One of the most important landmarks in the history of both New York City and the United States, Ellis Island welcomed more than 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Though long since shuttered as an immigration station, the island played a key role in shaping how the United States looks today and is still visited by millions each year. Few people know the fascinating hidden history of the island, such as what it held before it was an immigration center and what lies on the other side of the island, generally hidden from the visiting public. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of Ellis Island.
Long before it served as the gateway to America, Ellis Island was well-known by the local Lenape Native Americans who harvested oysters from its shores for centuries. In 1794, it was leased by the State of New York and later ceded to the Federal government in 1808. The island was subsequently used as a fortification in the years leading up to the War of 1812. After the war, it was renamed Fort Gibson and served as a Federal installation until being selected as the nation’s first Federal immigration center after the government assumed national control of all immigration policies in 1890.
The island’s selection as the first Federal immigration inspection station quickly set in motion a new role for it, one that made it known throughout the world and vital to American history. For much of the 19th century, immigrants who came to New York City had passed through Castle Clinton in Battery Park for processing, but the new station on the island heralded a new era. The first immigration station on Ellis Island was opened on January 1, 1892 and began to process hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually. However, the wooden station burned to the ground in an 1897 fire. A new immigration station, constructed of brick and designed in French Renaissance Revival architecture, opened on December 17, 1900 and still stands on the island to this day, welcoming notable immigrants such as Isaac Asimov, Bob Hope, Frank Capra and many others.
The island’s usage fell into decline after new immigration restrictions were put in place in the 1920s and air travel became very popular shortly after World War II. The island was closed in 1954 but was later declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 and opened as an immigration museum in 1990, though the decaying hospital buildings on the south side of the island remain accessible only for occasional guided tours. Still, the island remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City and the location where more than 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry to.
Ellis Island has undeniably made its mark on American history. As the location where millions of immigrants passed through at the turn of the 20th century, it still beckons millions of American and international visitors each year who journey there to learn about the complex and fascinating history of immigration to the United States of America.