As we were leaving the Statute of Liberty, the question became whether we wanted to take in Ellis Island, too. There was plenty left of this hot day, and so we thought, sure, why not?
The boats that take you from Jersey City and Manhattan to Liberty Island also loop through Ellis Island, and so it was an easy connection. And it's a good thing we took advantage of it, because in some ways Ellis is even more of a trip than the statue.
Through these portals passed 12 million people moving to the United States from Europe between 1892 and 1924. Some never made it through. For one reason or another -- sickness, lack of money, a criminal past, perceived mental deficiency -- they were sent back to their countries of origin. A cruel fate, considering how nasty, unhealthy, and otherwise hazardous a trans-Atlantic sail was in those days. Still others eventually made their way into America, but only after being detained on the island for extended periods of time. Although the exhibits we saw didn't discuss it, I'm sure that many a would-be immigrant died there.
When I walked the same steps that the immigrants did, I felt a glow that I experience only once in a great while. A little shining. It was a bit like the first trip we took to Edgefield, years ago when it first opened as a hotel. The ghosts were definitely watching.
They may not have included my kin. All eight of my great-grandparents came from Europe to New York, but it's not clear to me that they all came through Ellis Island. That facility opened in 1892, and my grandparents were all born shortly after that. Their parents, the immigrants, may have come through an earlier station on the Battery in Manhattan, but conditions there were probably similar in some respects.
Only part of Ellis Island has been restored, and it's a real shame that the rest of it hasn't been, but you get a fairly clear picture of what life was like there from the exhibits, which are quite good. Throughout the place are listening stations, where you pick up a replica of an old-fashioned telephone receiver and hear the voices of Ellis immigrants telling their stories many years later. Boffo stuff, even if you're not the biggest fan of history.
The buildings are truly impressive. You can imagine what an "immigrant processing station" would look like if the federal government built one today -- probably a compound of glorified double-wide trailers with a barbed-wire fence around it. But for Ellis, the architects and construction folks pulled out all the stops. It's a grand old set of buildings -- one that sent all sorts of strong messages to the immigrants, to our own citizens, and to the rest of the world.
Seeing what the less fortunate of the newcomers were subjected to was fascinating, and it prompted some serious reflections about immigration -- what it was then, what it is now, and what it should be now. There are no easy answers, but an hour or two on Ellis Island will have you asking yourself many of the right questions, at least.
God rest our immigrant ancestors. And God bless our children, who took in the sights on the island with us; when it's time for them to figure out what kind of country they want to present to people who want to move here from other parts of the world, may their memories of this place help guide them.