My Trip to Ellis Island - Those Places Thursday
(Original Images and Text, Copyright (c) 2012 Cynthia Shenette) Ellis Island is one of those places that I've wanted to visit for years. I read an article in Americana magazine (defunct since 1993) that talked about the anticipated opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. Before I even read the article my grandmother intrigued me with her talk of the place. When she came to America she was too little to remember anything about it--she was only 18 months old when she made the trip--but it intrigued her as well. I remember seeing images of Ellis Island before the station's renovation, an abandoned ark of a place that time forgot. I was thrilled when I heard it was to be fixed up and restored as a museum. I waited a long time to visit Ellis Island.
I've been so busy lately with a variety of activities I've had little time for much of anything, but when I found out my local chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists was taking a bus trip for the day to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the 9-11 Memorial I knew I had to go. It was lucky happenstance that the trip was scheduled the day before Mother's Day, so it was kind of a special treat to myself for the holiday! I also bought myself an SLR camera to capture images from the trip!
It was amazing passing the Statue of Liberty and reaching the island by ferry. What a beautiful, sunny, warm spring day! I wondered how many thousands of immigrants passed by the Statue on a similar warm spring day, in fear or anticipation about their new new lives in America. Who did all of those people leave behind? Mothers? Fathers? Siblings? Or no one. Were they escaping war or economic hardship? I don't want to sound overly sentimental, but it's awe inspiring to think about the millions of people, my family included, who traveled to Ellis Island by ship, boat, or ferry in just this way.
Several people on my trip recommended the audio tour of the museum. I didn't take because I wanted to go at my own pace, so for two and a half hours I wandered around the museum, checking out the exhibits and taking pictures as I went along.
The first thing that you see when you walk in the door is the exhibit with piles of luggage stacked in a long line. I don't know how they did it, but I wonder how the people at Ellis Island managed to keep track of all of that luggage! Every time my family and I fly somewhere I keep my fingers crossed and hope our luggage meets us at the other end! The other thing that struck me was the noise--a cacophony of voices echoing in the large room. I can only imagine what it was like in my grandparents' day with the multitude of languages being spoken--Polish, German, Yiddish, Russian, Dutch--all trying to hear or be heard over the din.
After I checked out the exhibits downstairs I walked upstairs to the Great Hall. I was kind of surprised that the Great Hall was upstairs, but I guess it makes sense that it would be. The Great Hall was smaller than I expected. I'm so use to seeing all of those vintage Ellis Island photos with people waiting in lines, that I expected it to be bigger. There's a great vintage photo here. It really doesn't look much different today. They even use similar flags with 48 stars!
How many people waited on those benches and what were they thinking about while they waited? Again, I could only imagine the sound all of those people must have created--the men, the women, and especially the children--crowded together in that relatively small place.
What was it like to look out those windows and see New York City and America, the land of so many dreams. I loved the exhibit that talked about the chalk marks immigration officials made on people's clothing to indicate further inspection was in order--CT for trachoma, PG for pregnancy, SC for scalp, X for suspected mental defect, X inside a circle for definite signs of a mental defect, as well as others. How many women and young girls were mortified by the inspectors medical examinations? There was a button hook in the display that talked about the examination for trachoma. How many people's dreams were shattered and ended with a return trip back to their country of origin?
My mom told me that my grandfather use to talk about how Ellis Island was the first place he had ever tried a banana. It was interesting to read one of the exhibits that talked about the food served to the people passing through the island. Bananas were mentioned as one of those foods. I've heard other people mention trying bananas at Ellis Island for the first time as well. Bananas must have made quite an impression on our ancestors to be such a common topic of conversation!
It was interesting just walking through the warren of rooms and looking out the windows. I loved the exhibit that showed the various types of clothing that people wore. There was a mosaic of photographs of the faces of different people from different countries. I saw a man with what looked to be blue eyes in one of the photographs. He was dressed in eastern European clothing and reminded me of a photo I have of one of my husband's Ukrainian ancestors from back in the old country. I also loved the exhibit that showed a collection of (for lack of a better word) junk that filled the Ellis Island facility before the renovation.
It was a long day but well worth the four hour bus ride and the security checks and screening at the ferry. Before I went I wondered if I would be disappointed. Ellis Island is someplace that I've wanted to visit for such a long time, could my high expectations possibly live up to the reality? Well, they did live up and then some. Ellis Island was a trip worth the wait.
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