Tuesday, January 3, 2017
January 3, 2017: Ellis Island Studying: The Changing Facility
[On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York Harbor. Nearly 500,000 immigrants came through the station in its first year, and the rest is history. Very complex history, though, and so for Ellis’s 125th anniversary I’ll analyze five contexts for the station and the immigration stories to which it connects. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century immigration!]
Three turning points in the immigration station’s space and role.
1) The Fire: The Ellis Island station had only been open for five years when an 1897 fire destroyed its wooden buildings entirely. For the next three years, immigrants came through The Battery’s Barge Office while a new, brick and limestone main building was constructed (at a stunning cost of $1.5 million); that building opened in 1900 and would continue to be the station’s principal facility (with continual expansions and additions) for its remaining half-century of service. I don’t want to read too much into what was in large part a practical change (and one that undoubtedly reflected advancements in architecture and construction), but at the same time it’s difficult to miss the symbolism of a more flimsy and fragile structure being replaced by a much more expensive and permanent one. Ellis Island, like the national narratives of immigration about which I wrote yesterday, was here to stay.
2) From Immigration to Detention: In this post on Angel Island, the West Coast immigration station that opened in San Francisco harbor in 1910, I argued that Angel (in contrast to Ellis) was always more of a prison than an immigration station. As of 1910 that was certainly true, but over the next few decades Ellis Island would itself shift toward detaining and excluding many more arrivals than had initially been the case. After the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts, the first truly all-encompassing immigration laws, virtually every Ellis Island arrival had to be measured against the total number of documented arrivals from his or her nation, and many were held and/or deported as a result. During World War II, this detention function became one of Ellis Island’s primary roles (with serving as a military training facility the other), with nearly 7000 arrivals from Germany, Italy, and Japan (among other nations) detained as “alien enemies.” Our collective memories of Ellis tend, understandably, to focus on those who entered the U.S. through its facilities—but those who did not comprise a vital part of the story as well.
3) An Evolving Museum: Ellis Island completed its service as an immigration station in 1954, but of course neither the story nor the site ended there. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Proclamation 3656 added the island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, giving the National Park Service jurisdiction over the facilities. Those facilities were extensively renovated beginning in 1984, a process that culminated in the 1990 opening of both the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. More recently, the Ellis Island Foundation’s Peopling of America Center has opened, a two-part exhibit that interestingly focuses on immigration to the United States both prior and subsequent to Ellis’ 1892-1954 service. By expanding the museum beyond the histories of Ellis itself, this exhibit reflects but also extends and amplifies the island’s status as an embodiment of American immigration overall, a status that seems certain to endure well into the 21st century.
Next IslandStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Ellis Island responses or contexts?