Ellis Island Reflections

This was the fourth time I had visited Ellis Island since it opened as a museum in 1990, but it was the first time I had brought a group of students with me. It was a long day of touring, but the students in my Immigrant America course (and a few others–including my family) were up to the task.

We left the friendly confines of Grantham, PA at 7:00am and placed ourselves under the care of Larry, our fearless coach bus driver. The students seemed to develop a connection with Larry as he regaled us over his microphone with stories of animal bridges on Route 78, live reports from Williams Grove Speedway where his son was racing sprint cars, and his experience as a sailor on the U.S.S. Intrepid.

We arrived at Battery Park around 10:30 and enjoyed our bagged lunches. (Thanks to Sarah and Abby for getting this all taken care of and for lugging the bag of ice packs around all day!). Around 11:15 we headed into the Clinton Castle, a War of 1812 fort on the tip of Manhattan, and then boarded our ferry.

It was a beautiful day in New York. The skies were clear. The views of the city were breathtaking. We spent about an hour on Liberty Island where students got their pictures taken in front of the Statue of Liberty. We learned about historical figures such as Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed Lady Liberty; Gustave Eiffel, who designed the framework of the statue; and Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper editor who was influential in raising funds for the construction of the pedestal/monument on which the statue stands.

Then it was off to Ellis Island, where we spent the bulk of our day. I am always moved when I visit Ellis Island. As I enter the Great Hall I always reflect on a the story my 99 year-old grandfather told me about arriving there as a young boy in 1913. Like so many immigrants, he passed through registration without incident and then was directed to the “Stairs of Separation” where he walked down the left set of stairs and met his father for the first time. (His father had arrived earlier to establish work and get settled). It was grandpa’s first memory of America.

As I stand in that hall I find myself reflecting on the courage it must have taken for my great-grandparents to leave everything behind and start a new life in the United States. It is this kind of everyday courage that is celebrated at Ellis Island. Frankly, I am not sure I could imagine doing that today, but, of course, the world was different in 1913. My sense of historical contingency was palpable.

Apart from the Great Hall, my favorite part of Ellis Island is the second-floor exhibits devoted to period of “peak immigration.” This section includes some phenomenal photos of eastern and southern European immigrants arriving to the Island around the turn of the twentieth-century.

Most of us watched a 30-minute documentary about Ellis Island, but few of us were expecting the movie to be preceded by a 20-minute lecture by a park ranger on the history of “open immigration” in America. The theater was incredibly hot and I must admit that I fell asleep for about half of the movie. (My wife and daughters insist that it was very good–I am sure it was). I think our time could have been used a bit better. If I had to do it again I would have skipped the movie and had the students join-up with one of the official ranger tours.

In general, the museum is filled with primary sources from the period. If one had the time or the energy she could spend days there. There is so much to see and study. One of the highlights for my daughters was finding their great-grandfather’s name–Giovanni Fia–listed on a 1913 ship register.

As might be expected, we ended the day in the gift shop. Jason, the king of museum gift-shop shoppers, loaded up on an assortment of over-priced souvenirs and memorabilia.

After a long day of touring we headed back to Battery Park, split up for dinner, and then headed home. After some fruitful and engaging conversation with a few students on the relationship between history, theory, and liberal arts education we all settled in for our on-bus movie, “The Princess Bride.”

With Larry behind the wheel we got home around 11pm. Overall it was a long and tiring day, but certainly worth it.

3 thoughts on “Ellis Island Reflections

  1. I had almost an identical experience with the movie. The impromptu lecture, falling asleep and the regret of watching in the first place, instead of spending more time exploring, must be part of the experience.

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  2. John: My wife and I enjoyed thinking through the medical exam exhibits on the west end of the great hall area—and the relation of medicine to immigration overall. But the Great Hall is indeed both impressive and imposing. – TL

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