If you’ve ever visited Ellis Island, you know that when your ferry pulls up to the island, you exit the boat and you are immediately in front of the large building that was once the immigration station. This is the building through which all steerage-class immigrants passed before entering New York. But it’s only part of the island’s history.
If, just after exiting the ferry, you were to turn around and look across to the south side of the island, you would see the 29 buildings that were part of the Ellis Island hospital complex and Coast Guard station. The building that connects the two sides of the island is the ferry building, which dates from the 1930s and has been partially open to the public since 2008. The ferry building features an exhibit about the hospital and can be visited on a guided tour, but the rest of the buildings are off limits except for in special cases.
In 2010 as an intern at Ellis Island, I was lucky enough to visit the south side of the island with the resident archaeologist. It has a fascinating history all its own, and it had a big impact on American history apart from its role in the lives of thousands of immigrants. But the buildings need serious TLC.
Everyone who has heard of Ellis Island knows the horror stories of families being separated, of large chalk letters being written on coats marking people’s fates. Those who were suffering from curable illnesses between 1902 and 1930 were simply shuttled to the south side of the island to recuperate at the hospital, along with sick first- and second-class passengers. If you look at an aerial view of the island, you might notice how many right angles it has: the natural island was expanded in stages (originally comprising three separate islands) until 1934 in order to incorporate new buildings. These artificial portions of the island technically belong to New Jersey, while the original sections (only 20% of the land) belong to New York, though the land is federally governed as part of the National Park Service.
At the time of its operation, the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was the largest public health institution in the United States. It was also one of the most advanced hospitals, especially the Contagious Disease Ward that opened in 1911. The hospital complex included not only medical buildings but also staff housing, a massive kitchen, and two laundries. The hospital had only a short life. By the 1930s, Ellis Island was used only for special immigrant cases. For the next twenty years, the immigration station and hospital buildings were used by the Coast Guard and wounded soldiers. Since the 1950s, most of the buildings have been sitting unused, visited only occasionally, their stories often left untold.
In 1999, a public/private partnership enabled the stabilization of all the south side buildings. This involved clearing vegetation, window repair, removal of asbestos, general structural repairs, and installing fire protection. However, work on the south side of the island is far from complete, especially since some of the earlier work was undone by Hurricane Sandy last year.
While on our tour of the hospital complex, what I thought was the strangest—and possibly the saddest—was that all the fans were still plugged into the walls. As if someone was going to come back any day and use them again.
Ellis Island was closed between October 2012 and October 2013 due to damage from Hurricane Sandy. The immigrant station is now open again.
You can read more about the Ellis Island Hospital Complex on the website of the National Trust and on the public/private partnership Save Ellis Island‘s website, or check out this 2007 article from the New York Times. You can also read the 1993 report by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee. PBS aired a documentary about the hospital complex in 2009.