The last time I went to Ellis Island was on a fourth-grade field trip during a unit on immigration. We marveled at the size of the Great Hall and made crayon rubbings of the names on the Wall of Honour.
I didn’t think about returning until recently, when a friend mentioned the Ellis Island hard hat tour. The 90-minute guided tours take visitors through the unrestored hospital buildings on the south side of the island. It’s perfect for history buffs and anyone who wants a more in-depth Ellis Island experience. As a bonus, the decrepit hospital complex is also home to a fantastic photography exhibit by French street artist JR.
There are a limited number of spots available each week, so if you’re thinking of taking the tour, be sure to book well in advance. Tickets are $60, which is a deal considering they also include admission to the rest of Ellis Island’s exhibits, as well as ferry fare. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.
Ellis Island is in the middle of New York Harbour, at the mouth of the Hudson River (and right next to the Statue of Liberty). The immigration center processed 12 million people between 1892 and 1954.
Non-for-profit Save Ellis Island started offering the hard hat tour in 2014. Spots fill fast -- especially on weekends -- so book in advance.
Guests can ferry over from Manhattan's Battery Park or Liberty State Park in Jersey City. There's airport-level security screening, so leave plenty of time.
The other perk of arriving early: a prime spot on the ferry's upper deck. The panoramic views of lower Manhattan are unbeatable from up here.
The NYC ferry makes a quick stop at Liberty Island. For a few seconds, you'll be in position to take the perfect snapshot of Lady Liberty.
The hard hat tour meets on the ground floor of the main immigration building, which was originally the baggage room. Leave an hour or so to check out the museum after the tour ends (more if you plan to look for family records).
Most Ellis Island visitors only get to see the main building. The hard hat tour takes small groups through the massive, unrestored hospital complex on the island's south side.
After meeting our guide, Dave, we walked through a fence with a 'National Park Service employees only' sign.
They weren't kidding about the hard hats. Since the buildings on the tour are in their original condition, there are some potential hazards.
The hospital complex on Ellis Island operated between 1902 and 1930, and primarily treated immigrants with infectious or contagious diseases. Some stayed just a few days, while others were quarantined for months.
Of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island's doors, around 2% were deemed unfit to enter the U.S. Half were rejected for health reasons; the other half for legal reasons.
One of the first buildings we visited was the laundry facility. Some 3,000 pieces of laundry were disinfected and washed here daily.
In addition to all the historical stuff, there's another big reason to take the hard hat tour: It's the only way to see a sprawling exhibit by French street artist JR.
The artist took archival photographs from Ellis Island and superimposed them over crumbling facades in the abandoned hospital. There are two dozen of these photos installed around the grounds.
Here's the former laboratory and pharmacy buildings, which both operated 24/7 during the hospital's peak years.
The 750-bed hospital was the first public health hospital in the U.S. In 1914, over 10,000 patients from 75 different countries were treated there.
The girls in this JR photograph are being treated for favus, a fungus of the scalp. It was one of the more common infections to be treated at the hospital.
The morgue was particularly eerie. Since the complex was also a teaching hospital, there was an amphitheater where students could watch as autopsies were performed.
Another JR photo, this one on the wall of an operating room. Some of the subway tiles were removed from the walls for a different restoration project on a different part of the island.
Staircases were built into the hospital wings instead of the main hallway, in order to minimise cross-contamination.
The hard hat tour also stops by the staff residences where doctors and other hospital employees lived. At one point, there was even a tennis court on the premises.
Ellis Island is known as 'Island of Hope, Island of Tears.' Walking around the decrepit, abandoned complex and seeing the ghastly images on the walls, I had a new appreciation for the name.
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