With the skyline of New York in the background, the steamer slips past the Statue of Liberty and on to Ellis Island. On board, scores of immigrants huddle in the cold, bound for a new life in pursuit of the American dream. Over the years some 12 million people will pass through this spit of land off the coast of the Big Apple. But then its buildings will be abandoned, left to decay into ghostly reminders of the past.
On the first day of 1892 the immigration facility on Ellis Island opened its doors, welcoming people from Europe and further afield to the United States. Here, men, women and children were checked and documented, their worth as future citizens assessed by a team of official inspectors. And if they passed, they were permitted to sail on towards hope and opportunity in New York.
Today, Ellis Island is remembered as having played a pivotal role in the immigration that shaped America. But that history has not always been respected and preserved. Because the facility was abandoned in the 1950s, left to fall into an eerie state of disrepair. And even now parts of this famous landmark remain spookily deserted.
More than a century after the first immigrants passed through Ellis Island, visitors can trace the story of their arrival in the new world. But alongside the modern museums and exhibits, abandoned buildings still stand as a stark reminder of the passage of time. With a glimpse inside, it becomes clear just how much of this historic landmark has been left to rot.
Long after Ellis Island closed its doors, the facility still retains a special place in western popular culture. From the opening scenes of The Godfather Part II to the more recent movie Brooklyn, it has come to represent new beginnings. But few who are familiar with the famous structure are aware just how much of it has fallen into decay over the years.
Before the turn of the 20th century, immigration to the United States was regulated by individual states, rather than central government. And in New York, which welcomed around three quarters of the nation’s migrants, arrivals were processed at Manhattan’s Castle Garden. By the 1890s, however, this location had become overwhelmed.
Initially, the majority of immigrants arriving in America were from northern and western Europe. But as time passed those looking to start afresh in the new world became more diverse, traveling from Italy and eastern Europe. And as the numbers continued to rise, the government decided that a better system was needed.
So in response the authorities decided to construct a new facility on Ellis Island, a small scrap of land in New York’s bustling harbor. Located close to Liberty Island and its famous statue, it was the ideal spot to process the shiploads of immigrants arriving in the United States. But first planners used landfill to extend the island to around twice its size.
On January 1, 1892, the first immigrant, 17-year-old Annie Moore, passed through the gates of the new immigration center on Ellis Island. Millions more would follow afterwards, although their exact route into the United States would be determined by their wealth. In first and second class, for example, passengers were typically able to disembark straight onto the dock without any additional procedures.
But in third class things were different. Shipped off to Ellis Island on arrival, they were subjected to a battery of examinations designed to determine their suitability for immigration. And for hours they stood in lines around the facility, waiting their turn to see a doctor or answer questions from officials.
After proving themselves healthy, immigrants were quizzed on all aspects of their situation, from race to financial stability. And if they failed, they would be sent back to their port of origin, often at the steamship company’s expense. But records suggest that only around two percent of arrivals were turned away. So compassion certainly did seem at the forefront of things.
Among those emigrating to the United States, the majority traveled in the more affordable third class. And as such, Ellis Island was always busy with new arrivals. Over the years, an astonishing 12 million people passed through the facility to begin lives in New York and beyond. But today, many of the buildings which once thronged with people stand empty and silent – so what happened?
Just five years after it had opened, a blaze tore through the facility on Ellis Island, destroying the original structures along with all of the records to date. But the facility only bounced back stronger, with new fireproof buildings that opened in 1900. And for the next two decades, the center functioned as the main port of call for immigration into the United States. Imagine trying to count all those people…
Then, in the 1920s, attitudes began to change. Across America concern began to grow about the cultural, economic and political impact of such an influx of new arrivals. Some claimed immigration was driving down wages for local people, spreading ideologies such as communism and creating ghettos full of crime. Well, that was the argument, sure.
As fear surrounding immigration continued to grow, two new laws were passed with the aim of limiting the practice. So after 1924 those wishing to move to the United States had to visit a consulate and obtain a visa permitting them to relocate. And as an additional measure, quotas were introduced to restrict the amount of arrivals from places such as southern Europe.
With these stricter rules, the role of Ellis Island changed. As hopeful immigrants were directed to consulates in their home countries, the lines that once snaked around the buildings began to dwindle. Then, in 1939, World War II broke out, and some unexpected new arrivals began to fill the empty rooms. And perhaps they were not as welcome.
Because throughout the war, Ellis Island housed military prisoners, while injured soldiers were treated in the facility’s hospital. And as the Allies continued to fight on, this need eclipsed that of the immigration center, which was ultimately moved to the New York City mainland in 1943. By the time that the conflict was over, some 7,000 Germans, along with Japanese and Italian soldiers, had been detained at the repurposed center.
And by that time, the facility had become financially unviable, and the authorities had begun to consider closing it down. Despite a brief peak in detainees prompted by the 1950 Internal Security Act, the population of Ellis Island soon fell to just 30 or 40 prisoners. So in 1954 the facility shut its doors for good. Oh well.
When President Eisenhower closed down Ellis Island, more than 60 years of immigration history came to an end. But in that time, the facility had played a vital role in shaping the culture and identity of the United States. In fact, a look at past records show that some of America’s most influential men and women had arrived in the country via the now-defunct complex.
In 1920 records show that an English immigrant named Archibald Leach arrived on Ellis Island. After successfully passing through its doors, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men. And while his name might not sound familiar, his pseudonym, Cary Grant, is recognizable around the world.
One year later, a celebrity of a different kind made the journey to Ellis Island. On March 23, 1933, the physicist Albert Einstein arrived at the facility off the coast of New York, fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Finding sanctuary in America, he embraced his adopted nation, eventually acquiring citizenship in 1940.
Over the years, Ellis Island welcomed people from all walks of life: artists, scientists, religious gurus and performers, as well as ordinary folk in search of a better life. And even today, its name is synonymous with America’s Gilded Age, an era when the nation was experiencing unprecedented economic growth and prosperity.
With this history in mind, it is even more shocking that Ellis Island was simply abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Because after its closure, the facility quickly succumbed to the elements, becoming a haunting and eerie shadow of its former self. But even in decay many find beauty, and the relic soon became an attraction in its own right.
Yes, after more than two decades of abandonment, people slowly began to return to Ellis Island in the 1970s. This time, however, they were not immigrants but sightseers, drawn by the strange appeal of the facility’s deserted state. And as various bodies tried and failed to restore the empty buildings, visitors snapped photographs of a place where time seemed to have stood still.
In some places, rooms which were once offices appeared to have been abandoned in haste, papers and documents torn and cast aside. In others, solitary relics, such as a lone piano, offered glimpses of the lives which once played out within these walls. Elsewhere, discarded suitcases sat empty and forgotten, their contents long disappeared.
For years, visitors were allowed to roam parts of Ellis Island such as the recreation room, where immigrants passed the time as they waited to find out their fate. Plus in some hallways nature had already begun to reclaim the facility, with plants creeping in through broken windows and open doors. Other rooms even looked much as they had back when the facility was first abandoned.
In the Great Hall, where new arrivals were first processed, wheelchairs and crutches still stood where they had been discarded by their owners decades before. Part of the main building, this room once served as the hub of a facility designed to host up to 4,000 immigrants per day. Later, additional structures were added, upping the capacity to an even higher number.
Located on the north side of the island, the main building also contained offices and detention facilities, as well as waiting rooms. Higher up, on the second story, a cavernous space some 20,000 feet square once hosted the initial inspections, which saw immigrant families separated and herded into long queues. But decades later, little evidence of this traumatic experience remained.
In its heyday the north side of Ellis Island additionally housed kitchen and laundry facilities, baggage storage and dormitories for immigrants forced to extend their stays. There was even a carpentry shop and bakery to cater for the temporary residents’ needs. And on the northern edge of the complex, a powerhouse kept the facility ticking over.
Once bustling with people and workers, these empty buildings exerted a strange pull even in their abandoned state. But while visitors were permitted to tour the north side of the island, the southern section remained off-limits. Home to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, this area once saw some of the most desperate and heartbreaking stories of all.
Soon after their arrival at Ellis Island, immigrants were assessed by doctors who determined whether they were healthy enough to enter the States. If not, they were deported or sent to the facility’s medical complex for quarantine. And for some 1.25 million people, their new lives began with a stint in the 450-bed hospital building.
There, immigrants were treated for a wide range of conditions, including yellow fever, measles, tuberculosis and scarlet fever. But the facility also cared for psychiatric patients, as well as those who had not passed the required intelligence test. In most cases, these “undesirables” were deported after a brief stay on Ellis Island.
Although some of the hospital’s methods were progressive, others bordered on the horrific. According to records, treatments included pouring acid onto ringworm-infected scalps and using sharp hooks to inspect eyes for infectious disease. Given its smudge of dark history, then, it is perhaps fitting that the hospital complex has remained eerie to this day.
Inside Ellis Island’s medical buildings, the laundry facilities that were once used to eliminate bacteria still stand, although they are now thick with rust and decay. And in certain rooms, beds, chairs and instruments serve as reminders of the structure’s sinister past. Elsewhere, operating rooms are still lined with white tiles, ready and waiting for the next patient to roll in.
Today, the island’s hospital buildings are the only ones that have remained in an abandoned state. Because after years of planning and fundraising, the authorities began restoration work on the north section of the island in 1985. Five years later, in September 1990, the main building was opened to tourists as a museum.
Now home to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, the buildings on the north side of the complex have been given a new lease of life. There, visitors can trace the story of this historic complex, as well as the people who passed through its doors. And in a city famous for its tourist attractions, it remains one of the most-visited destinations.
But as visitors flock to the north side of Ellis Island, the southern part of the complex is still as empty and silent as when it first closed its doors. While the main building and its surrounding structures were being renovated, various proposals for the old hospital were discussed. Yet despite ideas of a hotel and a convention center being floated, none came to fruition.
In 1996 the southern part of the complex was included in World Monuments Watch, a list of heritage sites that are at risk from damage or neglect. But even though the attention enabled a group, Save Ellis Island, to carry out some preservation work, the buildings remained empty and vulnerable to decay.
Then, in 2014, the hospital complex opened to visitors – in all its abandoned glory. Speaking to the New Jersey news outlet nj.com that year, Save Ellis Island’s Janis Calella explained, “There’s a big story here, that the masses of visitors that come here and the public have yet to hear, and that story is how the United States took care of [sick] immigrants once they got here.”
According to Calella, the opening up of the complex’s south side will “complete the entire story of Ellis Island.” But for now at least, the buildings have remained in their abandoned state. And while their future restoration is perhaps inevitable, the sight of such an important slice of history frozen in time is a memorable attraction in its own right.