Finding the Forgotten: A behind-the-scenes tour of Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital
‘Brooklyn was intimately connected with Ellis Island’
Inside one of the most famous monuments in the world is a bronze plaque that reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus,” placed on the Statue of Liberty, has for centuries served as a beacon of hope and promise for the millions of immigrants who sought and continue to pursue a better life in America.
One word, however, is noticeably missing from Lazarus’ poem. She does not write, “Give me your tired, your poor, your ailing.”
Many of the migrants who traveled across the globe to enter America were weary and, indeed, impoverished. But those who were sick were not permitted entry into the country until their health improved.
Those with contagious diseases were even forced into quarantine, and some, depending on their illness, were sent back to their home country.
Immigrants arrived on steam ships in The Narrows, the channel of water between Bay Ridge and Staten Island. A boat from Ellis Island, equipped with two Public Health Service (PHS) doctors, would meet the vessel and evaluate the health of its passengers, starting with the first and second-class cabins, followed by third-class and steerage.
“The first thing that those [doctors] looked at was quarantine,” Jim Peskin, senior guide at Ellis Island, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “If anyone had cholera, typhus or the bubonic plague … the whole ship was stopped. Everyone on the boat was detained until the quarantine had passed.
“They would inspect all of the people there to see if they were medically OK to enter the U.S. They would do that while the boat would steam from The Narrows to the docks,” which were located in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Hoboken, N.J.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants with infectious diseases were quarantined on Hoffman and Swinburne islands, two manmade islets off Staten Island.
Although Ellis Island is technically in New Jersey — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that only a small portion belongs to New York — there are still many Brooklyn connections worth exploring, including the fact that hundreds of thousands of eventual Brooklyn residents passed through both the hospital and the immigration station.
Prior to the opening of the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital in 1902, the sick and those who needed to be observed were sent to several hospitals in New York City, including Long Island College Hospital (LICH) in Cobble Hill.
LICH was one of the primary hospitals used by the PHS for immigrant care from 1897 until 1906, although it continued to admit patients until 1911, but on a much smaller scale.
“Immigration peaked in 1907, so one can see LICH was in use at the absolute pinnacle of the 19th-century wave of immigration,” Peskin said.
“Some [patients] got better and entered the United States and some of them died there as well,” he added. “So Brooklyn was intimately connected with Ellis Island for about nine years.”
Even after the Immigrant Hospital opened in 1902, people were still sent to LICH because Ellis Island only had a general infirmary and could not treat infectious disease patients.
At that point, LICH was receiving the “the sickest of the sick,” according to Peskin.
Just more than a million, or 10 percent of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, stayed at the Immigrant Hospital until it closed in 1951 after 49 years of operation.
The intake of patients was profitable for Brooklyn because LICH charged PHS $2 a day for each patient.
Although tallies are not available for every year, some statistics are accessible.
For example, in 1901, LICH admitted 1,954 people. In 1902, that number grew to 1,969 with 45 people dying.
In 1903, 1,035 people were admitted, of which 15 died. By 1909, the number of patients dropped to 96 with only three deaths. In 1910, 23 people were admitted to the hospital with two people perishing.
In 1911, when the infectious disease hospital on Ellis Island opened, PHS stopped sending patients to Brooklyn.
The city did, however, continue to send its dead to the borough. The deceased were buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens on the border of Bushwick and Cypress Hills.
A Journey Through Time
While many have ventured to Ellis Island to learn about the millions of immigrants who passed through its doors, fewer have visited the Immigrant Hospital, located on two southern islands.
Ellis Island is made of three islets: one had the immigration station, another housed the general hospital and a third supported the infectious disease hospital.
Normally off-limits to the public, the Eagle received a behind-the-scenes hardhat tour of the eerie hospital complex, which featured 750 beds: 300 at the general hospital and 450 at the infectious disease hospital.
Save Ellis Island, an organization rehabilitating the infirmary’s 29 buildings, uses proceeds from the tours to restore the structures.
The city used excavated soil from the New York City subway to build the southern two islands.
Placed within the commotion of New York Harbor, ships pass the island nonstop. A Staten Island Ferry bellows, announcing its departure from Whitehall Terminal. A tour boat bursting with colorful rain slickers zips by.
Despite the movement surrounding the island, it’s strangely quiet, a contrast to the daily cacophony of the city.
The Eagle tours the hospital on a wet, gray day. There’s a cool dampness inside the cavernous complex. Sporadic drips echo from far-off corners.
Rusted pipes and walls with peeling paint stretch off into the distance for as far as the eye can see.
Rain stirs up scents of damp grass, wet wood and moist metal. Moss and ivy hug the building, fused lines of natural and artificial sources, one and the same.
The compound — a labyrinth of nooks, crannies, halls, courtyards, sunrooms, recreation centers and bedrooms — begs to be explored.
Scattered about the buildings are 25 life-size photos installed by Oscar-nominated director and photographer JR, the French artist who created a sculpture of a baby peering over the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The photos, which depict real immigrants from the Ellis Island archives, are placed throughout the complex. They are, however, missing from one room: the morgue.
Walking into the mortuary, there’s a noticeable stillness. Late-afternoon light creeps into the space. JR deliberately refrained from placing photos here because it was, according to Peskin, “already an evocative place.”
The most moving section, however, is the Isolation Ward, where patients with more than one contagious disease stayed.
Entering this division, one cannot help but feel sentimental. Many of the patients who were kept here were certain to die. Nurses could only hold their hand and give them painkillers, their fate already decided.
The Statue of Liberty sits off in the distance. It’s a startling contrast, a symbol of opportunity and freedom so close, yet never attainable.
“What makes it so fragile is this was their final view,” Peskin said.
A talk with Barry Moreno, the historian of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, reveals several other lesser-known Brooklyn connections.
For example, the last alien to go through Ellis Island was Arnie Peterson, a Norwegian sailor staying in Brooklyn.
“Arnie Peterson is interesting because he was the last alien at Ellis Island held on a charge, and he willingly was repatriated to his country Norway,” Moreno told the Eagle.
He added, “Brooklyn had a massive Norwegian population, so Peterson naturally drifted to Brooklyn, where his fellow countrymen already were living. He could hear his own language spoken there in the streets, so it was only natural for him to go to Brooklyn.”
In addition, several of Ellis Island’s commissioners of immigration were from Brooklyn, including Thomas Fitchie and Rudolph Reimer.
Thomas Fitchie, who was an “honest Brooklynite,” according to Moreno, did not find out he had been appointed commissioner of immigration by President William McKinley in 1897 until he read a morning edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Reimer as commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island in 1934. Reimer, who lived at 2 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights, would frequently speak on the radio about the conditions on Ellis Island.
“He ran Ellis Island for six years until he retired in 1940,” Moreno said. “He owned an important bank in Brooklyn. He was from there, he ran Ellis Island during the Great Depression, during a period where there were a lot of deportations in fact.”
While it’s debatable how much of Ellis Island is officially in New York City, what is unquestionable is the influence that Brooklyn, the city’s largest borough, played in not only the smooth operation of Ellis Island, but in shaping the landscape of America as a whole.
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