Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History
NPS Arrowhead Logo


November 1954 marked the end of an era for Ellis Island. The Immigration and Naturalization Service in that month released on parole the detainees it had been holding there, moved its papers and furnishings to 70 Columbus Avenue, and declared it no longer wanted the facility in the New York harbor.

The move had been a long time coming. In the first decade and a half of the 20th century, immigration officials had admitted approximately one million newcomers a year through the island gateway, but in 1924 Congress all but closed entry to the United States. It provided further that prospective immigrants would be inspected at American consular offices abroad and the lucky few accepted would receive their visas there. From that point on, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center: first, for illegal entrants who were awaiting deportation; during World War II, for enemy aliens; and in the 1950s for foreigners and immigrants suspected of holding communist or other subversive views. In the post-World War II years, the local administrators complained repeatedly to Washington that the station "with its great, wide hall and corridors, high ceilings, unusable spaces and outmoded utilities" was impossible to run efficiently and economically. And so, the place which once resounded with the babel of 5,000 entrants a day speaking a dozen or more languages, now lay quiet and abandoned. It was transferred to the General Services Administration to find some new use for it or dispose of it.

In accordance with the provisions of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, the GSA inquired whether any other federal agencies desired to take over the area. When none expressed an interest, the GSA, in March 1955, declared Ellis Island surplus property.

The GSA next invited state and local governments and qualified non-profit institutions to submit proposals for acquiring and using the site. Several serious suggestions were made. New York City wanted to place a shelter for the aged and homeless there, while Senator Irving Ives of New York introduced a bill for his state to purchase Ellis for use as a clinic for alcoholics. James F. Murray, member of the New Jersey Senate, proposed that his state construct a vehicular causeway to Ellis Island from Jersey City, develop a recreation area on it, and create an ethnic museum memorializing the millions of immigrants who had passed through there. Murray and the New Jersey Commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development, Joseph E. McLean, argued against the rival New York bids on the grounds that the Garden State's plan made a "more appropriate use of the Island" and that Ellis, only a thousand feet off the Jersey shore, rightfully belonged to New Jersey and not New York. [1]

The GSA ultimately rejected all of these proposals. Money was the biggest stumbling block. The GSA estimated that Ellis and its facilities were worth $6,000,000. It held that a governmental buyer would have to come up with at least half of that sum, which neither of the two states nor New York City would or could offer. Secondly, turning over the property to either New York or New Jersey threatened to revive the long-standing argument between them as to who rightfully owned Ellis. The plans of the American Museum of Immigration, Inc., to build a museum at the base of the Statue of Liberty presented a further obstacle to the New Jersey bid. In June 1955, Ten Eyck Lansing, then managing director of the AMI, wrote to Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay, claiming that if the New Jersey idea were accepted it would duplicate the already approved AMI project and interfere with that group's fund-raising efforts. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Orme Lewis reassured Lansing of his department's commitment to the AMI and, in August 1955, wrote to the GSA requesting that "no disposal of Ellis Island be made which will conflict with or duplicate the efforts and expense already made by the American Museum of Immigration. . . ." [2]

After the GSA vetoed all governmental proposals, its Regional Commissioner, Walter F. Downey, in September 1956, announced that Ellis Island would be offered for sale to private buyers for commercial development. On September 18, the GSA placed advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers promoting "ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS LAND MARKS IN THE WORLD." The notice stated that Ellis was a suitable location for an "oil storage depot, import and export processing, warehousing, manufacturing, . . ." and the like. The purchaser would receive 27.5 acres of land and 35 buildings, containing office and storage space, green house, library, dining and baggage rooms, dormitories, and a school. Even the ferry boat "Ellis Island" would be thrown into the package. Interested parties were to submit sealed bids to the GSA's New York office prior to November 19. The agency sent similar circulars to some 1,500 companies and various real estate brokers.

The government's announced intention to award Ellis to the highest commercial bidder provoked an uproar of protest. Numerous letters from those who had entered the United States through Ellis poured in to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A typical one began, "Back in 1914, as an immigrant child from Greece, I first sensed the grandeur of this great country. . .when I landed on the Island." The writer went on to plead with the President to preserve Ellis as a memorial to all of the immigrants who had passed through there. Others wrote to GSA Regional Commissioner Downey. One letter to him from an attorney, whose family traced its entry to Ellis, not the "Mayflower, " stated: "To millions and millions of Americans Ellis Island was the 19th and 20th century counterpart of Plymouth Rock. [T]his little piece of land has associations of deep affection. To see it sold for commercial purposes will be to see it lose its identity and its historic memory." Senator Jacob Javits (Republican-New York) and New York City Mayor Robert Wagner sent telegrams to the Eisenhower Administration expressing their disapproval, and an irate congressman, T. James Tumulty, who had introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to make Ellis a national shrine, wrote to Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton, "If you can auction off Ellis Island, perhaps you will be auctioning off the Statue of Liberty next." [3]

The public outcry induced Eisenhower, on September 24, 1956, to suspend the planned sale to provide time for further study of what to do with the historic site. While the President's action gratified many, it did not please one group. The promoters of the American Museum of Immigration had been running into difficulty raising the seed money for their upcoming public fund-raising campaign. They regarded the development of Ellis Island into an immigrant shrine as a grave threat to their efforts and ultimate success.

The AMI officials put into high gear their efforts to thwart any such plan for Ellis Island. The co-chairmen of the AMI's public drive for contributions, labor leader David J. McDonald and industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, 3rd, issued a joint statement to the press: "It is inconceivable to us that [Ellis Island] should be considered as appropriate for a national tribute to immigration. . . . " The experiences of the immigrants being examined there were often "painful and bewildering. . . .No immigrant was ever attracted to America by Ellis Island. . . .The lodestar for all of them was the Statue of Liberty. . . . Liberty Island is a happy place of continuing inspiration, not a depository of bad memories." William H. Baldwin, originator of the museum of immigration idea, wrote to the New York Times, "Let us retire 'the still shadowy Ellis Island project' into real obscurity and concentrate on the American Museum of Immigration under the full light of the Statue of Liberty." [4]

Behind the scenes, AMI executives Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant, III, spoke to Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Under Secretary of the Interior Hatfield Chilson, and NPS Director Conrad Wirth about helping them head off the feared competition at Ellis Island. All agreed to use their influence on behalf of the AMI. Nixon wrote a letter restating his support for their endeavor and offering to become honorary chairman of the Southern California Citizens Committee for the AMI. Chilson informed the GSA that the creation of a national immigration museum at Ellis Island "would be in direct conflict with a program endorsed by President Eisenhower and the Department of the Interior in 1954, to establish the American Museum of Immigration in the base of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, on Liberty Island." In reply, GSA Administrator Franklin G. Floete assured the secretary that "we will not recommend the use of this property as a museum or historical monument without first consulting your Department." Wirth and NPS Regional Director Ronald Lee promised the AMI that they would continue working with the GSA "to the end that a recommendation of abandonment of the Ellis Island project is forwarded to the President."

Not surprisingly, then, the GSA ruled that proposals to use the site for an immigrant shrine were not feasible, and the agency continued to canvass city, state and federal governments for alternative suggestions. When nothing acceptable materialized, the GSA, early in 1958, again put the facility up for sale to commercial buyers. In February 1958, the GSA received 21 sealed offers, but the highest, from a builder named Sol G. Atlas who wanted to construct luxury apartments, a hotel, marina, heliport, and convention hall there, was for only $201,000. The agency rejected this as far too low. Two more attempts to find a private customer produced no satisfactory results. In each round of bidding, Atlas named the top figure, eventually going up to $1.25 million. The GSA considered the sum still way below the actual worth of the property. [5]

Meanwhile, by 1960, public sentiment in favor of saving the island for cultural and/or educational purposes was again building. Even some of the promoters of the American Museum of Immigration were starting to back the idea. In December 1960, Edward Corsi, former commissioner of immigration, and Sylvan Gotshal (both trustees of the AMI), and Oscar Handlin and Allan Nevins (both members of the AMI historians committee) wrote to the New York Times, proposing that Ellis be named a national monument and maintained by the NPS "as a park for educational and recreational purposes. . . ." They reconciled the supposed conflict with the AMI, by suggesting that displays at Ellis serve as an extension of the principal museum at Liberty Island or that the whole project be moved to Ellis, "should it ultimately seem more appropriate and desirable to locate" it there. Not all of the AMI backers agreed. William Baldwin wrote, to Alexander Hamilton and du Pont, expressing his "sense of shock" at the defection.

Nonetheless, this letter to the Times and similar public statements led the GSA to authorize the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to review proposals to make Ellis available to interested parties who wanted to develop educational or cultural programs there. HEW received a number of applications, including one from Ellis Island for Higher Education, Inc., which listed among its members Seymour Harris, chairman of the economics department at Harvard; Clinton Rossiter, professor of government at Cornell; Eric Goldman, Princeton University history professor; and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. They wished to develop a low-tuition, self-supporting "college of the future." They intended to solicit $6,000,000 from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and from the well-to-do children of the immigrants who once passed through the portals of Ellis, to convert the island into a college campus, complete with foot bridge from the New Jersey shore. The various applicants, however, could not raise the money necessary to undertake their proposals or failed to meet other requirements to make them eligible for using the property under the terms of the 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Services Act. [6]

By 1962, legislators in Washington were also trying to answer the question of what to do with Ellis Island. In the 87th Congress, five bills dealing with the subject were introduced: S 2596 (Ellis for Higher Education, Inc.), S 2852 (transfer of the property to the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey), and S 867, S 1118, and S 1198, which in different versions provided for health, education, and housing projects for the elderly. The Senate referred all of these to its Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations> chaired by Senator Edmund Muskie (Democrat - Maine). New York's two Republican senators, Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating, also served on that subcommittee.

In September 1962, the Muskie group held public hearings in Washington. At that time George B. Hartzog, Jr., associate director of the NPS, read a statement to the subcommittee indicating the Service had not changed its earlier position regarding the island:

[It] does not possess the scenic or scientific attributes that would justify Federal operation as a National Park, Monument, or Recreation Area. The historic significance of Ellis Island lies chiefly in its former operation as an immigration station. . . . In this connection, over $400,000 has been donated for the construction of an American Museum of Immigration [at the Statue of Liberty] . . . . [W]e believe there is represented in the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the American Museum of Immigration adequate commemoration of immigration by the United States.

In these circumstances, we believe that Federal operation or development of the island for memorialization or national monument purposes would not be in the public interest.

In December the subcommittee held two more days of hearings at the United States Mission to the United Nations in New York, where many persons presented their views concerning the historic site. Author Pearl Buck "spoke eloquently for its use as a diagnostic center for mentally retarded children." Congressman Emmanuel Celler (Democrat - Brooklyn) and Governor Richard J. Hughes of New Jersey (Democrat) favored establishment of a university on the grounds. Jersey City officials wanted development of Ellis as part of the improvement plans for their city's waterfront. Rabbi Stephen Wise read a statement calling for a "living museum of immigration." At that point, NPS historian Pitkin, who had been requested to attend the hearings by Regional Director Ronald Lee, became alarmed about the old issue of conflict with the American Museum of Immigration. Pitkin and Alexander Hamilton, who was also watching the proceedings, agreed to prepare a package of material to counteract any museum proposal for Ellis. Pitkin gathered the documents, and Hamilton subsequently handed them to a member of the committee staff. [7]

Throughout the remainder of 1962 and the first three-quarters of 1963, the subcommittee reviewed these and other proposals it continued to receive. No consensus, however, was developing around any one of them. Then, on September 4, 1963, Senator Muskie held an executive meeting of the subcommittee in Washington to which he invited the following, among others: Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Richard Hughes of New Jersey, Mayors Thomas Gangemi of Jersey City and Robert Wagner of New York, Senators Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York and Clifford Case and Harrison Williams of New Jersey, various members of the House of Representatives from New York and New Jersey, Secretary Anthony Celebrezze of HEW, GSA Administrator Bernard Boutin, Housing and Home Finance Administrator Robert Weaver, and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Muskie summarized for the participants what the subcommittee had heard up to that point and asked for their additional thoughts. The representatives from New Jersey spoke further about their plans for developing Liberty State Park on the run-down waterfront of Jersey City. After their presentation, Senator Muskie urged the Department of the Interior "to review the proposal for Ellis Island as a national park, monument, or recreation area in conjunction with the New Jersey shoreline."

One month later, 28 people, representing the Muskie subcommittee, NPS, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the GSA, the Housing and Home Finance Agency, the states of New York and New Jersey, and New York and Jersey Cities, met at Federal Hall to deal with the problem. The participants created an Ellis Island study team, designating NPS Regional Director Ronald Lee and BOR Northeast Regional Director John Sullivan to coordinate its efforts. The study team, working with Lee and Sullivan, visited Ellis Island on several occasions. [8] They also met at various times with the concerned New York and New Jersey officials to review technical questions and to discuss their findings and draft proposals. The team finished its work by the spring, forwarding its report to the Senate subcommittee on June 25, 1964. [9]

The conclusions reached in that report turned around the earlier official position of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. Echoing those horrified at the thought of selling the site for commercial purposes, the study proclaimed that, "Ellis Island has been as important in fact as Plymouth Rock has become in fancy for the descendants of those who came in the first colonization wave." Contradicting the 1962 statement of George Hartzog, the report noted, "...the story of immigration to America is insufficiently commemorated by the nation in the National Park System. . . ." The team, therefore, recommended that "permanent recognition" of the island's historical importance should have first place in its future use. That could best be achieved by designating Ellis as a national monument within the national park system.

The study team stated further that the NPS should administratively join Ellis to the Statue of Liberty National Monument. "Any other administration. . .could well result in independent and uncoordinated programs for the neighboring properties." Here the report turned to the troublesome issue of the relationship between Ellis as a memorial to immigration and the American Museum of Immigration being built on Liberty Island. The study suggested the former site must be developed in a way that augmented, not duplicated what was done in the AMI. Reassuring the promoters of the AMI that the NPS was "firmly committed to. . .carry out the project as planned and in full," the report continued, "this museum will tell the broad story of immigration. It cannot, however, provide the additional vivid experience gained from a personal visit to Ellis Island and to the landmarks and objects visible there."

The report said that the buildings on the older portion of the island should be retained and opened to the public for interpretive tours. That area could also serve as a gathering place for special groups interested in immigration, ethnic festivals, and other outdoor events. Library and exhibit facilities could be developed to explain the history of the immigration station and "its relationship to the broad story of immigration presented at the Statue of Liberty."

The study group recommended that plans for Ellis should also be closely coordinated with New Jersey's work on Liberty State Park. This might be accomplished by turning the newer sections of the island into a park with "promenades, possibly restaurant facilities, picnic facilities, green open space, and a boat basin." A bridge or causeway might be built between the New Jersey shore and Ellis, to make the recreational and historic features more accessible to residents of the Garden State. The team concluded that Congress ought to authorize an Advisory Commission on Ellis Island and direct the NPS to prepare a master plan to spell out the guidelines mentioned in this study.

On a tour of Ellis Island in October 1964, Secretary Udall told reporters that he endorsed the recommendations of the study team, and the Muskie subcommittee indicated that it, too, was persuaded and would recommend that Congress designate the island an historic monument to be administered by the NPS. [10]

Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall on an inspection tour of Ellis Island in October 1964. Afterward, Udall publicly endorsed designating Ellis Island as a national monument and joining it administratively to the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
(Source: Photograph Collection of the American Museum of Immigration, Liberty Island, U.S. Department of the Interior, NPS)

Meanwhile, President Lyndon B. Johnson entered the picture with a characteristic dramatic flair. On May 11, 1965, he issued Proclamation 3656, adding Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Before members of Congress and the press, assembled in the White House Rose Garden for the ceremony, Johnson said,

Between 1892 and 1920, sixteen million immigrants entered America through the open doors of Ellis Island. These men, women and children from many lands enriched the American melting pot. They made us not merely a nation, but a nation of nations.

So I am signing today a proclamation making Ellis Island a part of Liberty Island National Monument [sic]. In addition, I am asking Congress to enact legislation authorizing appropriations to make Ellis Island a handsome shrine in the broad harbor of the great port of New York.

The President also announced that he was approving the establishment of a Jobs Corps Conservation Center on the New Jersey shore adjacent to the island and that the young recruits would soon be put to work restoring Ellis and helping to create Liberty State Park. Johnson ended his remarks with a plea to Congress to pass his immigration reform bill, aimed at abolishing the discriminatory national origins quota system adopted in 1924.

Since the President's proclamation stated that the Department of the Interior was not to expend any funds given it for the Statue of Liberty on development of Ellis Island, unless authorized to do so by Congress, legislation by the House and Senate became imperative. Shortly thereafter, Congressmen Jonathan Bingham (Democrat - New York), Cornelius E. Gallagher (Democrat - New Jersey), and several others introduced bills in the House, while Senator Clifford Case (Republican - New Jersey) and others sponsored similar measures in the Senate. Finally, passed by Congress and signed by the President on August 17, 1965, as Public Law 89-129, the act authorized an appropriation of no more than $6,000,000 to develop Ellis Island as a part of the Statue of Liberty. Not more than $3,000,000 of that sum was to be appropriated during the first five years. [11]

Ellis Island, then, had been saved from losing its historic associations. It would not, after all, pass into private hands for commercial development of luxury apartments, warehousing, or an oil storage depot. Its future, however, was far from settled. Congress had authorized money, but would it follow this up with actual appropriations? Would the monies, if forthcoming, prove adequate for the tremendous job of preservation and interpretation that lay ahead? Besides that, future planners still had to resolve the whole question of which buildings on the island to preserve, restore, or demolish.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 24-Sep-2001