During the 1920s, an immigrant who first set his eyes on New York City said: ‘Is this a city on Earth?’ thinking he had arrived in heaven.
Recently I spent a day visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on assignment for iStopOver magazine. You can check out my article here, but as expected, I learned a great deal more than I could pack into one article. The day began stepping aboard the ferry that leaves the tip of Lower Manhattan for Liberty Island. As the boat swung around Lady Liberty, I began to wonder how this statue must have looked to my great-grandmother, who arrived from Italy on September 1, 1922.
Details were revealed during my visit that helped to illuminate what New York must have been like at the time. I learned that in 1886 the Statue of Liberty was the tallest structure in NYC. The day was full of numbers and facts that are enough to make your head spin: 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island from 1892 – 1924, almost 1/3 of Americans can trace their roots to this single place, as many as 4000 people a day passed through Ellis Island, and more.
Beyond all the history, what I also found most striking was one man I met during my visit. He was the park ranger who gave a short speech before the introductory movie at the immigration museum. The welcoming spirit of Ellis Island lives on today in these employees – this park ranger greeted every immigrant in the room in their own language. As groups announced they were from India, China, Russia, Mexico, and beyond each time the park ranger knew how to greet them.
The numbers and stats continued with the park ranger. He told us that in 1900, the top 3 countries where immigrants originated from were Italy, Russia, and the UK. He played a guessing game with the audience to see if anyone could correctly list the top three countries in 2009. After a few minutes of guessing, Mexico, China, and India were revealed as the top three. Wrapping things up, he left the audience with one thought: we were standing in the very place that was the heart of the largest human migration in history.
Throughout the museum, small, subtle signs illuminated details on the buildings past. There was one place called the Kissing Post. It was where people were reunited with waiting relatives once they had successfully passed through the process. My thoughts once again returned to my family: my great-grandmother had walked through those very doors carrying a toddler to be reunited with her husband.
Not every sign in the museum was so uplifting. I descended a flight of stairs that had two handrails, separating the stairs into three columns. Only at the foot of the staircase did I learn they were called the stairs of separation. One side was for those who had passed the test. One was for those who were going to be sent back to the old country. And the final was for those who required more inspection. It was here that families were separated, mothers from children, husbands from wives, to never be seen again.
For me the most memorable part of the visit was the faces. The wealth of photographs and films documenting Ellis Island is extraordinary, and no matter what your background is, you will be sure to see those types of faces staring into the camera. Many of them didn’t have any baggage or possessions, but for them the door to America had opened.
As the ferry whisked us back to Battery Park, my mind returned to one statement: ‘Is this a city on Earth?’ Over 100 years later, the magnetism of New York City is just as strong.