Ellis Island: Then and Now

Ellis Island today bears little resemblance to the Ellis Island of the 1890s, which is the primary setting for the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate and its sequel, Defenders of Freedom.

First, the island back then was much smaller, about one third its present size.  In 1899, construction began of Island No. 2 with landfill from dirt and rock excavated in the building of New York City’s subway system. Connected to the main island by a 200-foot gangplank, it contained the General Hospital with 120 beds, making it at the time larger than most city hospitals. In 1906, Island No. 3 was similarly built and, together, the two islands contained a complex of 22 hospital buildings.  Finally, in the 1920s landfill between Islands 2 and 3 ended the watery border between the two, and a narrow strip of landfill on the side facing New Jersey enabled pedestrian traffic to all parts.

On that first island in the 1890s were some small stone buildings, remnants from when the military previously used the island as a munitions depot.  Otherwise, the other buildings, built specifically for the new immigration station, were all wooden.  Most impressive of these was the large main building, about 600 feet long and perhaps 100 feet wide, with picturesque square towers at each corner, and two smaller towers in the middle of its length on each side.  Other buildings in this decade included a dormitory, the electric light and steam plant, a cook house, and residences.

Three interesting points about the main building:  First, the architects designed the floor in the hall (where all the processing occurred) to have wide wooden planks to resemble the decks of ships that brought these 1890s newcomers to America.  Effort was made to keep the floor looking that way. Second, the place sometimes leaked and had doors that wouldn’t shut properly, a continuing problem that plagued administrators.  Third, visitors often commented that the building had the strong, permeating smell of ships.

Another way in which Ellis Island in the 1890s was different from the 20th century version so familiar to many Americans was in the island personnel.  Many employees were German immigrants, including the chief administrator, Commissioner Joseph Senner, and they often spoke in their native language to one another.  In fact, so common was the sound of German conversations that others, including Secretary of the Treasury John Carlisle, either joked or complained about it.

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