What Ellis Island Looked Like To Millions Of Immigrants In Its Heyday

Approximately 40% of U.S. citizens have at least one ancestor who passed through Ellis Island for inspection on their way toward building a better life for themselves and future generations, according to The History Channel.

Nearly 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island’s immigration station from its opening in 1892 to 1954, when it closed. But the number of immigrants dropped significantly by 1924, due to anti-immigration legislation.

The main purpose of the federal government’s Ellis Island Immigration Station was to ensure immigrants were legally and medically fit for admittance into the U.S. The station’s 500 employees included inspectors, clerks, interpreters, nurses, doctors, and social workers.

The inspections lasted an average of three to seven hours, but sometimes took much longer. In the process, some individuals were denied entry and families separated.

The 1921 Emergency Quota Act set quotas based on nationality. The number of immigrants admitted into the country was reduced to 3% of that nationality’s representation in the 1910 U.S. census.

That was followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which further limited admissions to 2% of each nationality’s representation in the 1890 census. That law sought to specifically restrict immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, where half of U.S. immigrants in the early 20th century originated from.

The New York Public Library has a collection of photographs of Ellis Island from 902 to 1913, which came from the estate of William Williams, the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island from 1902-1905 and 1909-1913.

Immigrants who passed the first mental inspection wait in pens in the Registry Room, also called the Great Hall. The peak day for immigration occurred April 17, 1907, when Ellis Island received 11,747 immigrants, according to The History Channel. That was also the peak year, with just over 1 million arrivals.

Ellis Island

New York Public Library

These immigrants passed the inspections and wait to be transported off Ellis Island. Approximately 80% of immigrants who passed through during the peak period of 1900-1914 left the island within hours, but others were detained for days and weeks, according to The History Channel.

Immigrants wait with their baggage at a teller’s window to exchange money.

A family undergoing a medical examination.

Immigrants waiting to be processed by Immigration Bureau Officials.

A view of the front of Ellis Island’s Main Immigration Building, which opened December 17, 1900.

A 1912-13 photograph of the New York City skyline from Ellis Island. The tallest building in the skyline is the Woolworth Building, then still under construction.

Immigrants carry luggage past the island’s pier.

Dining hall staff after preparing the long tables with worn porcelain-enameled plates, and forks and knives.

A lone gentleman, possibly Commissioner of Immigration William Williams, gazes at New York Harbor from the observation roof atop the Immigration Station.

Immigrants eating a free meal at Ellis Island.

Immigrants aboard the ferry boat named Ellis Island as it nears Battery Park. Right of center is the partially built U.S. Customs House, constructed from 1902-1906.

A photo of these Hungarian Gypsies appeared in The New York Times in 1905, which reported that they were all deported.

Immigrants donning turbans and fezzes shortly after their arrival.

The decoration of the large vessel these immigrants are gathered around suggests they may have been Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The Immigration Station’s Main Hall, showing immigrants seated on crowded long benches. In the first decade of the 20th century, a federal law was passed denying admittance to children without adults, according to The History Channel.

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