November 12, 1954 – Ellis Island Closes Down

On this day in history, Ellis Island, the symbolic gateway to America located in New York Harbor, ceased operations as a processing center for immigrants.

In 1890, Ellis Island was designated by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as America’s first federal immigration center. Before that time, the processing of immigrants had been handled by individual states.

The new structure on Ellis Island began receiving arriving immigrants on January 1, 1892. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million immigrants came to America via Ellis Island.

The original pine building and all immigration records to date burned down on June 15, 1897. The US Treasury ordered the facility to be rebuilt, specifying that it must be fireproof this time. The new building opened on December 17, 1900.

The original immigration station c. 1892-1897
National Archives and Records Administration

Not all immigrants who sailed into New York went through Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers submitted to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked at the piers in New York or New Jersey, where they passed through customs. People in third class, though, were transported to Ellis Island, where they underwent medical and legal inspections.

The inspection process generally lasted from 3 to 5 hours, taking place in the Great Hall where doctors would scan every individual in what became known as “six second physicals” for obvious ailments.

The newly built Main Immigration Building c.1904-1910.
National Archives and Records Administration

Individuals were then cross-examined by legal inspectors about the information registered on the ship’s manifest log. Interpreters of all major languages were employed at Ellis Island, making the process efficient and ensuring that records were accurate.

Dara Horn, in her book People Love Dead Jews (W. W. Norton, 20210, relates very interesting research that shows Jewish names were not in fact stripped of their identifying characteristics by officials at Ellis Island. Instead, the names were changed afterward, by Jews themselves (as well as by people in other disparaged ethnicities) in the courts. She writes:

“These new Americans and their children, living in what they hoped was the first place in centuries where their families could enjoy full and free lives, soon discovered that when they applied for a job as Rosenberg no one would hire them, but when they applied as Rose, everyone would.”

Only two percent of all immigrants were denied entrance into the U.S. According to an online history provided by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the two main reasons for exclusion were a doctor diagnosing an immigrant with a contagious disease that could endanger the public health, or a legal inspector was concerned an immigrant would likely become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.

The Registry Room in the Main Immigration Building c. 1906.
NPS Photo

1907 marked the busiest year at Ellis Island with approximately 1.25 million immigrants processed.

The Foundation narrates that with mass migration, some politicians and nativists began demanding restrictions on immigration. It reports:

A literary test, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law, quota laws, and the National Origins Act Laws were among the regulations enacted to limit who could enter the U.S., with restrictions based upon the number of ethnic groups already living in the country. As a result, Ellis Island experienced a rapid decline in usage beginning in the early 1920s.”

At the end of WWI, US embassies took over the work of processing potential immigrants, replacing the operations on Ellis Island. The facility remained active for three more decades, however, serving a multitude of purposes, including a World War II detention center for enemy merchant seamen.

In November of 1954, the last remaining detainee on Ellis Island, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen, was released and Ellis Island was officially closed by the U.S. government on this day in history.

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