The First Arrival
On January 1, 1892, teenager Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland, became the first person admitted to the new immigration station on Ellis Island. On that opening day, she received a greeting from officials and a $10.00 gold piece. Annie traveled to New York with her two younger brothers on steerage aboard the S.S. Nevada, which left Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, on December 20, 1891 and arrived in New York on the evening of December 31. After being processed, the children were reunited with their parents, who were already living in New York.
Beware the Buttonhook Men
Doctors checked those passing through Ellis Island for more than 60 diseases and disabilities that might disqualify them from entry into the United States. Those suspected of being afflicted with a having a disease or disability were marked with chalk and detained for closer examination. All immigrants were checked closely for trachoma, a contagious eye condition that caused more detainments and deportations than any other ailment. To check for trachoma, the examiner used a buttonhook to turn each immigrant’s eyelids inside out, a procedure remembered by many Ellis Island arrivals as particularly painful and terrifying.
Dining at Ellis Island
Food was plentiful at Ellis Island, despite various opinions as to its quality. A typical meal served in the dining hall might include beef stew, potatoes, bread and herring (a very cheap fish); or baked beans and stewed prunes. Immigrants were introduced to new foods, such as bananas, sandwiches and ice cream, as well as unfamiliar preparations. To meet the special dietary requirements of Jewish immigrants, a kosher kitchen was built in 1911. In addition to the free meals served, independent concessions sold packaged food that immigrants often bought to eat while they waited or take with them when they left the island.
Many famous figures passed through Ellis Island, some leaving their original names behind on their entry into the U.S. Israel Beilin–better known as composer Irving Berlin–arrived in 1893; Angelo Siciliano, who arrived in 1903, later achieved fame as the bodybuilder Charles Atlas. Lily Chaucoin arrived from France to New York in 1911 and found Hollywood stardom as Claudette Colbert. Some were already famous when they arrived, such as Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud (both 1909), while some, like Charles Chaplin (1912) would make their name in the New World.
A Future Mayor
Fiorello La Guardia, the future mayor of New York City, worked as an interpreter for the Immigration Service at Ellis Island from 1907 to 1910, while he was completing law school at New York University. Born in New York in 1882 to immigrants of Italian and Jewish ancestry, La Guardia lived for a time in Hungary and worked at the American consulates in Budapest and other cities. From his experience at Ellis Island, La Guardia came to believe that many of the deportations for so-called mental illness were unjustified, often due to communication problems or to the ignorance of doctors doing the inspections.
“I’m Coming to New Jersey”
After the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state of New Jersey, not New York, had authority over the majority of the 27.5 acres that make up Ellis Island, one of the most vocal New York boosters, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, famously remarked of the court’s decision: “They’re still not going to convince me that my grandfather, when he was sitting in Italy, thinking of coming to the United States, and on the shores getting ready to get on that ship in Genoa, was saying to himself, ‘I’m coming to New Jersey.’ He knew where he was coming to. He was coming to the streets of New York.”
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