Ellis Island
Ellis Island Page
Ellis Island
Once US's most active immigration station

Posted December 2021

US's Largest and most active imimigration station from 1892 to 1954

Ellis Island on Google Maps
Ellis Island is in both New York and New Jersey
Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1998, Ellis Island, which is federal property, belongs within the territorial jurisdiction of both New York and New Jersey depending upon where you are. The Main Building, housing the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, is within the boundary of New York State. Since the island was expanded over many years to its current 27.5 acres, this expanded area is now mostly within the territory of New Jersey. First and foremost, the entire island remains federal property, as it has been since 1808.



Ellis Island:

Prior to 1890, individual states, rather than the Federal Government, regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden, located in the Battery of Manhattan, served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890. Approximately eight million immigrants passed through its doors, mostly from Northern European countries; this constituted the first large wave of immigrants to settle and populate the U.S.

In the 1800s, rising political instability, economic distress, and religious persecution plagued Europe, fueling the largest mass human migration in the history of the world. Around 1890, it became apparent that Castle Garden was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the mass influx, leading the Federal government to construct a new immigration station on Ellis Island. During construction, the Barge Office in the Battery was used for immigrant processing.

The new structure on Ellis Island began receiving arriving immigrants on January 1, 1892.

Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million immigrants would arrive in the United States via Ellis Island

Most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor, although there were other ports of entry in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The great steamship companies like the White Star, Red Star, Cunard, and Hamburg-America Lines played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration as a whole.

First and second class passengers arriving in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers received a cursory inspection aboard the ship; theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket they were affluent and less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. However, regardless of class, sick passengers or those with legal problems were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection.

This scenario was far different for third class passengers, commonly referred to as "steerage." These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. After the steamship docked in the Harbor (typically along the west coast of Manhattan), steerage passengers would board a ferry to Ellis Island for their detailed inspection.

If an immigrant's papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process lasted 3 to 5 hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (Great Hall) where doctors would briefly scan every individual for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these "six second physicals." By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to trachoma) by simply glancing at a person.

The ship's manifest log, initially filled out at the ship's port of departure, contained the immigrant's name and his/her answers to 29 questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine during the legal inspection. Contrary to popular belief, interpreters of all major languages were employed at Ellis Island, making the process efficient and ensuring that records were accurate.

Despite the island's reputation as an "Island of Tears" the vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully, free to begin their new lives in America after only a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons for exclusion were a doctor diagnosing an immigrant with a contagious disease that could endanger the public health, or a legal inspector was concerned an immigrant would likely become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.


Ellis Island Main Building
Ellis Island Main Building:
The Main Building of Ellis Island was designed in the French Renaissance style and composed of brick laid in Flemish bond and trimmed with limestone and granite "boasting quoins, rustification, and splendid belvederes." Triple-arch entrances that rose well into the second story marked the east and west sides in a grand style. Both Boring and Tilton attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts which may explain the influence of the French Renaissance style on the project. An analysis in Architectural Record (1902) pointed out the "bloated" character of the detailing and reasoned that the heavy handedness of the facade along with the chromatic scheme made the building easier to read from a distance, appropriate for one situated on an island in a busy harbor.


Ellis Island 1891 - 1924:
In 1891, the federal government assumed responsibility from the states for regulating immigration through the Immigration Act of 1891, which established the Office of Immigration (later the Bureau of Immigration) to administer immigration affairs. The government also appropriated money to build a new immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. The Immigration Act assigned the Marine Hospital Service (later the Public Health Service) the responsibility of examining the health of immigrants entering the United States.

Before construction of Ellis Island's first immigration depot began, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip was dredged and a dock installed next to the main building site. A number of older buildings from the island's time as a military post were adapted for re-use. Ellis Island's first immigration building, constructed of Georgia pine, opened on January 1, 1892.

Due to the economic depression at the time, immigration was light and Ellis Island inspectors had no difficulty in processing the fewer than 20,000 immigrants who arrived annually.

The original immigration station 1892-1897

The original immigration station 1892-1897:
On June 15, 1897 a fire destroyed the complex of wooden buildings. Although 140 immigrants and numerous employees were on the island, no one was killed.

The government announced almost immediately that Ellis Island would be rebuilt with fireproof buildings.

The original immigration station 1904-1910

The newly built Main Immigration Building:
The first building to be built was the new Main Immigration Building, which opened on December 17, 1900. Following its completion, the Kitchen and Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were erected in 1901 and the island was enlarged by landfill to make room for a hospital complex. In March of 1902, the Main Hospital Building opened. The hospital had the space and equipment to care for 125 patients but it was still not enough - the hospital was overwhelmed with patients diagnosed with trachoma, favus, and other contagious illnesses that warranted exclusion. Over the next seven years, additional buildings were added to the hospital complex including the Hospital Addition / Administration Building, the New Hospital Extension, and the Psychopathic Ward. The island was also enlarged once more using landfill, which allowed for the construction of a Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards, as well as additional support buildings.

The Emergency Quota Act, passed in 1921, ended U.S's open door immigration policy. The law significantly reduced the number of admissions by setting quotas according to nationality. The number of each nationality that could be admitted to the United States was limited to 3% of that nationality's representation in the U.S. census of 1910. The law created havoc for those on Ellis Island and thousands of immigrants were stranded on the island awaiting deportation. The island sometimes became so overcrowded that officials had to admit excess-quota immigrants.

The First Quota Act was replaced with the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. This act further limited admissions of each nationality to the United States to 2% of that nationality's representation in the 1890 census. The act sought not only to limit admissions to the United States, but also to curtail immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, who by the 1900s comprised over 50% of the immigrant flow. Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1924 allowed prospective immigrants to undergo inspection before they left their homeland, making the trip to Ellis Island unnecessary.


Ellis Island 1925 - 1954:
Anti-immigration legislation passed in the 1920s, as well as the Great Depression, kept immigration at an all-time low. For the first time in Ellis Island's history, deportation far outnumbered admissions. In view of this situation, the Ellis Island Advisory Committee (a committee appointed by the Department of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program) advised that new buildings be erected for detained immigrants to separate them from deportees, who were often criminals. This final surge of construction included the New Immigration Building, New Ferry House, and the new Recreation Building and Recreation Shelters.

World War II:
From 1939 to 1946, the United States Coast Guard occupied Ellis Island and established a training station that served 60,000 enlisted men and 3,000 officers. They utilized many buildings on the island. For example, the Baggage and Dormitory Building served as a drill room, armory, boatsman storeroom, carpenter's shop, and machine shop. The Kitchen and Laundry Building was utilized as a kitchen and bake shop. Lastly, the New Immigration Building provided dormitories for the men. After their time at Ellis, the enlisted men and officers were largely responsible for manning transports, destroyer escorts, cutters and submarine chasers during World War II.

Although the Coast Guard utilized many of the buildings on Ellis Island during World War II, the Main Immigration Building and hospital complex was not under their jurisdiction. During World War II, German merchant mariners whose ships had been seized at American ports were quartered in the Baggage Room until they were transferred to inland detention camps. Additionally, arrested "enemy aliens" and their families were detained in the Main Immigration Building. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 required all "resident aliens" to be registered and fingerprinted and a 1941 Presidential proclamation identified all citizens of Japan, Germany, and Italy residing in the United States as "alien enemies." Those aliens who were suspected of being potentially dangerous could be detained. The Registry Room was used as family day quarters for enemy aliens who, by 1942, numbered about 1,000.

After the war, Ellis Island's functions returned to normal - immigrant officials processed detained immigrants and deported those who could not legally live in the United States. Immigrant numbers, however, were dwindling and by 1949, there was talk of closing the island.

The Korean and Cold Wars of the 1950s extended the life of Ellis Island:
After the passage of the Intern Security Act of 1950 (an act that prohibited entry to any person affiliated with a totalitarian organization or Communism), the detainee population of the island increased from 400 people to 1,200 people. In 1951, strict enforcement of the Intern Security Act, as well as growing anti-Communist pressures, led to a mass roundup of aliens illegally residing in the New York area. These aliens were held on Ellis Island without bail and were joined by seamen who deserted their ships and stowaways. By 1953, however, congestion on the island subsided.

In November 1954, the Immigration and Naturalization Service closed down their offices on Ellis Island and moved to a new location in Manhattan. The need for Ellis Island had slowly diminished since 1924, when Congress instituted quota laws that drastically reduced the number of immigrants entering the United States each year. Processing of emigrant visas at American consular offices overseas further reduced the need for Ellis Island. By March of 1955, Ellis Island was declared surplus Federal property. The silent and empty immigration depot rapidly deteriorated into a ghostly complex of dilapidated buildings.


The Great Hall (Registry Room) at Ellis Island
The Great Hall (Registry Room) at Ellis Island
The immigrants waiting here have passed the first mental inspection. Circa 1902-1913.


27.5 acres of land:
Ellis Island served as a portal for immigrants seeking entrance to the United States from 1892 and 1954. This tiny island located in New York Harbor sits adjacent to the Statue of Liberty and the New Jersey coast. Initially, Ellis Island covered 3.3 acres, but over time, it was expanded to encompass 27.5 acres of land, some of which came from soil excavated during the construction of New York City's extensive subway system.

What Was Ellis Island Used for Before Immigration?
Prior to its designation as an immigration station, Ellis Island was known for its oyster beds and shad runs. The island was owned by merchant Samuel Ellis during the 1770s. It was also a notorious meeting point for pirates and served as an ordnance depot.

The United States government bought Ellis Island in 1808. It was then designated as a site for military fortifications, and the island became part of a harbor defense system designed to prevent invasions of New York City from the sea. This fort was named Fort Gibson.

Ellis Island: Open to the Public
President Lyndon Johnson designated Ellis Island as a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, and between 1976 and 1984, the island was open to the public on a limited basis. Then, in 1984, restoration began on Ellis Island. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990, and it was later renamed the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.


The Great Hall 1880
Inside the immigration processing facilities. Circa 1880.


Annie Moore statue in Ireland
Statue of Annie Moore and her brothers:
The first of 17 million Irish to be processed at Ellis Island. The sculpture is located on Cobh, Ireland.

Along with her two younger brothers, the teenager had departed Queenstown, Ireland, on December 20, 1891, aboard the steamship Nevada to start a new life in a new land. After spending 12 days, including Christmas, at sea, the girl from Ireland's County Cork was just hours away from reuniting with her parents and two older siblings after spending the past four years apart.

Nevada had arrived too late on New Year's Eve to be processed, which meant its third-class passengers would be the first to pass through the newly built federal immigration station on Ellis Island.

At 10:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, a flag on Ellis Island was dipped three times as a signal to transport the first boatload of immigrants. A chorus of foghorns, clanging bells, steam whistles and cheers serenaded a barge adorned with red, white and blue bunting as it ferried Nevada's steerage passengers to the dock at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

The brown-haired Irish teenager was the first to bound down the gangplank with her brothers in tow. She entered through the enormous double doors of the cavernous three-story wooden building, described as "little more than a big business shed" by the New York Tribune, and skipped two steps at a time up the main staircase. Turning to her left, the girl was ushered into one of 10 aisles and up to a tall lectern-like registry desk.

"What is your name, my girl?" asked Charles Hendley, a former Treasury Department official who had requested the honor of registering the new station's first immigrant.

"Annie Moore, sir," replied the Irish girl.

Wielding his pen over a fresh piece of paper, Hendley inked Moore's name and those of her brothers, Anthony and Philip, along with their ages, last place of residence and intended destination on the first page of the first registry book.

Annie Moore statue on Ellis Island

Annie Moore statue on Ellis Island


Ellis Island Google Satellite
Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty

Ellis island Passenger Search:
During the largest human migration in modern history, Ellis Island processed more immigrants than all other North American ports combined. Today, tens of millions of Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis.

Ellis island Passenger Search

Type in your last name then sort by arrival date | ascending to see who was the first person with your last name to arrive in the US


Ellis Island

Ellis Island is a federally-owned island in New York Harbor that was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States.
Ellis Island:
  • From 1892 to 1954, nearly 12 million immigrants arriving at the Port of New York and New Jersey were processed there under federal law.
  • Today, it is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and is accessible to the public only by ferry.
  • The north side of the island is the site of the main building, now a national museum of immigration.
  • The south side of the island, including the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, is open to the public only through guided tours.

In the 19th century, Ellis Island was the site of Fort Gibson and later became a naval magazine

  • The first inspection station opened in 1892 and was destroyed by fire in 1897.
  • The second station opened in 1900 and housed facilities for medical quarantines and processing immigrants.
  • After 1924, Ellis Island was used primarily as a detention center for migrants.
  • During both World War I and World War II, its facilities were also used by the US military to detain prisoners of war.
  • After the immigration station's closure, the buildings languished for several years until they were partially reopened in 1976.
  • The main building and adjacent structures were completely renovated in 1990.
  • Jurisdictional disputes between New Jersey and New York State persisted until the 1998 US Supreme Court ruling in New Jersey v. New York.

Ellis Island State Borders


Abandoned Hospital Hallway
The Abandoned Hospital Complex:
The over 100-year-old hospital complex on the south side of Ellis Island has been closed for over sixty years.

Ellis Island Abandoned Hospital Complex

Ellis Island Abandoned Hospital


Ellis Island
New York, NJ 10280