More than 12 million immigrants, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe, became American citizens at Ellis Island in New York Harbor between 1892 and 1954.
The 30-acre land mass, just off the New Jersey coast, was known as the “Island of Hope” to most foreigners who arrived on its shores. First- and second-class cabin passengers in good health, especially, were generally welcomed into New York City with relatively few roadblocks.
But for the remaining 20% of immigrants, mainly steerage passengers, the portal to America was dubbed the “Island of Tears,” marred by the fear of being detained there due to illness, poverty, racial discrimination, or other legal reasons. At least 2% of immigrants were shipped back to their home countries.
Ian Ference — the same photographer who took us on a tour of an abandoned island next to New York City — highlights the story of these less fortunate travellers on his Kingston Lounge blog in a series of photos from inside Ellis Island’s Baggage and Dormitory Building, the depository for detained immigrants.
Because of the building’s remote location, it is remarkably undamaged, said Ference. There is a pungent smell of mould, however.
Otherwise, the “building was well-insulated and the windows were very intact,” the photographer said of his last visit within the past decade.
He added: “Like most abandoned structures, there’s a distinct feeling of solitude.”
This is Ellis Island. Its entire 27.5 acres is federal property, though it is within the boundaries of both New York and New Jersey. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which was open for tours until last fall when it closed indefinitely due to damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy, is inside the Main Building.
The Baggage and Dormitory Building is located in the back of the Main Building. It is not open to the public, but photographer Ian Ference managed get an inside peek of the decaying structure.
A view of one of the building's many dorm areas is shown here. During its peak, between 1892 and 1924, this area would have been crammed with beds.
In addition to the large dormitories, there was a corridor of individual rooms that could each accommodate two detainees.
The Baggage and Dormitory Building, attached to the back of the Main Building, was opened in 1909 to handle an overflow of legal detainees. It was originally used to store immigrants' baggage while they waited for admission and registration in the Main Building.
Immigrants could be held here for anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, often for health or other legal reasons, before they were granted entry into America. The communal bathroom areas allowed a single official to oversee masses of detainees as they washed up.
There was no true privacy in the Baggage and Dormitory Building — the bathing area had partitions between the bathtubs, but there were no curtains to shield the detainees from the watchful eyes of the Island's officials.
A number of remaining artifacts were collected on the first floor of the building, including this incredibly heavy Diebold safe. Ference was not able to open it.
Mattresses were sterilized in bulk in giant autoclaves in a room on the third floor of the building.
Ellis Island closed its doors in 1954. A rotting pile of mattresses has sat in a corner of the Baggage and Dormitory Building from the time of its vacancy until 2011, when the building was cleaned out, stabilised, and boarded off. Other parts of Ellis Island, including the immigration museum, had been open to the public but are now closed due to damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy.
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