Almost half of today’s Americans can trace their family’s history back to Ellis Island, the first glimpse of the New World that 12 million immigrants would see. They would spend time going through physical and mental tests before being allowed into New York Harbor – some would spend a couple hours, some a few weeks due to a hospital stay, and some (1 in 100) would be turned around and sent right back home on the boat they came in on, their return passages required to be paid for by the steam ships. And this was a pre-Dramamine world.
I spent a beautiful day with Lindsay taking the ferry past the Statue of Liberty and into Ellis Island, where we walked through the process of American entry with an audio guide. This was one of the very first sunny, warm days of the season, and we were so happy to be on the deck of a boat in sunglasses. My original family members came in from Ireland and Germany (and WHY we were not required to change our completely horrid last name I have no idea) and hers from Greece. Her grandmother’s new name? Liberty, named for the symbol of freedom herself. Here’s an example of what freedom looks like: This large gallery, with its scrubbed arched ceiling tiles, was the spot where immigrants lined up in benches waiting to be summoned for their “six second physicals.” First class passengers were usually let right into the country, but the steerage class, living at the bottom of the ship for weeks at a time with little sanitation, needed to be inspected. Once your physical and mental exams were completed, you were sent to the Stairway of Separation. If you were sent through the door on the left, you would be let into New York City. The stairway on the right led to further states West, for gold mining and cowboy-ing, and brought you to a train station to buy tickets. And the stairway in the center led you right back to the steam ship from whence you came.
Many who made it through the left side door of the Stairway of Separation already had family members awaiting their arrival. It was a time of celebration and reunion when families were joined together again after long distances apart. Because of these joyful moments, this part of the building was named The Kissing Post. Here’s Lindsay, ready to kiss you and welcome you to America.Visiting Ellis Island is a great activity for a sunny day. Buy one Statue Ferry ticket for $25 and sail out of lower Manhattan to Liberty Island, then to Ellis Island and back again. Here’s how.