Take a rare tour of Ellis Island

Story Highlights

Ellis Island opened in 1892 and closed in 1954

More than 12 million immigrants have passed through its doors

The sick and disabled were sent to the hospital complex

ellis island

Ellis Island is a major tourist destination, attracting over 4 million visitors a year. Yet much of the island remains off-limits to all but a privileged few.

The basic history of the island is known to all American students: Ellis Island opened in 1892 and closed in 1954. More than 12 million immigrants arriving in New York were taken to Ellis Island to clear immigration. Most have been processed and allowed to enter the country. Those believed to be ill or disabled, about 1 million in total, were sent to the huge hospital complex on the south side of the island.

Ellis Island became part of the National Park Service in 1965. In 1986, renovations began on the island’s main immigration building. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in this building in 1990.

The south side hospital complex still exists, but it is in what John McInnes describes as “a state of arrested decay”.

“That’s why we wear hard hats,” says McInnes, public programs manager for the nonprofit Save Ellis Island Foundation, which offers limited tours of the historic site. The group is dedicated to the rehabilitation and preservation of buildings on the island.

McInnes stands in a “Y” hallway that leads to the hospital complex. “It’s actually a very important demarcation point for any immigrant who ends up here,” he says in tour guide mode. “If I go down this corridor, I will go to the island hospital, built to restore the health of people with minor injuries, broken bones…even babies have been born in this building – 350 babies.”

The other ward took patients to the Contagious and Infectious Diseases Hospital, where they were treated for life-threatening illnesses such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. Surprisingly, the scariest diseases weren’t necessarily the most likely to keep an immigrant out of the country. If an immigrant survived diphtheria, they would return to the immigration process. It was people with less serious illnesses – perhaps a numb knee or a bad back – who would be sent home because they couldn’t work.

“If you’re not fit enough to enter the United States, they’ll stabilize your deportation condition,” McInnes says. “The shipping company was responsible for transit and your return trip. Just be aware that any immigrants returning to Europe would likely return with the freight.

The Ellis Island hospital complex was built with multiple pavilions spanning a central hall, leaving plenty of space between each to prevent patients from spreading infections. The design, appropriately called “Pavilion Style”, was developed in part by Florence Nightingale. The Ellis Island Hospital Complex was one of the last pavilion-style hospitals built.

“No pavilions will face each other because we are concerned about cross-contamination,” says McInnes. “Each pavilion will be dedicated to a specific disease.”

The patient rooms were at the back of each pavilion, as far from the hall as possible, with 14 beds placed around the perimeter of the room, near the windows.

Initially, the Hospital for Contagious and Infectious Diseases was separated from the main hospital on the island by a strip of water. At the time, it was mistakenly believed that germs could not cross water, notes McInnes. The water was eventually filled with dirt from New York City, creating a grassy area for patients to walk around.

“It worked with the germ theory of the time,” says McInnes. “Fresh air and sunlight played an important role in the healing process. There were plenty of times when that was all we had to offer.

The resort also has isolation quarters, located at the end of the island closest to the Statue of Liberty. Patients in isolation wards were kept 12 to a room and could be locked down for weeks, along with nursing staff, in the event of severe outbreaks.

“It would be a scary place to work if cholera were to break out.”

Most of the doctors and nurses who worked at Ellis Island Hospital also lived there.

Nurses lived in dormitories above the rooms where patients were cared for; the pharmacist mixed and dispensed medication from his home. The two best doctors on the island, the chief of surgery and the chief of psychiatry, lived with their families in connected apartments at the end of the hospital complex.

A kitchen in the hospital complex prepared 1,500 meals a day and provided cold milk and biscuits to women and children twice a day.

“That’s where people had their first inculturation of America,” McInnes says. He likes to tell the story of the immigrant who said, “My first meal was worms covered in blood.

“What was he eating?” Spaghetti.”

The laundry cleaned 3,000 pieces of hospital laundry a day in giant commercial washing machines with names like ‘The Fletcher Whirlwind’, which look more like components of Jules Verne’s submarines than a Maytag of the times. modern.

The men did laundry and drying at Ellis Island, McInnes said. Women did the ironing and folding.

Keeping the mattresses clean was another challenge. A machine called a “mattress autoclave” steam-boiled contaminated mattresses to kill bacteria.

Security procedures appear to have at least partially worked to protect staff. Although about 3,500 people died at Ellis Island, that didn’t include any staff who contracted illnesses from their patients, McInnes says.

Tremendous work has been done to stabilize the hospital buildings and stop their deterioration, but there is still work to be done. In a corridor, the doors and windows have disappeared; they are covered in poison ivy vines. The trees cross, letting in the rain. Water only speeds up the decomposition process. In the lobby, chimney bricks that fell during Super Hurricane Sandy are stacked on wooden pallets in hopes of being used in a future restoration.

Save Ellis Island offers limited guided tours of the hospital complex with headphones for $25 per person. An exhibition of the artist JR is presented throughout the hospital complex. The proceeds from the visits are devoted to the maintenance and restoration of the hospital complex.

“It takes a lot of money to do anything from mowing the grass to returning artifacts to the south side of the island,” McInnes says.

He estimates that a complete restoration of the south side of the island would cost around half a billion dollars, a price that increases every year.