At the turn of the 20th century, millions of people were on the move, looking for a better life in the New World. They came from every corner and every country on the planet, arriving on ships and passing through the doors at Ellis Island in New York’s Upper Bay. Roughly 12 million people arrived in America here, leaving their old lives behind and beginning new ones all across the United States.
Now, more than three million people still come to Ellis Island every year, visiting as tourists to explore their own personal histories or the history of the United States. It is a moving and powerful stop on any trip to New York City, and offers the very best view of the Manhattan, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Staten Island skylines, not to mention the Statue of Liberty.
A History of Ellis Island
Ellis Island has served a number of purposes in its history. It was first a source of delicious oyster beds for the original settlers of New York. Then it was a pirate hideout, a military fort, a federal arsenal and barracks, before becoming the busiest immigration inspection station in the United States from the 1890’s through until the 1950’s.
Since 1965 it has been part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. In 1990, it has been home to a museum of immigration. Today, it is one of the most visited historic sites in New York City.
Visiting Ellis Island
Since Ellis Island is indeed an island, the only way to get there is by ferry. You can take the ferry from either New York’s Battery Park in Lower Manhattan or from Liberty State Park in New Jersey. There are extended visiting hours in the summer and long lines all year round, so arriving first thing in the morning is generally a good idea.
There are lots of different things to explore on Ellis Island, including the Family Immigration History Center where you can explore your own roots and connections to Ellis Island. The exhibit called Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550-1890 tells the story of American immigration in the years before Ellis Island.
The immigration museum is in the Main Building. The Great Hall impresses, as you imagine the enormous room, filled with people waiting on rows and rows of chairs to begin their new life. To help you understand when you are looking at, there are a number of tours outlining the immigrant experience. Aside from guided tours, there are also 45-minute audio tours available in nine languages and audio tours especially for children available in five languages.
At the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, you will find the names of hundreds of thousands of Americans who passed through Ellis Island. The long list is engraved on plaques outside the Great Hall, recognizing the famous people and the ordinary people who came here at some point as equals. You’ll find George Washington’s grandfather’s name here, along with Al Jolson, Harry Houdini and the names of thousands of ordinary Americans who have paid to place a tribute here to their family and their roots.
While reading the names at the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, you can take in another of the great reasons to visit Ellis Island: the spectacular view. Ellis Island sits in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and offers a simply breathtaking view of the world’s most famous skyline. As you stand looking over the bay, the boats and the towering skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, take a moment to imagine how it must have felt for the millions and millions of people, experiencing the view of this city and their new home for the first time from the bow of their immigrant ship.
Click to visit Ellis Island official website.