Note: If you happen to find yourself in New York and visiting the Ellis Island museum; ditch the crowns and join one of the hard hat tours for $20. It’s worth it and you’ll learn a lot more about the history of the Islands.
The original immigration station on Ellis Island opened on the 1st of January 1892 and processed 700 people during the first day. Later that year in September, the Hamburg-America steamer S.S. Moravia arrived at quarantine with a number of confirmed cases of cholera. Each ship arriving in New York was held in quarantine before being cleared to land; passengers found to have a contagious disease were transferred into quarantine at the hospital on the Hoffman or Swinburne Islands. Twenty-four of the Moravia’s passengers were ill and twenty-two deaths had occurred during the voyage and the threat of a pandemic caused all shipping traffic to be suspended. Subsequently, the backlog of ships held at quarantine and the lack of adequate medical facilities to handle the volume of passengers highlighted the need for a more efficient healthcare facility to treat immigrants and sailors.
On the 15th of June, 1897, the wooden immigration station on Ellis Island was destroyed by a serious fire. The state of New York started plans to build a new immigration station on Ellis Island. William Alciphron Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton won the Government design competition for the station, which included the Main Building, Power House, a Kitchen & Laundry building, General Hospital and a resident Surgeon’s House. To accommodate these new buildings, the island was expanded using landfill and a second island was built across a new ferry basin from the Main Building to house the new hospital. It was believed at the time that germs were not able to cross a body of water. The Main Building was completed in 1900, and the new hospital in 1901. However, the volume of immigrants quickly overwhelmed the facility’s capacity and plans were soon prepared to add a new Administration building, which was completed in 1907. An additional hospital wing was added in 1909 that effectively doubled the number of wards. Unfortunately, more cases were arriving with contagious diseases than expected and plans were drawn up as early as 1906 to construct a new Contagious Disease Hospital. Funding was not available to construct the entire hospital, so a phased approach was implemented. The buildings sat vacant for two years until funding for the heating and electrical equipment was provided. As such the Contagious Disease Hospital was not completed or operational until 1911.
Ultimately, over twelve million immigrants were processed through the new Ellis Island Immigration Center during its years of operation. Every immigrant went through a thirty-second health inspection upon arrival; first and second class passengers were inspected on board ship during quarantine, and lower classes were inspected at Ellis Island. Approximately one out of every five passengers were pulled out of line for further evaluation and screening. Half were for legal reasons, and the other half received a chalk mark on their clothing to signal a health deficiency. These immigrants were often sent on to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital to be detained until they were deemed healthy. In the cases that were deemed too sick to enter the United States, the immigrants would be sent back to their home countries. The care was not provided for free and the first few weeks of care were paid for by the steamship companies, who were responsible for the welfare of their passengers until they were cleared for entry. Part of their charge was to screen immigrants before they boarded ship at the port of departure. Thus if an immigrant was not cleared to land and was “excluded” at Ellis Island, they were deported at the steamship company’s expense. Immigrants could post a bond at their own expense, or petition to receive treatment for extended illnesses. Only 1% of the 12 million immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were deported due to medical reasons.
The Immigrant Hospital was initially staffed by the Marine Hospital Service, which became the U.S. Public Health Service. Physicians treated an incredible range of disease, from measles, tuberculosis, trachoma, scarlet fever, Favus, diphtheria and tropical diseases imported from the opposite side of the earth. The hospital was considered to be one of the most extensive public health systems in the world, using advanced methods in medicine that had just been introduced, such as fluoroscopy and an autoclave that could sterilize entire mattresses. By 1914, the hospital was fully operational and in that year over 10,000 patients from 75 different countries were treated.
Twenty years after opening, the hospital and the further complex of Ellis Island was in decline due to tightening restrictions on immigration into the United States. In 1930, the hospital closed. Subsequently, the FBI occupied the space as an office through the 1930s. During World War II, disabled American servicemen were sometimes housed on the islands, as well as some German and Italian prisoners of war. In 1954, the islands were officially abandoned by the Coast Guard and declared “excess federal property”. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund listed the hospital as one of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Properties, a warning echoed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which put the buildings on the list of “most endangered historical places in the United States.” A study conducted by the New York Landmarks Conservancy estimated that with about $3 million of federal funding, the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital could be stabilized for the next 15 years. According to the Conservancy, 15 years would allow time to develop a long-term preservation plan. Efforts to restore the hospital buildings and others on the island are being made by government partner Save Ellis Island. In October 2014, the hospital opened to the public for small-group hard hat tours.