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A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

When tourists come to New York City, there are usually a few sites high on the list of places to see. Most often, this list includes a trip to see the Statue of Liberty just off the coast of lower Manhattan, but it includes a trip to see Ellis Island must less frequently. I grew up just outside of New York City in the Hudson Valley, and I distinctly remember my first trip to Ellis Island, which was in early 2002. I remember the date specifically because I was in school at the time, and that year was the year when we were all brought to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on a big class trip in the autumn, except my class didn’t go. This is because earlier in the school year, our city, along with others in our country, was attacked, and sites such as these were deemed too dangerous to visit; the Statue of Liberty was closed for visits for years after that. Despite this closure, my best friend’s father, a retired NYPD officer, felt it was important that we visit Ellis Island, so several months later we were off to visit this national park to learn about the immigration history of our country. A visit to Ellis Island soon after September 11th was likely more important for me, and made the experience all the more memorable, given the rhetoric that touched even us as children during this time. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and it’s one that I believe continues to be important today.

Statue of Liberty against blue skies
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” ― Emma Lazarus

It’s been 16 years since, and I still distinctly remember my trip to this museum, so I was thrilled to be able to travel back this year to rediscover what I’d learned nearly two decades earlier. Ellis Island was America’s largest immigration port of entry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During a 32 year period, more than 12 million immigrants came through this island to begin new lives in the United States, beginning their journeys in New York City. In fact, of all that attempted entry through Ellis Island, only 2% were turned away, so it’s absolutely incredible to think of how many families began their new lives here.

Visiting Ellis Island now, at this period in history is a humbling experience, as it was 16 years ago. These places represent a part of our history that is vital for understanding it now, and also for understanding its future. I can’t recommend enough that visitors to New York City, and to places across the US, seek out these museums, monuments, and national parks to learn from them, to better understand them, and to better understand the world we live in now. I’m grateful for the work that has been done at Ellis Island to preserve this part of our history, and to give faces to the 12 million people who walked through the doors of this place in search of a new and better life for themselves and often for their families.

The Details

Ellis Island is now a museum and national park run by the US National Park Service. There are park rangers on site to help answer questions, although there is a plethora of information available for all visitors throughout the museum. On the hour, there are free guided tours with park rangers (approx. 40 minutes in length) which I highly recommend; they give visitors an excellent insight into the history and people who made this place what it was and is now. The number of tours vary, but the times are posted at the ranger information desk throughout the day to help you plan your visit.

A visit to Ellis Island can easily be a half-day or full-day trip if you take advantage of all of the tours, films, and exhibits available. I recommend a quick stop on Liberty Island to walk around the base of the Statue of Liberty before heading off to visit Ellis Island. There is a restaurant/cafe on site, as well as some gorgeous outdoor space if you have a nice day, so Ellis Island the perfect place to escape the busy-ness of Manhattan and relax with nice views after spending some time in the museum.

To get there, book a space on Statue Cruises from one of its terminals (Battery Park, NYC or Liberty State Park, NJ). Be sure to book early, spaces for specific times can fill up in advance, particularly during high tourist periods. You can also book your tickets along with your ferry ticket to climb the Statue of Liberty if you’re interested in adding that to your itinerary.

Note that to board the cruise ship, you’ll go through a security screening process, so limiting the amount of personal items you carry with you will expedite the process. Buying the advance tickets will seriously cut down on your time lining up to board!

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