Ellis Island: Gateway to America

On January 1, 1892, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore was granted entry to the United States. She and her two brothers were the first to be processed through Ellis Island. Over the following 62 years, millions would follow Annie Moore through the Ellis Island port of entry.  The island, in Upper New York Bay, would become a major gateway as the busiest immigrant in section station in the United States.

English: Immigrants entering the United States...
Immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island, the main immigrant entry facility of the United States from 1892 to 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While most connect Ellis Island with immigrants from other parts of the world – particularly southern and eastern Europeans – the port was, in fact, an entry point for many British immigrants as well. In fact, throughout the 1890s, nearly 329,000 emigrants left the British Isles and set sail for the United States. Those who were first and second class passengers were processed aboard ship and weren’t required to pass through Ellis Island – thus, their entry is not recorded there. Many others, however, were traveling in steerage, and they joined the masses flowing through the Island facility.

Before Ellis Island opened, many millions of immigrants had flowed into the country through New York’s harbour. Initially, immigrants were processed by state officials; however, the Federal Government took over immigration control in 1890 and put $75,000 into constructing an official processing facility.

The first facility was a huge Georgia pine structure with several outbuildings and numerous amenities. Three ships full of immigrants docked the day it opened and 700 immigrants were processed. The first year at Ellis Island saw nearly 450,000 immigrants pass through its halls on their way to a new life in America. The first facility was short-lived, however, and in 1897 the entire structure burned to the ground. No lives were lost in the blaze; however most immigration records up to that date were lost.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...
Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plans were put in place for a new, fireproof immigration station, and while construction was underway, passengers were processed at the nearby Barge Office. The newly constructed facility was enormous with the capacity to process as many as 5000 immigrants per day. The red brick building could house a huge number of immigrants at a time, and the dining facility was so large that it could seat 1000 at once.

Thousands passed through daily. Immigrants were given “six second physicals” during which they were checked quickly for any physical ailments, questioned, and then sent on their way. That was only a portion of the process, however, and most immigrants spent up to five hours under inspection. The majority of those processed were steerage passengers. First and second class passengers weren’t required to pass through the various inspection points at Ellis Island because the government assumed that if they had the money to buy a first or second class ticket, they would be able to support themselves sufficiently upon entry.

Between 1900 and 1929, over 1.2 million Britons migrated to the United States, many of whom were processed through Ellis Island before they were allowed entry. By the time Ellis Island closed in 1954, approximately 12 million immigrants had been processed there by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.


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