November 29 2009, Manhattan
In line to board the ferry to Ellis Island, I reflect on how frightened my grandparents must have been when they made the crossing to this country 100 years ago. My paternal grandparents also had my father,
Francesco, six months old, in arms.
Who knows what conditions they must have endured on board, herded into steerage and then herded again onshore.
My mother’s mother Gemma made the crossing with her sisters. How did they keep together?
The depiction of steerage at the Ellis Island Museum shows hordes of people crowded and unseparated in the same large compartment. The etching of people in steerage showed families clustered together as standing about and falling with no room to sit.
When they got off Ellis Island, and I don’t know how long they were detained there, who met them on shore? How did they find their way to the railroad station?
On the Ellis Island tour I learned that the great majority of immigrants came between 1898 and 1924. The documentation said the center was closed in 1954 but does not explain what happened between 1924 and 1954. One percent of them were returned for sickness or lack of cash. But there were those who came who lacked the requisite $25. How could they pay for their passage on the return trip?
The detention center as it stands is surely incomplete or perhaps not even the authentic place. According to John DeLuca it must have contained far more people than we could tell on my visit. The documentation said it had several rooms of bunk beds.
Most compelling was the size of the Registry room. Photography of people waiting in benches were all organized and hived off into different sections.
Also remarkable were the photos of women going through the medical exam and the faces of people waiting in lines. Terrified faces.
To get to the ferry to Ellis Island I had to go through airport TSA security. However they let me keep my shoes on and their equipment did not detect my hip replacement. So how secure was it?
Emigrants had to pass through many tests to be allowed entry – medical, legal, literacy and sanity. At one station immigrants were standing in lines several abreast at huge long counter. People who were extremely anxious and confused were sometimes taken for insane and summarily detained.
Officials validated their identifications by checking their names, places of origin and destinations against the ship manifests.
At one end of the main auditorium was the entrance to a stairwell, dubbed the “stairs of separation” that led to three doors. Immigrants destined for the middle door were being detained. Those bearing right were heading for a real road connection to take them out of state.
Newcomers who entered the door on the left were staying in New York. At the bottom of the stairs, the new New Yorkers reached the so-called Door of Kisses, alluding to the practice that local relatives would be there to greet them.
A very desirable welcome but how many experienced such a happy event?