Flashback Friday: Ellis Island 1954

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National Geographic Ellis Island Image
Women and children were separated from men
when they first entered the building on Ellis Island.
Photograph by Paul Thompson
Credit: National Geographic

Sixty-five years ago, [today] on November 12, 1954, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen became the last immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. Later that month, the ferry Ellis Island made its final stop at the island in New York Harbor and the immigration facility closed for good, ending its run as a gateway to the United States for generations of immigrants.

These days Ellis Island is a national symbol remembered in sepia tones but, while it was in active service, the station reflected the country’s complicated relationship with immigration, one that evolved from casual openness to rigid restriction. “It was not a great welcoming place for immigrants but, it was not a place of horrors either,” says Vincent Cannato, author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

Until the end of the 19th century, individual states handled immigration with rules varying by jurisdiction. [T]hen, immigration soared. In light of the influx, the federal government decided in 1891 that it had to take charge.

New York was immigration’s epicenter. Some 75 percent of the country’s steamship traffic came through New York Harbor and so did 75 percent of the nation’s immigrants, according to Cannato. New York state ran an immigration facility called Castle Gardens at the tip of Manhattan but, the new federal Office of Immigration wanted an intake and inspection station in a more controlled location. It selected Ellis Island, a three-acre spot of land in the harbor between New York and New Jersey […].

The immigrants who eventually passed through Ellis Island started their journey by buying passage on a steamship, usually sailing from Europe. Between 1892 and 1924, 12 million people successfully traversed this highly efficient conveyor-belt immigration system. Most immigrants were processed through Ellis Island in a few hours and only 2 percent that arrived on the island were prevented from entering the United States.

[T]his era of mass immigration came to an end with the passage in 1921 and 1924 of new laws that severely limited immigration by establishing quotas for individual countries and requiring immigrants to obtain visas from American consulates. Since most official immigration screening now happened at U.S. consulates abroad, Ellis Island became increasingly irrelevant. The facility, which had once teemed with thousands of hopeful immigrants, transformed into “a major center for deportation and for holding enemy alien spies,” says [Barry] Moreno. “It was like night and day.” President Eisenhower quietly closed Ellis Island in 1954.

How Ellis Island Shepherded Millions of Immigrants Into America
Rachel Hartigan
National Geographic
November 13, 2019

6 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Ellis Island 1954

    cindy knoke said:
    November 13, 2021 at 12:29 AM

    My grandfather came through here in the 1920’s. I found his original name and the name they gave him. He became a federal judge in Chicago.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      November 13, 2021 at 2:19 AM

      Wow. That is awesome! I’m pretty sure I had ancestors that came through, too. I’ve just never dug into it.

    Charles Huss said:
    November 13, 2021 at 8:21 AM

    My father’s mother came through Ellis Island in 1921 when she was three. With her was her mother but not her father. Family history can be interesting if not vague and sometimes distorted. I believe she was of Hungarian descent born in Yougoslavia. Her father was either a german sailor or diplomat, depending on who is telling the story. After World War One, the country was devistated. He went back to Germany while they spent six months making their way to France and then to the United States and Ellis Island.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      November 13, 2021 at 2:31 PM

      Did he ever make it to the states?

        Charles Huss said:
        November 13, 2021 at 3:43 PM

        Unknown. I wish I was interested in geneology when people were alive that could answer my questions. I do not know what his name is or weather they were ever married. My grandmother’s mother came as “Eva Hoffler” but I have no idea if that was a married name or her maiden name.

          The Hinoeuma responded:
          November 13, 2021 at 10:50 PM

          Research on that stuff can be time consuming and tedious. My mother has a first cousin that did massive research, like 30 years ago, before Ancestry.com. He listed all ancestors related to my maternal grandmother, covering them all the way to the 5th cousins. The stack of papers is about 1/4 inch thick. We appear to be related to everybody! LOL!

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