For the 50+ Traveler
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It is known by many names: the Gateway to Freedom, the Golden Door, the Isle of Hope, and the Isle of Tears. Its formal name is Ellis Island. For millions of immigrants, this was their first step into America and the promise the country held for a better, hopeful future. All of us have immigrant backgrounds -- unless you are a Native American, of course -- and many of us have a direct connection to Ellis Island.

Having grown up in northern New Jersey, I visited the island many times. It was a regular field trip in school, but as a kid, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the island or the significance it played in my life and countless others’. Like many visitors to Ellis who make it a stop on their whirlwind tour of New York City, my visits during school were quick walks through the museum with just enough time to read a few placards about some artifacts then catch a couple minutes of a film documenting the immigrant experience before becoming fidgety, hoping we would make it in time to catch the next ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

But all of that changed recently when my wife gave me an extraordinary present, an experience that should be a part of everyone’s Ellis Island experience: a behind-the-scenes tour of buildings that are off-limits to the average visitor to the island and its often joyous and sometimes sad tales.

The main building on Ellis Island.
Joe Cuhaj

A Background To History

Once a sandbar in the Hudson River, the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis in 1780 and was developed into a recreational area which he operated for eight years. It was also used as a location where criminals were executed and a military munitions depot until it was sold to a new owner, who then sold it to the United States in 1808.

Before Ellis could become an immigration station, it had to be increased in size. The excavated material from building the New York City subways was hauled across the river and dumped here, doubling the size of the island to six acres. The original building where arriving immigrants would be processed was completed and officially opened in 1892.

The first immigrants to arrive came from County Cork, Ireland -- a teenager named Annie Moore and her 11- and seven-year-old brothers. The siblings were welcomed by an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department, a chaplain, and were awarded a $10 gold piece. A fine welcome, indeed.

The original processing facility was destroyed by fire in 1897. The building where tourists arrive via ferry and which now houses the museum and archives was built in 1900.

A hard hat tour of Ellis Island.
Joe Cuhaj

The Other Side Of Ellis Island: The Hard Hat Tour

Once you disembark from the ferry, you will immediately stroll up a sidewalk and enter the main building, just as over 12-million immigrants did in the past. The building now houses the immigrant museum, archives, gift shops, and restaurants, and its unique beaux arts-style architecture from the Gilded Age is quickly recognizable.

The Hard Hat Tour upon which I was about to embark is a special presentation of Save Ellis Island, a non-profit partner of the National Park Service that is dedicated to preserving and protecting 29 unrestored buildings on the island. There is a separate fee for the tour, and all proceeds fund the organization and its work. You can learn more about Save Ellis Island and the tour on their website. Reservations are required.

The tour will give you special access to the main and contagious disease hospitals, two buildings that are currently inaccessible to the public.

It all begins to the left of the information kiosk in the main building. Rows of people wait in hushed silence, knowing but not really knowing what to expect over the next hour. Then our tour guide arrives and gives us a few useful tips, like to watch our step while walking the uneven hallways. We’re given our hard hats and the journey begins.

A hard hat tour of Ellis Island.
Joe Cuhaj

Chalking The Passengers

Ellis Island was originally three islands. The first is the main island, where immigrants (and your ferry) arrived for processing. The other two islands were to the west of the main island, each separated by a narrow watery channel. It was on these islands that two hospitals -- the main hospital and the contagious disease hospital -- were built. If you were an immigrant and you were “chalked,” one of these hospitals would be your next destination.

As immigrants arrived in America, immigration officials would watch each passenger disembark from their ship. In a short six seconds, these officials would determine the medical state of the passenger and write their prognosis in chalk on the person’s back. For example, “B” meant back injury; “H” was for a heart ailment. Two marks were the most feared: “X” meant suspected mental disorder, and an “X” in a circle meant insanity.

View of the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island.
Joe Cuhaj

Touring The Hospitals

Our tour guide leads us into the contagious disease hospital. As we enter, our eyes adjust to the dark hallways. Our footsteps and the low murmurs of our tour group reverberate around us. There is very little color to the walls; the paint long since deteriorated or is peeling away in chunks. Electrical conduits drip maroon rust down the walls while ancient-looking light fixtures -- many without globes -- dangle from the ceiling.

The tour takes us to several rooms where the guide has us gather around to tell us about the purpose of the room and little-known history about it, many times through stories from the immigrants themselves. As we found out, the nurses who worked in the Ellis Island hospitals were true angels, not only helping their patients get well but also acting as friends to these frightened people who had just landed here.

In several of the rooms, such as the laundry room, the original equipment is still standing where it was left when the facility closed in 1954.

The architecture of the building was way ahead of its time. As you walk the hallway, you will notice a slight slant and slope to the floor that tilted toward a drain. They were built this way so that attendants could simply turn a hose on and wash it down. Rooms in the tuberculosis ward were intentionally staggered so that no two doors were directly across from each other, which prevented the disease from wafting into the room across the hall.

One room is virtually all windows that were left open year-round, allowing fresh air to circulate freely for the benefit of the patients. Beneath each window was a steam radiator that would heat the air in winter.

Continuing, we made our way into the kitchen area, where immigrants would partake in their first American meal. Their favorite item was white bread, which some called cake.

Throughout the tour, large, haunting images of those who passed through Ellis Island are pasted to the walls and windows. This is part of an exhibit by French artist JR entitled Unframed, Ellis Island. The images impart on visitors the sorrow and redemption the patients who were sent here felt.

The final room of the tour, and the one that brings sadness to all who visit, is the isolation ward. If an immigrant found themselves in this room, their journey was over. It meant that either they would be sent back home or that they would soon die. From a window, they could see the Statue of Liberty facing away from Ellis Island. Some say that she is turning her back on these poor souls, but most feel Lady Liberty is pointing the way home.

The Great Hall on Ellis Island.

A Visit To The Archives And Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

Your visit to Ellis Island isn’t over yet. Be sure to leave a minimum of one hour before or after your Hard Hat Tour to visit the main museum. Your ferry ticket to the island (see below) includes a self-guided audio tour during which you can leisurely walk the massive building and explore at your own leisure.

My time on the island was growing short, but I had another stop to make. It was to the immigration archives. If you haven’t explored your immigrant past, this is a must-stop. Here, you can log into the heritage database and find information on your ancestors, including when they arrived and the ship they were on. It also gives you an option to order a reprint of the actual ship’s manifest. My search brought tears to my eyes when I read that 97 years to the day of my visit, my grandparents, armed with $25 in their pockets, arrived in America.

Before leaving, my family sprung one more surprise on me. We strolled along the sidewalk that rimmed the island with a beautiful view of the Hudson River and the New York City skyline. Pleasure boats, ferries, and barges made for a congested scene on the waterway. Soon, we were walking among long rows of gleaming bronze panels, each engraved with names -- thousands upon thousands of family names.

The writer discovering his heritage at Ellis Island.
Joe Cuhaj

We approached one panel, and there, etched forevermore on the very spot where my family’s journey in the land of the free first began, was our family name. Emotions flooded over me. The significance and magnitude of what Ellis Island means to this country overwhelmed me. I had made a connection with my immigrant past.

Pro Tips

  • The only way to get to Ellis Island is by taking a ferry from either The Battery (formerly Battery Park) in Lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. But remember, Statue Cruises is the only ferry service authorized to dock at Ellis and the Statue of Liberty. Check their website for current pricing and schedules. Your ferry ticket includes the audio tour of Ellis Island as well as admission to the Statue of Liberty.
  • The Hard Hat Tour is a separate admission. Visit their website for current prices, schedules, and to make reservations.
  • If you can’t visit Ellis Island in person, you can still take the Hard Hat tour virtually. For a $15 donation, you can view a one-hour video that includes extra footage of other buildings still not accessible to the public.
  • You can also search for your ancestor’s records online by visiting the Statue of Liberty heritage website.
  • There is limited space remaining on the Ellis Island Wall of Honor. If you would like to have your family immortalized on it, visit the Statue of Liberty website, where you will find instructions and pricing. Remember, it takes several weeks for the name to be inscribed on the wall.
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