Looking Back Jan. 22

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or mary.braswell@albanyherald.com.

It has been 120 years this month since the first immigrant set foot on the infamous Ellis Island. Here is a look back at the island and those that arrived there in hopes of a good life in America.

The island

• In the 1600s the island was known as Gull Island by the Mohegan tribe. With an area of less than three acres, the island could barely be seen during high tide.

• After being discovered for its rich oyster beds, Dutch settlers renamed it Oyster Island.

• Following the hanging of Anderson the Pirate in 1765, the island was once again renamed. It became known as Gibbet Island after the instrument used to hang him for public display.

• On January 20, 1785, Samuel Ellis purchased the property and gave it his name.

• The island was bought from the Ellis family after several generations by the state of New York, then sold to the federal government in 1808 for $10,000.

• The U.S. Army built Fort Gibson on the island starting in 1795 while still under state ownership but it was dismantled in 1861.

• In 1876, the U.S. Navy used the island as a munitions depot, storing up to 260,000 pounds of powder.

• Due to complaints from nearby New Jersey residents the depot was removed in 1890. That same year, Ellis Island was chosen as the site for a new immigration screening station.

• To accommodate the size of the new immigration facility, the island was increased to 3.3 acres by means of landfill and a ferry slip was built. For water, artesian wells were dug.

• Eventually the island, actually three of them together, was increased to 17 acres in order to contain the immigration depot and support buildings. Landfill was hauled in by ship and much of it came from the construction of New York City’s subway tunnels.

In the beginning

• When the federal government assumed control of immigration in April 1890, Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct the immigration station on Ellis Island.

• The first station was an enormous three-story structure, with out-buildings, built of Georgia pine with “all the amenities thought necessary.”

• On January 1, 1892, the immigration depot opened with much celebration. Commissioner Col. John B. Weber presented a ten-dollar gold piece to the first immigrant through the gates, 15 -year-old Annie Moore from Cork County, Ireland.

• Three large ships landed on opening day and 700 immigrants were processed.

• In the first year, Ellis Island 450,000 immigrants were processed. Over the first five years, 1.5 million came to America by way of Ellis Island.

• On June 15, 1897, a fire destroyed the wooden structures on the island. No lives were lost but most immigration records dating back to 1855 were turned to ash.

Second time around

• A new fireproof immigration station was built including the main building, kitchen and laundry building, main powerhouse and the main hospital building in just under two years. A total of 33 buildings would eventually make up the complex.

• When the new facility opened on December 17, 1900, officials expected to process about 5,000 immigrants per day.

• The new reception hall was far better than the original with its architectural likeness to train stations of the time. In one day it was recorded that 6,500 immigrants were processed in nine hours.

• The dining hall was large enough to feed 1,000 per sitting.

• The cost for all the landfill, buildings, dormitories, hospital, kitchen, baggage station, electrical plant, bath house and personal was expected to cost about $150,000. Once the work was completed and officers, interpreters, clerks, guards, cooks, maintenance staff, doctors, nurses hired, the bill came to over $500,000.

The process

• Immigration officials used the passenger lists given to them by ship companies to process each foreigner. The myth that immigrants were forced to change their names was just that-if errors or changes were made in the names and spelling, it was not done by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.

• On its busiest day, April 17, 1907, the Ellis Island Immigration Station processed the arrivals of 11,747 newcomers.

• In 1856, most immigrants arrived in New York City by sailing vessels with trips taking up to three months. By 1873 and the arrival of steamships, the average travel time was reduced to 10 days.

• Each new arrival was put through a health exam, often as simple as a physician watching them walk up the stairs to the Great Hall. Other times, military surgeons were harsher but the exam time averaged about six seconds.

• The clothing of a potentially or obviously sick immigrant was marked with chalk. Some of the chalked symbols included: b (back problems), E (eyes), FT (feet), G (Goiter), L (lameness), X (suspected mental defect) and X (circled) indicated definite signs of a mental defect.

• Some ‘chalked’ immigrants were able to turn their clothing, especially coats, inside out and proceed undetected.

• Those with obvious illnesses were detained at the Ellis Island Hospital, sometimes for months.

• Once an immigrant passed the inspections, they descended the stairs and were often met by family and friends. The spot at the base of the stairway became known as the “Kissing Post.”

• Easily approved immigrants spent, on average, between three and five hours on the island. There were food vendors for those wishing to get food to go.

• While about 10 percent of new arrivals were detained for further inspection, only about two percent of immigrants at Ellis Island were barred from entry to America.

• Immigrants held for reasons other than health were housed in dormitories. One account of the detention included good meals, laundry facilities, milk for the children and even a movie two times per week.

• A list of questions were asked of each arrival including the obvious ones such as name and country of origin as well as occupation. Immigrants were also by whom was passage paid, whether a polygamist and whether ever in prison, or in an institution for the care of the insane.

• Immigration officials also asked each person how much money they had. A ‘good’ answer was anywhere from $18 - $25.

• By 1917, the list of immigrants who would be deported if they tried to enter America had become quite extensive. It included idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, paupers, beggars, criminals, anarchists, prostitutes and others.

• By 1924, Ellis Island was increasingly used as a detention and deportation center.

• The final immigrant admitted to America through the Ellis Island facility was Arne Peterssen of Norway in 1954. The facility closed that same year.

• The total number of immigrants that came through Ellis Island was 12 million.

Famous Ellis Island immigrants

• Max Factor (Poland, 1906)

• Isaac Asimov (Russia, 1923)

• Frank Capra (Italy, 1903)

• Claudette Colbert (France, 1912)

• Bob Hope (England, 1908)

• Charles Atlas (Italy, 1903)

• Irving Berlin (Russia, 1893)

This’n That

• The S.S. Baltic arrived at Ellis Island in 1907 carrying 1,000 single women looking for a husband. Many weddings took place in the Great Hall before ever leaving the island.

• At least one in four of today’s U.S. population has at least one ancestor that come through immigration processing at Ellis Island.