An island of hope and tears

September 23, 2011
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum has been open since 1990. It houses an expansive archives of immigration records. BY RON MACARTHUR

More than a third of the current United States population can trace their ancestry to immigrants who first arrived in America through the federal immigrate processing facility on Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants passed through the gates, and most of those were from 1900 to 1924. Only 2 percent were turned away and sent back to their native countries.

On average, the inspection process took approximately 3-7 hours. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island truly was the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. For the rest, it became a place where families were separated and individuals were denied entry into this country.

During 1907, the peak year, more than 1 million immigrants were processed; more than 11,700 were processed in a single day on April 17.

Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, and since 1990, hosts a museum of immigration run by the National Park Service.

Ellis Island has grown over the years. The original, natural island of 3.3 acres was built up with landfill between 1890 and 1892 to build the new immigration station once the service was taken over by the federal government. In the 35 years prior to 1892, more than 8 million immigrants had been processed at the Castle Garden Immigration Depot in nearby lower Manhattan.

As the station's needs expanded, so did the island. After the existing main building was opened in 1900, more landfill was added to the left side of the ferry slip. Most of this landfill came from the excavation of the New York City subway tunnels. This land was used for the complex of hospitals built to treat immigrants who failed their medical inspections. The complex eventually grew to 29 buildings, which at the time was the largest hospital in the nation. Ellis Island now encompasses 27.5 acres.

New immigration laws passed in 1924 drastically reduced the number of people allowed entrance into the United States, and the Ellis Island station became a detention and deportation center from 1924 to 1954.

After it closed, the buildings were vacated and left abandoned for more than three decades. A massive $150 million renovation project kicked into high gear in the mid-1980s with the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opening in 1990.

The Save Ellis Island organization is working with the National Park Service to eventually restore the 29-building hospital complex, which is closed to the public.

Access to Ellis Island is via ferry service from Battery Park, N.Y., or Liberty State Park, N.J. Many people combine a trip to Ellis Island with a visit to nearby Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty.

Go to for more information.

  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

    Contact Ron at