Reporting Jay Lloyd
A Sicilian-born friend jolted my sense of familiar phrases when he began a story by saying, “When I got off the plane in Philly…” That’s not how it goes. It’s supposed to be, “When I got off the boat…” Then comes a heartfelt tale of that first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and the landing at Ellis Island before winding up, staggered by the enormity of New York’s concrete canyons.
My family, along with millions of others, came through that Great Hall to begin a new life in America. Ellis Island closed as an immigration center in 1954, but it reopened as a museum and monument to the nation’s immigrant history. Last year, it was swamped and shuttered by Sandy, but after a year of reconstruction, Ellis Island is once again open for visitors. So, what’s there now? – Jay Lloyd
New York Harbor
The cavernous, flag-draped Great Hall once held, “the huddled masses.” They had arrived by the thousands in the cramped steerage decks of luxury liners and tramp steamers. They never saw much of the luxury. The Great Hall was their portal to a new life. Exhibits on display tell the graphic story of how they arrived, what they looked like in the garb of many foreign countries and how they managed to communicate, despite speaking languages that required translators. It’s also the story of those who were stopped at the gate – who were separated from their families and shipped out on the first boat back to their native lands. Ellis Island even holds searchable records for those seeking to learn more about how their ancestors arrived in America.
When you first see the island and the large ornate building that houses the Great Hall, you think of the red-hued buildings that make up the Smithsonian in Washington. To new arrivals, it had the feel and look of some familiar European structures. Now, it’s an iconic sight on New York Harbor, almost as familiar as the neighboring Statue of Liberty.
Ellis Island is open to visitors but is not yet recovered from Hurricane Sandy. Reconstruction is still going on and the exhibits on upper floors are shuttered until its completion. Many of the artifacts relating to the 12 million immigrants who came through Ellis Island have not yet been returned from safe-keeping after Sandy, but the grounds, the Wall of Honor, the Great Hall and the interior baggage room are all accessible. A riveting documentary, “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” is also being shown. Plus, you can see the rotating exhibits that trace “The Peopling of America” through the stories of immigrants from the 17th century until the day Ellis Island opened in 1892.
GETTING THERE & FARES
A visit to Ellis Island, operated by the National Park Service, is free on its own.
There are two embarkation points to reach both Ellis and Liberty Islands. If you’re visiting New York:
Statue Cruises leaves from Battery Park at the tip of Lower Manhattan and take you to both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Visitors who prefer to drive and park in New Jersey should take exit 14B on the New Jersey Turnpike and follow the signs to Liberty State Park for the Statue Cruises Ferry.
Ages 4 – 12: $9
Under 4: Free
The fare includes the ferry ride, access to the grounds and building on Ellis Island, the grounds at the Statue of Liberty and audio tours of both. Packages are available that include admission to the Statue and nearby Lower Manhattan attractions.
IF YOU HAVE THE TIME
A short walk and subway ride takes you to 97 Orchard Street, the home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for a fascinating look at 19th and early 20th century immigrant life. The museum is housed inside a faithfully restored tenement building in a section of Manhattan, where Irish populated Five Points, which bordered the Jewish and German Lower East Side alongside Chinatown and Little Italy.