Sunday, September 7, 2014

Excursion to Ellis Island

Grandma and Grandpa with baby Jacob, 1912
I spent last weekend in New York City, during which time I had an opportunity to take a trip via ferry to Ellis Island. Although my grandparents did not enter the United States through Ellis Island in 1911, visiting the museum there gave me a good idea of how it was for the twelve million other immigrants who were processed through that point of entry between 1892 and 1954.

Grandma and Grandpa Vanden Bergh left the Netherlands in May 1911, the day after their wedding. In later years, Grandma was always quick to tell people that they did not travel "steerage," but rather had saved enough money to purchase second-class tickets aboard the SS Potsdam. Thus, they apparently went through the customs and immigration formalities at Hoboken, New Jersey, instead of Ellis Island.

It was a thrill, though, to stand on the deck of the ferry crossing New York Harbor, and glide past the Statue of Liberty, and try to imagine what their thoughts might have been as they caught sight of the statue for the first time.

Liberty Island, from ferry

Coincidentally, as I stood on the deck of the ferry taking pictures, I heard the sound of Dutch being spoken next to me. I couldn't resist telling the family of Dutch tourists about my grandparents' passage to the United States through that very same harbor a hundred years ago. Of course, they politely corrected my pronunciation of our grandparents' hometowns, Loosdrecht and s'Graveland. The Dutch family disembarked at Liberty Island, while I continued on to Ellis Island.

The main building on Ellis Island, which now houses the museum, was opened in 1900.

Ellis Island - Museum

As I clambered up the stairs to the great hall on the second floor to the main room where the arriving immigrants were interviewed, once again I heard Dutch spoken by more tourists. It was an almost eerie echo reminding me of past generations.

Exhibits along the walls and in adjoining rooms gave a vivid idea of what it was like to pass through the medical exams, background checks, and interviews. Immigrants were scanned for contagious diseases in a six-second preliminary check-up even while they snaked up the stairs. This check consisted partly of an eye examination for trachoma, when a button hook was used to turn back the person's eyelid to check for inflammation.

Those with contagious diseases, which they may have contracted aboard ship, were sent to be cared for at the hospital that was part of the island's complex of buildings. Staff at the facility included nurses, doctors, inspectors, clerks, and interpreters for the myriad languages spoken by the newcomers.

Because of the vast numbers of people who passed through the doors, it is easy to get the idea that the process was necessarily a very impersonal one. But various details included in the exhibits do paint a picture that includes a more personal touch, for example the note that children staying at the complex were served an evening snack of warm milk; or the instruction to nurses caring for sick children "not to kiss the children" for fear of catching whatever ailment the sick child had.

After visiting the museum, I went outside to study the Immigrant Wall of Honor, in hopes of locating my grandparents' names. Although they had not come through Ellis Island, but arrived during the era that the point of entry was active, my mother had registered their names for addition to the wall. After consulting the alphabetical chart, and walking twice along the perimeter of the monument, I found them, among a number of other Dutch names: Barend and Elizabeth Daams Van den Bergh.

It would soon be time to catch the ferry back to Manhattan, but I couldn't resist taking one last photo of the skyline, in which I was able to capture the old and the new: a three-masted sailing ship in the shadow of the skyscrapers, including the new World Trade Center:

Manhattan skyline with sailing ship

And aboard the ferry on the return trip, one more photo of the Statue of Liberty against the Manhattan skyline:

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For much more information about Ellis Island, go to the National Park Services Web site at:  

To learn more details about my grandparents' early lives and voyage to America in 1911, you may wish to take a look at these earlier posts:

Starched Caps and Aprons

Making Plans

Arrival at Last

Settling In

A Home of Their Own

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