History of Ellis Island

Early History

Ellis Island Timeline

Early Immigration to New York

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Early History
The island which became the “Golden Door” to the United States had very humble beginnings: It was originally only 3.3 acres, later expanded to 27.5 acres by landfill from subway excavations.  Earlier in our history the island had a number of names such as Gull, Oyster, and Gibbets Island.  During the Revolutionary War the island’s ownership fell into the hands of Samuel Ellis.  The island was of little worth until the government realized its strategic value as a fort to defend against British invasion.  The government obtained the island and hastily built Fort Gibson; however, the fort was not needed in the War of 1812 and served as an ammunition storehouse. (National Park Service)

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Ellis Island Timeline:
April 11, 1890  It was designated as an immigration station.
January 1, 1892  It opened as an immigration station.
June 14, 1897  Some buildings were destroyed by fire, but all persons safely evacuated.
December 17, 1900  It reopened as a larger scale immigration station.
Between 1917-1919   It served as a detention center for enemy aliens, a way station for navy personnel and as an army hospital.
1919   Served as a deportation center and immigration station until 1954.
1924   Mass immigration ended. Immigrants were now inspected in countries of origin.
Between 1939-1946   Part of Ellis was used as a Coast Guard Station.
Between 1941-1954   Part of Ellis served as a detention center for enemy aliens.
November 29, 1954   Ellis Island was closed.
May 11, 1965  It was added by Presidential Proclamation to the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
1976   It was opened to the public for limited seasonal visitation.
1984   It was closed for $160 million restoration, funded and managed by the Statue of Liberty--Ellis Island Foundation.
September 10, 1990   It reopened with extensive facilities including a new museum and exhibits.

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Early Immigration to New York
Prior to 1890, when the federal government took the responsibility, each state regulated affairs relating to immigration.  Immigrants to New York could disembark from their ships on any pier and they were free to go without any burdensome inspection until 1855 when an immigration station was built at Castle Garden, in the Battery.  Over time the public became outraged at the corruption associated with immigration and at the unfair treatment of immigrants at Castle Garden.  The immigration station was then  moved to Ellis Island, the last of three choices. (History Channel)  The $500,000 station opened on

January 1, 1892, and a greatly-reduced number of immigrants entered due to immigration restrictions.  Seven years later the station--along with important immigration-related papers dating back to 1855--was destroyed by a fire (causes unknown).  A new larger-scale building was constructed, opening on December 17, 1900.  Immigration dropped dramatically during World War I, and the island was used as a detention center for enemy aliens, a Navy way station, and an Army hospital.  In 1924 most immigrants were inspected in their home countries and, as a result, massive immigration ended.  Part of Ellis served as a Coast Guard station between 1939-1946, and once again as a detention center from 1941 until the island was closed on November 29, 1954, when the immigration station moved to Manhattan. (U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service. Ellis Island: Gateway to America.)

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