The United States was founded on principles that have attracted immigrants from the beginning. Immigrants have streamed into America from all corners of the world, but there is something fascinating about the European immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island. Approximately 16 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1954 and of this number, 12 million were processed at the immigration station of Ellis Island.
In 1890, the House Committee of Immigration selected Ellis Island to be the location of a much needed immigrant station. In preparation, Ellis Island was made larger by using landfill. In 1892, the original immigration station was opened for operation. On the first day of operation, the commissioner presented a gold piece to the first immigrant who entered the gates of the immigration station.
In 1897, a fire occurred and burned almost the entire complex down. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Ellis Island was closed and an architect was hired to create plans for a new immigration station.
Ellis Island reopened in 1900 with a new complex. The new and improved buildings could process the immigrants much more efficiently. Two additional islands were added by dumping excavated rock and dirt. These additional islands were used for the hospital complex portions of the island, where immigrants who were detained for health or legal reasons were housed.
The inspection process was difficult for the immigrants. As they disembarked from the ferries and walked into the entry way of the station, staff doctors observed them to assess their health. The immigrants were then taken to a health inspection where a staff doctor checked their eyes for symptoms of conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis was a very serious and incurable disease at that time, and any potential immigrants who had conjunctivitis were immediately rejected.
Some immigrants passed their health inspections and proceeded to the next step, which was a legal inspection. Other immigrants were flagged for certain issues and either rejected or detained on the island.
The legal inspection that followed the health inspection was a stressful situation for the immigrants also. The room was noisy and chaotic. The immigrants were to wait until their name was called. The typical wait was several hours. When it was their turn, their name would be called and they would approach a staff person who would ask them a series of questions. If the immigrants successfully answered the questions, they were welcomed into the United States.
Closing Ellis Island
Eventually, immigration legislation became more stringent and because of this, the number of people passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island decreased significantly. In 1954, Ellis Island was finally closed and any remaining immigration processing was moved to a center in Manhattan.