Ellis Island New York – Island of Hope or Island of Tears?

Ellis Island - SignWhile on our trip to New Jersey and New York in October 2015, we made a trip to Ellis Island. I knew it would be an interesting and enlightening visit, but I was shocked at how thought-provoking it would be.  We got off the boat and made our way to the main building (just like many immigrants that landed in New York would.

Ellis Island - Bldg 1As soon as we walked in the first thing you noticed was a huge room called the baggage room where the immigrants would have to leave their bags then climb the huge staircase leading up to the Great Hall. We soon found out that this was the first part of an inspection process that took approximately 3-7 hours for the vast majority of immigrants. For many Ellis Island was truly an “Island of Hope” – the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. For the rest, it became the “Island of Tears” – a place where families were separated and individuals were denied entry into the United States.

Ellis Island - Baggage RoomThese stairs were actually used as a way to determine that newcomers to the United States were medically fit to enter the country. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area (on the main floor)  to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. They were then given a six-second medical examination and marked with codes in chalk on the immigrants’ clothing for further testing or review. Some were stated to have gotten around this by wiping it off or turning their clothes inside out. Here are some of the codes they used:

  • BBack
  • CConjunctivitis
  • TCTrachoma
  • EEyes
  • FFace
  • FTFeet
  • GGoiter
  • HHeart
  • KHernia
  • LLameness
  • NNeck
  • PPhysical and Lungs
  • PGPregnancy
  • SSenility
  • SCScalp (Favus)
  • X – Suspected Mental defect
  • – Definite signs of Mental defect

Ellis Island - Button HookIf they made it that far, they were then given an eye check for diseases such as trachoma using a dreaded button hook implement. It was painful and wasn’t cleaned between each use. Therefore you could come into Ellis Island trachoma-free but leave with it or another disease. Scary and sad.

Ellis Island - ArrivalsFor those who did not make it through the medical inspection, one of a few things could happen. You could be sent immediately back to your country of origin, you could be held for further inspection in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, or you could be detained until the “cured” of whatever ailment you were perceived to have. They were very worried about these new immigrants becoming a public charge.  We heard so many sad stories about children who had issues and had to return to their country but they couldn’t leave alone, thus one of the parents had to return as well, never to see each other again. I understand their concern, but it is so heartbreaking.

Ellis Island - LinesIt is an amazing building that was built in 1892 and continued to be an inspection station until 1954. It is stated that an estimated 12 million people passed through on their way to obtaining the American dream. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from Cork, Ireland, who arrived on the ship Nevada on January 1, 1892. She and her two brothers were coming to America to meet their parents, who had moved to New York two years prior. She received a greeting from officials and a $10 gold coin. It was the largest sum of money she had ever owned. The last person to pass through Ellis Island was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen in 1954. There were quite a few notable immigrants that came through Ellis Island. Check on the link to see if you recognize any names.

Ellis Island - Great HallWhile we were there just soaking up the experience a tour guide came by with a group and we listened. He made sure that we all knew the truth about the myth that government officials on Ellis Island compelled immigrants to take new names against their wishes. He stated that it was not true and that  Federal immigration Inspectors were under strict supervision. They were more interested in preventing inadmissible aliens from entering the country (for which they were held accountable) than in assisting them in trivial personal matters such as altering their names. As I have found out through doing genealogy, it was more likely written down wrong when the immigrant left their country of origin.  Many people could not read or write, so it was often misspelled by the person helping them fill out paperwork on the ship’s manifest. I have seen a lot of that in my research.  Such a shame and makes researching quite frustrating at times.

Ellis Island - MazeIt was quite an experience and they have a great research area (for a fee) for anyone who wants to see if any of their relatives came through Ellis Island. They also have what they call a kissing section where families were reunited. What a joyous reunion those must have been!

Ellis Island - WaterIt was astonishing some of the things these people went through and I am glad we went to learn more about it. It’s not just a place anymore, it is a memory for me. If you are planning to go and make your own memories, below is some information as well as a link to their website. If you haven’t been, I hope you can visit and experience this history for yourself one day. Happy travels!

Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration Visitor Information





While you don’t need a ticket to  Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, tickets are required to board ferries. To purchase ferry tickets, please go to StatueCruises.com or call 1-877-LADY-TIX. Ferry tickets may also be purchased at the Statue Cruises ticket booths, which are located in Castle Clinton in Battery Park (NYC) or at the ferry departure point in Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

Reserve Ticket

This ticket includes:

Access to the grounds of Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

Priority entry into the Screening Facility Queue which saves you wait time at the departure point.

Audio Tours of Liberty and Ellis Island included.

Adult: $19.25 | Senior 62+: $14 | Child 4-12: $9
Child (0-3): Free Admission

Pedestal Ticket

This ticket includes:

Access up-to-the Fort Wood section of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Priority entry into the Screening Facility Queue saves you wait time at the departure point.

Access to the grounds of Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

Audio Tours of Liberty and Ellis Island included.

Adult: $19.25 | Senior 62+: $14 | Child 4-12: $9
Child (0-3): Free Admission

Crown Reserve Ticket

This ticket includes:

Access up-to the Crown of the Statue of Liberty.

Priority entry into the Screening Facility Queue saves you wait time at the departure point.

Access to the grounds of Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

Audio Tours of Liberty and Ellis Island included

Adult: $22.25 | Senior 62+: $17 | Child 4-12: $12
Reserve Crown tickets restrictions: *Children under 48” are restricted from access to the crown. 1 Adult must be present for each group of 4 children.

Directions to Liberty State Park, NJ:

By Car
Take the NJ Turnpike to exit 14B. Follow the signs into the park.

Public Transportation from the Hoboken Train Terminal
From the Hoboken Train Terminal, you can take the Bergen-Hudson Lightrail to the Liberty State Park Station.

Public Transportation from NY

Via Train
Take the PATH to the Hoboken Train Terminal. Then follow directions above from the Hoboken Train Terminal.

Via Ferry
From the North Cove Marina, directly in front of the World Financial Center, take the Liberty Landing Ferry to the Liberty Landing Marina which is located in Liberty State Park.



Directions to Battery Park, NYC:

Here are directions for Battery Island (best by using public).

By Bus The M5, M15, and M20 stop at South Ferry. Walk to the west, or follow signs for the Statue of Liberty ferries. Click for the MTA Manhattan Bus Map. (PDF)
By Subway Several subway stops are located near Battery Park.

The 4 and 5 trains stop at Bowling Green.
The R train stops at Whitehall Street.
The 1 train stops at the South Ferry station.

Click for the MTA Subway Map.


No parking is available at Battery Park in NYC.


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