Stand in the great hall of the immigration center on Ellis Island or walk through some of the center's restored rooms and you can almost feel the immigrants jostling elbow-to-elbow, almost hear them speaking in a dozen different languages.
If you want to feel the power of the dream that drew them to America, stand looking at the Statue of Liberty with the skyline of New York City in the background. But if you want to meet the people who dreamed the dream, come to Ellis Island. Their legacy and their stories are here.The restored portion of the immigration center is a monument to people who were willing to give up almost everything for what the Statue of Liberty promises.
Some 12 million of them streamed through the immigration center during its years of operation - more than 5,000 per day at its peak. The names of 420,000 of them are inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor outside the center's restored main building. It is estimated that as many as four out of 10 United States citizens can trace ancestry back to someone who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," reads the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, some three-quarters of a mile away. Immigrants who saw it from Ellis Island truly were the "huddled masses" - steerage, or third-class passengers ferried from ships in the harbor to the island for medical and legal examinations before being admitted to the country. (First- and second-class passengers were pro-cessed by immigration officers who came aboard their
ships in the harbor.)
Most who came through Ellis Island arrived with little more than their dreams, carrying what they could pack into one piece of luggage - or less.
Step into the "Treasures from Home" exhibit and you can catch a glimpse into their lives. The exhibit features items that some of the immigrants brought with them: a violin or a balalaika, a Bible or other religious objects, dresses and kimonos, silver and china - personal things that were bridges to their past or essentials to life in a new land. The brief but fascinating histories of some of these immigrants speak to us of people we might have known and loved - of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Their stop at Ellis Island, within sight of the land they longed to walk, may have been a time of anxiety. Waiting in the Great Hall for their processing to begin, they would have been unaware that they were already under scrutiny, being observed by doctors.
Proceeding up a stairway as part of the processing, some would have been stopped to have coded chalk marks written on their clothing. The marks, mysterious to the new arrivals, would tell other immigration officers that some physical problem or mental disability was suspected. There would be special tests. Sometimes families were divided at this preliminary judgment stage. On occasion people were held at Ellis Island for treatment of illnesses.
The majority of immigrants were cleared through the process in three to five hours and sent on to New York or St. Paul, Chicago or San Francisco - wherever their dreams directed them. They poured their ethnic contributions and their many abilities into the national melting pot.
But some 2 percent were denied permission to enter the country and were sent home.
A bit of what immigrants experienced, both the uncertainty and the exultation, is recaptured poignantly in the documentary film "Island of Hope, Island of Tears," screened several times daily in a theater in the restored main building.
The film includes intriguing footage of life in the old countries, as well as scenes of the waiting and examinations on Ellis Island. In the restored rooms of the main building, visitors can see more of what immigrants faced: medical facilities for examining the new arrivals, tests used on those suspected of having mental disabilities, photos showing steps in the immigration process.
Ellis Island exhibits also include photographs and graphic representations illustrating the mix of immigrants - male and female over several decades, different ethnic backgrounds, routes by which they came to the United States and whence they went.
The Statue of Liberty has long been a must-see for visitors to New York City, but waiting lines to climb up inside it are now hours long. An information line at the Manhattan terminal for the Liberty Island ferry warns that passengers boarding after noon on shore may not have time to climb to the top of the statue before the last ferry of the day leaves the island. So instead of enduring hours of tedium for a brief view of the harbor from the top of the statue, visitors eager to know more about the heritage of the United States may want to go on to Ellis Island instead.
The same ferries serve both Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Catch a ferry at New York City's Battery Park on the lower end of Manhattan or at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J. The cost is $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and $3 for children or youth ages 3-17. The ferries operate every day except Christmas. For recorded information, call the Battery Park terminal at 212-269-5755.
During summer, ferries depart beginning at 8:30 a.m., leaving every 20 minutes through 4:10 p.m. The last return ferry of the day leaves at 7 p.m. Tours of both islands are self-guided.
As far as the Statue of Liberty goes, during the summer the number of tickets that allow visitors into the crown are distributed only to passengers on the first ferry sailings of the day. The ticket office opens at 8 a.m. daily.
Don Searle lives in West Valley City.