Ellis Island is best known as the landing place for many immigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And while this will always be the primary reason that many know of the island’s existence, there are several, little known facts that prove interesting when considering the rich history of the iconic landmark.
(1) Ellis Island is named after a tavern owner that once operated on the island itself
Ellis Island had many names before Samuel Ellis purchased it, and set up shop as a tavern owner. The business catered to the fishermen and sailors that conducted business in the harbor and surrounding waterways. After his death, Ellis’ heirs sold the island to the state of New York, and it was eventually transferred to the United States government. In 1890, Ellis Island was named the new immigration station of the Port of New York by the House Committee on Immigration.
(2) Before operating as an immigration facility, Ellis Island housed military weaponry and ammunition
Long before immigrants came to Ellis Island for amnesty, the location was used to hold ammunition and weaponry for the United States military. This was the primary use for the island until Congress converted the facility into an immigration processing center. Before, there was a federal immigration location, each state handled the process individually.
(3) A young Irish woman was the first person to pass through Ellis Island once it was an immigration station.
Annie Moore turned 15 years old the day she was admitted at Ellis Island with her two brothers, on January 1st, 1892. Coming all the way from Ireland, she was also the first person to ever pass through the immigration station once the federal government had converted it. Soon after, thousands of Irish immigrants would pass through Ellis Island looking for a new life in the United States.
(4) Ellis Island has been called “Heartbreak Island” despite the millions that have passed through the immigration center.
To those that immigrated to the United States and met the screening process, Ellis Island was known as the “Island of Hope” or “Island of Dreams.” The United States found it important to screen all incoming immigrants before allowing them into the country. Those that were sick or had criminal records were either sent back to their native land or were housed until they were well enough to enter the country. Because of the chance of rejection, some immigrants coined Ellis Island “Heartbreak Island” or “Island of Tears.”
(5) The total number of immigrants that have entered the United States through Ellis Island is around 12 million.
Though it is no longer used as an immigration station, Ellis Island saw the admittance of over 12 million immigrants in its 62 year existence. In 1907, a single day saw nearly 12,000 immigrants pass through! That’s quite a few dreams!
(6) Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are both part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Ellis Island a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which is now maintained by the National Park Service. Ellis Island and Liberty Island are part of the same national park operation. Frederic Bartholdi personally chose Bedloe’s Island in the New York Harbor for its location. The monument was dedicated on October 28, 1886, as a symbol of freedom and hope for the American people. The Statue of Liberty was unveiled on that date, by President Grover Cleveland.
The Statue of Liberty was designated as a National Monument in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. The Statue of Liberty now rests on Liberty Island. Liberty Island was formerly known as Bedloe’s Island until 1956. The Statue of Liberty National Monument remains a huge attraction for travelers all over the world.
(7) Ellis Island was originally 3.3 acres, but grew to 27.5 acres, nearly 3 times its original size!
When the government purchased Ellis Island from the Ellis family, the island was 3.3 acres in total area. During the time the city of New York was creating the New York City Subway System, spoils of the rocks and dirt removed from the ground to create the tunnels were dumped on the island. This expanded the size, giving it the width it has today. Liberty Island, Ellis Island and Black Tom Island were called the Oyster Islands. Today, Black Tom Island is now a part of Liberty State Park, on the mainland.
(8) In World War II, Ellis Island was used as a Coast Guard training facility
Despite its history with immigration, Ellis Island has seen time as a weapons storage facility and a training facility. However, Ellis Island also served as a internment camp for German, Italian, Japanese US citizens, naturalized citizens and resident foreigners. During World War II, the camp held approximately 8,000 German, Italian and Japanese “alien enemies” and their families. They were detained in the Main Immigration Building, which was not under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard.
(9) An immigration museum now exists on the island.
Visitors to Ellis Island today can visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum that shows the incredible history of the national monument. The views of the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island are incredible! The museum opened in 1990. Although long considered part of New York, in 1998 the Supreme Court determined that most of the island is actually in New Jersey. To get to Ellis Island, you can take a ferry from Battery Park City or New Jersey. The ferry makes stops at Liberty Island and Ellis Island.
(10)The last immigrants to pass through Ellis Island did so in 1954.
Subsequent to 1924, Ellis Island was primarily used as a deportation station and detention center. Most of the detainees that were held after 1924, were those who had difficulties with their immigration paperwork. The last detainee, was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen who was released in November 1954. After years of debate, the government finally closed Ellis Island permanently as an immigration station in 1954. Throughout its history (1892-1954), 12 million immigrants had passed through its center.
Learn more with these Ellis Island websites.