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Ellis Island, situated proudly alongside the Statue of Liberty, is the symbolic gateway into New York City. But it wasn’t always such a striking American symbol. Prior to earning its title as America’s most famous immigration station, Ellis Island had to undergo a number of transformations. First it was “Kioshk Island” to Native Americans, then “Oyster” to the Dutch and English colonialists–then Dyre, Bucking, Gibbet…the list goes on. It was only after its purchase by Samuel Ellis in the 1770s that it finally became “Ellis Island”. But even then it wasn’t an immigration site. For years it was the home of Fort Gibson. This military installation was designed as a defensive response against the British who had so easily blockaded the harbor during the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Ellis Island finally earned its true claim to fame.
From 1892 to 1954, millions of eager and hopeful men, women, and children had set foot on its shores. Those daring trailblazers, huddled together within the confines of Ellis Island’s immigrant inspection station, had come from a diverse range of backgrounds, occupations, and cultures. Although they had their differences, here on Ellis Island they were all seeking the same thing: a new life. Throughout its 62 years of operation, Ellis Island would end up giving over 12 million immigrants new lives. The majority of those immigrants had come from Europe: namely Germany, Russia, Italy, and Ireland. Because of the sheer amount of immigrants that entered through its gates, it is now believed that about 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to that humble, yet promising isle.
Today, Ellis Island and the immigrant station that once welcomed millions of new American citizens is a major national landmark. Although since 1954 it is no longer in use, millions of people still flock there as visitors, hoping to connect with and celebrate the vision of opportunity that the island projects. After having gone through a whopping 165 million dollar restoration during the latter half of the 20th century, it’s now the perfect time to visit.
How do you get there? Statue Cruises, authorized by National Park Services, provides ferry rides to the island. You can catch this ferry at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan and Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Expect stunning views along the way.
Within the Main Building of the former immigration station, now exists the Ellis Island museum. A 45 minute audio tour, included with each ferry ticket, will help educate and guide visitors. In addition, tour guides are also available as an option to help you better explore the island. Have ancestors that arrived on Ellis Island? Explore immigrant records at the American Family Immigration History Center and trace your ancestry. Relive the immigrant experience, explore the storied legacy of Ellis Island and American immigration, be awed by stunning Downtown Manhattan and Statue of Liberty views–all with your visit.
Fun Fact: Only 2% of the immigrants who tried to enter the United States through Ellis Island were rejected. However, this didn’t stop the island from being nicknamed “Heartbreak Island” after the many that still failed to make it through.
Ellis Island, Jersey City, NY 07305
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