You study the yellowed pictures. Could that now-silent face belong to someone you once knew? And those funny clogs. Your great-grandmother used to wear that kind to work as a child, and eager for new work, the family story goes, she brought them with her from the old country.
Visitors to Ellis Island may find themselves looking for personal pieces of history as they move through the new National Museum of Immigration, in the building where their ancestors began new lives as Americans.Stand in the huge registry room, the great hall with its soaring vaults lined with thousands of Gustavino tiles. "If they emigrated through Ellis, you can be sure you're standing in the same space where your ancestors stood at one time," says Diana Pardue, chief of the museum services division of the National Park Service, which manages Ellis Island.
Ellis, you may find, is less a sight to see than an experience to be shared, however vicariously, with the ancestors who went through it to be admitted to the United States.
Not that Ellis isn't a handsome sight. The 1897 main building, in the largest restoration ever attempted in the U.S., has been brought back from near-ruin with $156 million of privately donated funds and has drawn critical praise as an architectural treasure.
But perhaps some of the best treasures are the little things: the recorded histories, the homely memorabilia donated by individuals, the scraps of records, postcards, photos and posters.
And, of course, the experience:
- Land by ferry at the island and enter the building through the baggage room, where you'll see authentic bags, boxes and trunks of the period. Most immigrants checked their belongings, but others, distrustful, dragged them through the entire clearance procedure.
- Walk up a flight to the huge registry room, where arrivals underwent initial scrutiny. Even as they climbed the steps, they were scanned by doctors who noted those who had difficulty climbing. They were asked if they had at least $25 to get themselves started and given eye, mental and general health checks. Some newcomers received dreaded chalkmarks on their shoulders that meant more intensive examination.
- Go through the wing of smaller examination rooms (now the "Through America's Gate" exhibit), connected by hospital-tiled corridors. Here immigrants endured detailed testing, and commissioners reviewed applications against complex regulations. While waiting, some applicants scratched graffiti or their names, still to be seen, on the walls. Most were cleared within hours, but others were kept overnight in dormitories on the third floor.
- Exit from the registry room down the "Stairs of Separation," where immigrants departed after processing. The left stairs led to the ferry back to the Manhattan docks and the right for trains to westward destinations. (Most went west.) The center stairs were reserved for those who were detained.
The real mission of the museum, says Pardue, is to put this experience into context, by telling its reasons and showing its artifacts.
Museum displays trace the great wave of immigration which lasted from about 1880 to 1924 - the largest human migration in history. Twelve million new Americans came to the country through the immigration station at Ellis Island, opened in 1892, and perhaps as many as 140 million Americans today are descendants of these immigrants.
Most came for economically related reasons: Overpopulation, land shortages, unemployment and dislocation caused by industrialization. The earliest came from England, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries; later immigrants came mainly from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. The early ones wanted land; the later ones often just wanted jobs.
Immigrants came through Ellis and about 30 other entry points, such as Brunswick, Ga.; El Paso, Texas; Ketchikan, Alaska; and Port Townsend, Wash. That's why the museum is devoted immigration itself and not just to Ellis. "The task of separating the story of Ellis from the story of immigration was impossible," Pardue says.
Facts are given life by memorabilia. Rail timetables list departures to Council Bluffs, Des Moines, St. Joseph and Kansas City via "The Corn Belt Route." Original ship manifests carry information that immigration officials relied on for official records. Thus the visitor learns that Miss S. A. Snowden, 27, of Bedford, England, arrived from the port of Liverpool to settle permanently in New York City. She had three pieces of baggage.
Voices of immigrants are heard through an archive of recorded individual oral histories. The Park Service spent about 10 years collecting these, searching for subjects by taking out small ads in the AARP Bulletin and similar publications.
Through this search, they also found items for the "Treasures from Home" exhibit. After a while, Pardue says, the collection sort of grew by itself, with one contributor telling another.
These are souvenirs from the worlds left behind: Linens and clothing in elaborate needlework, books, musical instruments, sewing machines, toys, spectacles, shoes, jewelry, and other treasures. Most immigrants arrived with just as much baggage as they could manage, and what they brought were things they valued.
"The extraordinary part is that the people who donated things are still alive, and they've been able to tell us about them, to give us details. Someone who may have donated a doll could tell us how she got it and what it meant."
There are no immigration records at museum, though future plans - "years away," according to Pardue - include a computerized immigration archive. Dozens of outbuildings on the island await funding for restoration, which the Park Service plans to carry out without government help. --
If you go, go early. Attendance has exceeded the museum's estimates, and there may be a wait for tickets ($6 adult, $3 child, round trip) on the Circle Line ferry to the island. There is no admission charge at the museum.