Welcome Back, Ellis Island!
December 13, 2013

Any excuse to take a ferry out in New York Harbor is a good one, but the recent reopening of Ellis Island following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 was particularly important. We decided to go over the Thanksgiving holiday because the theme—immigration—seemed quite appropriate for the spirit of the weekend, and because Halina and her cousin Deirdre, both happen to be studying immigration in school.

Turns out, Thanksgiving Friday is a great time to go in terms of lines, especially if it happens to be lightly drizzling and cold as it was that day. We were a pretty large troupe, including Halina and her brother Riley; Deirdre’s parents, Meg and Torsten; and the children’s intrepid grandparents, Nana Beth and Opi-Din. Everyone was up visiting from various points in Virginia.

A Short, But Exciting Journey

The historic Castle Clinton is the first stop on the journey to Ellis Island. Therein you purchase tickets for the ferry and, if you’d like, browse around the bookstore to get a sense of the history you will be seeing. Once outside, be aware that there are two lines for different ferries. You want the one for the Statue of Liberty, not the yellow water taxi. The ferry first goes to Liberty Island (which also recently reopened) and then on to Ellis. Both Ellis and Liberty islands are run by the National Park Service.

In dramatic contrast to the types of journeys immigrants once took to the island, the whole trip takes about a half hour and provides you with stunning views of lower Manhattan. Given the day, the breezes were surprisingly temperate outside where Riley and Halina preferred to be—up on the top deck, no less.

Island of Hope, Revisited

For those of us who had been to Ellis Island—also known as the Island of Hope—in recent years, we were surprised to learn that many exhibit rooms are still being restored. The website gives this hopeful, positive positioning:

“Your visit will be more similar to that of an immigrant a century ago! Most immigrants were limited to the Baggage Room, Registry Room (the Great Hall) and the Railroad Ticket Office (now houses the Peopling of America Exhibit) during their short time on Ellis Island. You can still experience where history happened in the Great Hall! In that historic space, millions of people passed their medical and legal inspections and were allowed to enter the United States to start a new life.”

All of that is certainly worth the trip, and what’s more, you can always come back to see the place unfold as more and more exhibits come back online. It is estimated that 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1924, it was the nation’s busiest immigration depot, processing more than 12 million individuals.

The Great Walls

One of the best features of Ellis Island is outside: the vast and continuously growing American Immigrant Wall of Honor that displays more than 600,000 names of newcomers who passed through the island. Reading the great variety of names is to ponder how vast the world is, and how diverse the United States is as a result.

Fortunately the computer system that links you up to relatives’ names (if one has been registered) is up and running; with it, we tracked down Halina’s namesake grandmother who arrived from Warsaw, Poland. From the panel where her name is etched, we could see Manhattan in the distance and ponder how unthinkably different the view must have been for Halina and her family.

Getting There

Take the 1 train to South Ferry or the 4 or 5 trains to Bowling Green and head south to the water. The ferry is free for children under age 4; $9 for those ages 5 to 12, $17 for those over age 13, and $14 for those over age 62.  There are restrooms and snacks on board the ferry. 


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