Over the summer, I had the opportunity to tour Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex with the New York Adventure Club. I had been to Ellis Island many years ago, but the southern section of the island where the hospital is located has always been off-limits to the public unless you visit as part of a tour. So, obviously, I had to get in on that so I could check out the old hospital for myself!
Our tour guide for the day was Brett, who works for the nonprofit Save Ellis Island, whose objective is to create awareness of the Island’s history and also to raise funds to help restore the hospitals on Ellis Island (to the tune of half a billion dollars…eep!) Brett was fantastic, and if you have him for your guide, you’re in luck! The tour is a “hard hat” tour, so before you get started, you’ll be given a fully sterilized hard hat that you’ll be required to wear throughout the tour. According to Brett, the hard hats haven’t ever really been put to use during one of their tours, but you still need to wear them as a precaution because the hospital buildings are all in varying states of decay at this point. (Unsurprisingly, you also have to sign a waiver.)
Before we set out to explore the hospital buildings, Brett shared a bit of history about Ellis Island itself. For starters, he mentioned that about 1 in 3 Americans can tie their history to Ellis Island, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. Ellis Island opened as an immigration center in 1892 and was in use up until its closure in 1954. During that time, 12 million immigrants passed through the island before heading on to points elsewhere. In that same 62-year period, the 20 other federal immigration centers open at the time only processed 4 million immigrants. COMBINED. So you can see why so many Americans can trace their history to Ellis Island!
Prior to 1892, all immigrants coming to NYC were processed through Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which is at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. In 1892, a ship called Moravia arrived, full of cholera-infected passengers. No hospitals wanted to take on the sick passengers, and the entire ship became a quarantine vessel. 30 people died onboard after reaching NYC (in addition to hundreds more who perished during the crossing), and it became clear to the U.S. government that there needed to be a better plan in place to handle such incidents in the future. Thus, it was decided that immigration should be processed offshore, on an island with a dedicated hospital to treat any sick passengers.
Ellis Island was selected to serve this very purpose, though the original island was only about 3 acres in size. To accommodate the hospital buildings that were built on the southern end of the island, landfill was used to build a completely new, manmade section of the island. (Currently, the island has a really interesting ownership/management triangle. It’s mostly managed by the National Park Service, but NY owns the island that the main center is located on and then NJ owns the manmade section of the island with the abandoned hospital buildings. The taxes and proceeds from the gift shop are all shared in some way. Talk about a complex relationship!)
Interestingly, though, only third-class passengers passed through Ellis Island. First and second class passengers were allowed to go straight into Manhattan upon arriving, the theory being that they could afford health care if they were unwell upon arrival. Meanwhile, third class passengers would depart their vessel in Manhattan and would immediately be put onto ferries out to Ellis Island (since the water around Ellis Island was too shallow to handle the larger vessels in which immigrants would have crossed the ocean). Once these immigrants arrived on Ellis Island, they’d typically spend about five hours going through processing (much like a visit to the DMV these days). If all was well, they’d then board another ferry either back to NYC (where about a third of immigrants would settle) or take the ferry to New Jersey where they could board a train to another city such as Philadelphia or Chicago.
When immigrants arrived at Ellis Island and walked up the stairs into the Great Hall, doctors would stand around and look for any signs of disease. If there was any cause for concern, such as a limp or a bewildered look, doctors would use a piece of chalk to mark the lapels of the immigrants they suspected were unwell. These chalk marks were coded to indicate the specific ailments or diseases they suspected. (For example, X on the shoulder indicated suspected mental defects. PG stood for pregnant.) Only about 2% of immigrants received a chalk mark because most people were required to undergo a medical exam before departing. (If you knowingly came to the U.S. while ill, you’d be fined $200, which is the equivalent of about $7,000 in today’s dollars.) If you did get a chalk mark, though, you’d be sent to the hospital on Ellis Island for further examination.
The original immigration station on Ellis Island, as well as the first infirmary, burnt down in 1897. They were wooden structures and they were replaced with the buildings you see now, which were all built between 1900-1930. Our tour started in the Art Deco ferry building (from which many of our relatives would have boarded a ferry after being processed), where we got our hard hats! After, we walked toward a Y-shaped hallway, where at one time you would have either been sent off to the infectious diseases hospital to the right or to the general hospital to the left. At the time the hospital was built, the infectious diseases hospital was separated from the general hospital by 200 feet of water (according to the surgeon general’s advice), but more landfill joined the two buildings together in the 1920s.
We set out first for the General Hospital building, which is a 3-story building built in 1902. Some of the original glass is still in place, though it’s covered by what Brett called “preservation panels” to protect them from the elements. At one time there had been five staircases but only one currently remains. The general hospital saw plenty of broken bones and hernias. It’s also where 384 babies were born!
Our tour continued through the old laundry room, which has some really spectacular old laundry equipment. We learned that sheets would have been pressed but never folded because it was believed that creases caused by folding were likely to contribute to infection or the development of bed sores. This was also where we saw the first images scattered around the hospital buildings by the artist, JR. These copies of original photographs of Ellis Island immigrants are displayed on the windows and the walls throughout the entire hospital complex. You can only guess at what some of these immigrants were thinking and feeling during their time on the island, and the images really did help to bring the rooms to life.
Soon after, we headed over to the mental health and psychiatric ward, which was about as depressing as you’d expect. One of the buildings that housed mental health patients had a cage on the front porch. Apparently, this was to let patients sit outside to have fresh air without actually being able to run off into said air… When you arrived at Ellis Island back in the day, it was often very noisy and chaotic and many immigrants didn’t speak English, which could often result in looks of confusion or frustration. These individuals would sometimes be chalk-marked for examination for mental defects and sent to the mental health ward. Here, they would be given a meal and some time to rest and the next day they would attempt processing again, except this time, they would have the advantage of a translator, some of whom spoke as many as 14 languages! (Former NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia spent some time working as a translator on Ellis Island himself.)
Next, we saw one of the old morgues and autopsy theaters in the infectious diseases hospital. Around 3,500 people died on Ellis Island over the 62 years it was in use as an immigration center. One of the most common reasons was from the flu, though there would also often be cases of the measles, scarlet fever, and, of course, tuberculosis. If you arrived at Ellis Island and were coughing, you would immediately be taken for an x-ray and blood test to be screened for TB. If you were found to have TB, usually one of three things would happen. One, you’d be deported and sent back home in the quarantine area of a ship. Two, you’d be subjected to some sort of experimental treatment at the hospital Or three, you may have had a lung intentionally collapsed in an effort to expel some of the infection from your lungs. None of these options seem particularly delightful, but it’s not surprising, considering how many people died from TB before the discovery of antibiotics.
Our tour continued through this 800-foot long hallway in which the walls got narrower as we moved down the hall. Brett explained that this design helped to create a ventilation chamber, which helped to constantly circulate air. We visited patient rooms and saw the old marble fixtures in the bathrooms and old pharmacy cabinetry in the wards. We also saw one of the kitchens where 500 meals would be prepared three times a day (and this was where we also learned that Chef Boyardee was not only a real person but that he also came to the U.S. via Ellis Island himself. His last name was actually Boiardi but he changed the spelling in his company name to make it easier for people to pronounce.)
Finally, we wrapped up our tour with a visit to the Chief of Medicine’s house where the chief and other senior doctors would have lived. It still has its original cedar flooring, which is in fantastic shape, but the walls were covered in various hues of yellow, blue, and green paint, all of which was chipping and peeling and showing its age (and as Brett said, it’s all lead so definitely don’t eat any of it.) It still looked beautiful, though, and it almost had that artistic look to it as though someone had intentionally painted it that way.
We headed back outside to enjoy some pretty spectacular views of Manhattan before returning to the old ferry terminal, giving back our hard hats, and concluding the tour. This ferry terminal that many of our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents passed through still stands, but the remains of a sunken ferry prevent the terminal from serving its original purpose these days. Instead, you have to join the throngs of tourists queuing up on the eastern side of Ellis Island to make your return trip to Manhattan or New Jersey.
Certainly, our visit and ferry ride to and from Manhattan was very different than our ancestors’ journeys, but learning more about the island’s history really made me think a lot on my return trip to Manhattan. Many people passed through Ellis Island’s hospital and made their way back to the city or points westward, but many others were sent back home, denied the opportunity to start a new life in America. Sadder still is thinking of those 3,500 immigrants who only made it as far as this island, seeing Lady Liberty through their hospital window but never making it any closer to the U.S. than this little island. As our ferry boat pulled away, though, I also couldn’t help but imagine the excitement those who did leave must have felt, and I loved that this tour gave us an interesting glimpse into some of their lives.
Hospitals can definitely be depressing places and not all of the information on the tour was pleasant, but the history of Ellis Island is incredibly fascinating and this tour is not to be missed. It does take a bit of time to get through the security line and take the ferry over, so be prepared for a long day if you visit. But also be sure to plan in enough extra time so that you can explore the immigration center’s main hall on your own before or after your tour. You need to wear closed-toe shoes, so come prepared. The tours also take place rain or shine and include portions that are outdoors or where you will be exposed to the elements, so you may want to visit before it starts to get too cold. There are several indoor sections where you’ll pass by broken windows, so I can only imagine how “brisk” it must be to tour there in February!
Did any of your family members arrive at Ellis Island? Do you know if any of them had to spend any time in the hospital when they were there?
If you’ve ever had a chance to visit Ellis Island yourself, let me know about your own experience!