellis Island is famous as that little island off of New York City where immigrants to the United States were processed. It has a very interesting and rather unique history.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the island had many different names – including Kioshk (Gull) Island, Oyster Island, Dyre’s Island and Bucking Island. And after a group of pirates were hung on the island, it became known as Gigget Island.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War, the island was acquired by Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant. He ran a small tavern on the island to cater to all the folks – primarily fishermen – who made their living on the waters in and around the island. In 1808, the heirs of Samuel Ellis sold the island to New York State. New York State sold it to the federal government later that year. Through these transfers and up to the present, it has maintained the name Ellis Island.
As an interesting bit of lore, Ellis Island (and Liberty Island – which was formerly known as Bedloe’s Island) resided on the New Jersey side of the shipping lanes in the 1800s and it took an interstate agreement forged in 1834 to get them formally declared as part of New York State.
From the mid 1800s until 1890, Ellis Island was used as a military arsenal. But in 1890, the United States Congress allocated $75,000 to build the first Federal Immigration station on Ellis Island. (Prior to this, all immigration was handled by the individual states.) While Ellis Island’s immigration station was being built, the island was also growing physically. All the waste from building New York City subway tunnels was dumped at Ellis Island, growing it from its original three acres to six acres in size.
The Ellis Island Immigration Station was officially opened on January 1, 1892. The first immigrant to pass through the gates of Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15 year old from Cork County, Ireland. In fact that first day, 700 immigrants were processed and in its first year, it processed almost 450,000 immigrants.
On June 15, 1897 disaster struck and the wood constructed Immigration Station burned down. Fortunately no one died but millions of immigration records were destroyed as the records room became engulfed in flames.
The Station reopened on December 17, 1900. This new station was built with red brick and limestone for a cost of $1.5 million and was built to be fireproof. In rebuilding it, they built it larger than before so that it could handle a volume of 5,000 new immigrants every day – an amount that was highly stressed during the immigration surge prior to World War I. In fact, in 1907, Ellis Island handled a record number of immigrants – a record that stands for all time. It processed 1,004,756 immigrants – with its peak day record being 11,747 immigrants on April 17, 1907.
During World War I, Ellis Island became a dual purpose location. Since immigration was severely curtailed during the war, much of the facility was used by the Army and Navy as a way station and a facility to take care of sick American servicemen. Once the war was over, immigration again rapidly ramped up and by 1921, 560,971 immigrants passed through its doors – as compared to a low of 28,867 in 1918.
1921 also was the year that spelled the death knell for Ellis Island. That was the year that the United States Congress passed the first of several Immigration Quota laws that severely restricted the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States. By 1924, Ellis Island went from being the place where immigrants were welcomed to America to the place where illegal immigrants were held until they could be deported back to their home countries.After being used as a holding center for illegal immigrants and various detention and service activities during World War II, Ellis Island was eventually decommissioned from all use in November of 1954.
In 1976, it was opened for tours under the auspices of the National Park Service and on September 10, 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened. To date, over 20 million people have visited and toured the exhibits – almost as many as the estimated 25 million immigrants who passed through its doors from 1892 to 1924.