On January 1, 1892, the U.S. federal government opened the Ellis Island immigration station in New York Harbor.
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Over the next 52 years, some 12 million aspiring American citizens made their way through this gateway, including most of the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States through 1924, when an immigration act that greatly reduced the numbers allowed in from Eastern and Southern Europe. The largest numbers of Jewish immigrants, approximately 2 million, arrived between 1881 and 1914, when World War I broke out. In the latter year alone, 138,051 arrived from Eastern Europe, although the outbreak of the war soon reduced the flow dramatically.
Ellis Island takes its name from Samuel Ellis, an 18th-century immigrant probably from Wales, who leased it to the State of New York beginning in 1794, after which it was turned into an arsenal and fort.
Prior to Ellis Island’s reopening in 1892, immigrants to the U.S. were processed through Castle Garden, in lower Manhattan – some 8 million of them, beginning in 1857. But after the federal government took over responsibility for immigration matters, in 1890, it allocated $75,000 for the enlargement of Ellis Island and construction of a vast, three-story building from Georgia pine. This is what opened festively on January 1, 1892, and this is what burned to the ground five years later, when fire destroyed all the wooden structures on the island. No lives were lost, but immigration records going back to 1855 went up in smoke.
The familiar red-brick structure that today constitutes the immigration museum at Ellis Island opened on December 17, 1900, and so numerous were the waves of immigrants who arrived there that even its intended capacity of processing 5,000 arrivals a day could not accommodate all comers. The all-time high was reached on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived in a single day.
For immigrants who traveled by first or second class, the stay on Ellis Island was brief. Those who came by third class or steerage however, had to undergo a legal and medical inspection, though even that could be completed in three to five hours if there were no problems. Only 2 percent were actually excluded from entering the United States.
Even before it set up a formal office on Ellis Island, in 1904, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society played an important role in helping Jews with the challenges they faced on arrival. It’s estimated that the organization, which had been founded in 1881, helped facilitate the entry of 100,000 Jews who might otherwise have been turned away – lending immigrants the $25 “landing fee,” providing translation services, running religious services, assisting with medical procedures and even providing bond for those who didn’t have work lined up. And, crucially, in 1911, HIAS opened a kosher kitchen on Ellis Island.
In 1965, Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and a major renovation of the site allowed for it to be reopened in 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Since Hurricane Sandy, however, both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have been closed to the public.