From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Immigrants aboard steamships coming into the New York Harbor got their first glances of America, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, which was the immigration processing facility. These immigrants traveled weeks aboard ships, often in extremely tight, unsanitary, and difficult conditions, to take their chances on gaining liberty and a new life. Now administered by the National Park Service as Statue of Liberty National Monument, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island help to preserve the memories and stories of immigrants from many countries who envisioned a better life for themselves by leaving their homelands to make an extraordinary migration to the United States of America.
The Statue of Liberty was herself an immigrant. Frenchman Edouardo de Laboulaye had the original idea for the statue around 1865. He recognized the United States as a nation that honored freedom, liberty, and democracy. De Laboulaye saw the symbolic gift as a way to honor the United States and to reflect his wish for a democracy in France. De Laboulaye commissioned a young sculptor, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, to design the sculpture. Years later, Bartholdi completed a design for a colossal statue in the shape of a goddess upholding the torch of liberty, which he entitled, “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The design was accepted and the Franco-American Union was created in order to raise money for this joint project of two nations: the French were to design and assemble the statue while the Americans were responsible for the statue’s pedestal. Gustave Eiffel designed the statue’s internal framework in 1879. Constructed in France between 1875 and 1884, the copper statue “Liberty Enlightening the World” arrived in New York on June 17, 1885 in 214 specially built wooden cases.
Today, visitors may take ranger led or self-guided tours of Liberty Island and of the Statue of Liberty. Inside the lobby in the pedestal of the statue, visitors can view the original torch and the Statue of Liberty Exhibit. They can also walk around the 11-point star-shaped Fort Wood and then take an elevator to the ten-story pedestal observatory. The observatory offers full circle views of New York harbor and a close-up of Lady Liberty.
Ellis Island Main Building
Courtesy of the National Park Service
Liberty’s image and symbolic meanings have continually changed since her dedication on October 28, 1886. During the late 19th century, one of the largest periods of immigration in American history, Liberty stood as a “Mother of Exiles,” and provided thousands of immigrants with their first visual representation of America, liberty, and freedom. Throughout the 19th century, political instability, religious persecution, unstable economies, and vast unemployment prompted many Europeans to leave their homelands to take their chances on a better life in the United States. On the final stretch of their journey, as immigrants made their way into New York Harbor and to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty served as a colossal symbol of freedom and opportunity for all newcomers to the United States.
Prior to 1890, individual States regulated immigration into the United States, but as immigration rapidly increased, Federal officials realized that the State-run facilities were not equipped to handle the large quantities of people coming to the United States. The Federal Government opened a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island on January 1, 1882, but the wooden station burned to the ground only five years later. In December 1900, the Federal Government opened a new, fire-proof Renaissance-style Federal immigration station on Ellis Island welcoming 2,251 immigrants on opening day.
Immigrant inspection at Ellis Island
Courtesy of the National Park Service
Once immigrant steamships docked in New York Harbor, first and second class passengers disembarked while the “steerage” passengers were transferred to Ellis Island by ferries and barges. Once at the immigration station on Ellis Island, immigrants underwent a medical and legal inspection. In the great examination hall on the second floor of the main immigration building, also known as the Registry Room, doctors and inspectors questioned and assessed each individual. Inspectors asked immigrants 29 questions including full name, place of birth, occupation, destination, and amount of money carried. For the vast majority, this process was extremely quick, and within a few hours, the immigrants were free to start their new lives in America. The Registry Room with its impressive terra-cotta ceiling is still standing, the place where millions of future Americans gained entry to their new home in the United States.
With the passage of the Immigration Law of 1924, the Federal Government transferred examination of prospective immigrants to American consulates overseas. Throughout the 1920s only a small number of detained immigrants passed through Ellis Island, and in 1954, it closed. The Ellis Island immigration station had processed more than 12 million immigrants; over 40 percent of today’s American population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. The Ellis Island immigration station rapidly deteriorated between 1954 and 1980, when finally a large restoration project began. In 1990, the restored Main Building opened as the Ellis Island Museum.
Today, visitors can take self-guided or ranger-led tours of the three-floor Ellis Island Museum. On the ranger-guided tours, visitors will learn about the island’s history and about immigration history. In the many galleries in the main building, experience the sights and sounds immigrants first encountered on American shores. Visitors may also search the database of immigrant manifests to discover their family’s ancestry at the American Family Immigration History Center.
Statue of Liberty National Monument, a unit of the National Park System that includes the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, is located in Lower New York Harbor slightly over one mile from Lower Manhattan, NY. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files: text and photos. The Statue of Liberty National Monument is listed on the World Heritage List. Statue of Liberty National Monument is open daily every day except Christmas, December 25, when it is closed. The park is accessible by Statue Cruises Ferry Service only. The National Park Service recommends planning your visit, making reservations and purchasing tickets prior to the day of your visit. For more information, visit the Statue of Liberty National Monument website or call 212-363-3200.
The Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island have also been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey.
Last updated: August 11, 2017