The tired but hopeful steamed into the harbor at Ellis Island by the thousands, dreaming of a life that would be better than the one they left behind. Many found it in America. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
The island opened in 1892 and operated for more than 60 years, taking in 5,000 to 10,000 a day during its peak years. Most, around 80%, passed through in a single day, but others took weeks or months. Some would never make it off of the island.
Those that arrived sick were not allowed into the country immediately. Instead, they were taken to the island’s hospital. Those that didn’t survive were then moved to the morgue. The immigration hall has been a popular tourist attraction since the station closed, but the morgue and hospital wards remain out of bounds, frozen in time, untouched since 1954.
The doctors had be efficient in their inspections to keep up with the volume; they become so adept at spotting disease that by 1916 they were able to conduct a ‘six-second physical’.
Ultimately, despite best efforts, some arrived too sick to be saved. More than 3,000 people died in the hospital.
The hospital treated over 10,000 people per year from over 75 different countries during its peak.
Vilseskogen, the New Jersey photographer who took the photos in 2008, said: ‘We walked through old mental wards, infectious disease wards, saw the morgue, and the giant furnace room. It was an amazing experience and you could really feel the history alive, right here and now.’
People arriving knew they could be moved into the hospital and feared it, knowing their long journey could end at Ellis Island. Still 9 out of 10 patients would ultimately be granted entry after a stay in the hospital.
Most of the immigrants who were processed and inspected were in steerage. The wealthier passengers were examined while still on the ship, and were granted entry more easily since they were typically in better health than those who had stayed in the cramped steerage quarters.
For the examination, immigrants would be separated from their families, stripped, and examined. They would typically undergo xrays and body measurements in addition to the general inspection.
‘They took me away from my mother,’ John Gauqer said in the documentary Forgotten Ellis Island. ‘I didn’t know what was happening, she didn’t know what was happening, and I was here in this place away from her, never knowing if I was going to see her again.’ He would be reunited with his family after being in observation for several hours.
Its impressive to realize the vast numbers of people that came through the island, and how they helped to shape and build America. People still flock to the island today to find the names of the ancestors that had the courage to pick up and head across the ocean with dreams of a better life.