Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History
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Two small islands located side by side in New York harbor contain the Statue of Liberty National Monument. On Liberty Island stands the colossal statue which the French people gave as a gift to the United States for its one hundredth birthday. Within the base of the statue is the American Museum of Immigration, containing exhibits depicting the course of immigration to this nation and the resulting cultural heterogeneity of its population. Nearby, lies Ellis Island, the site of the first federal Immigration station, through which some twelve million persons entered the country between 1892 and 1954 and at which others were detained and eventually deported.

The Statue of Liberty National Monument is unique in that it does not commemorate a particular historic event or personage, but rather celebrates a set of ideas. Originally conceived as a joint memorial to the historic friendship and alliance between France and the United States, forged during the American Revolution, the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World became first and foremost the symbol of the human ideals of liberty and freedom shared by the two sister republics. The statue stood for a second idea as well, although in the period from its erection in 1886 to 1952, this second theme received less attention: namely, the role of the monument as "Mother of Exiles," beacon of hope, opportunity and a new life to millions of immigrants who passed by her on their entry into the United States. This view of the statue's meaning, plus a realization that these "exiles" enriched the culture and contributed to the physical development of America, caught the imagination of both Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the statue, and Emma Lazarus, author of the poem "The New Colossus," the lines of which, cast on a bronze tablet, are housed inside the base of the statue.

With the addition to the Statue of Liberty National Monument of the American Museum of Immigration, conceived in 1952 and opened in 1972, and of Ellis Island in 1965, the association of the monument with immigration and our multi-ethnic heritage became deeper and more widely recognized.

Where, then, does the story of this unique national monument begin? Edouard de Laboulaye, French jurist, admirer of American republicanism, and author of a history of the United States, during a dinner party at his estate near Versailles, in 1865, made a proposal to his guests. Why not have the French people present a monument to the Americans to commemorate the centennial of their nation's independence in 1876? One of those present at the dinner and impressed with the idea was the Alsatian sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. No immediate action came from Laboulaye's proposal, however, and the young sculptor became interested in another project.

Bartholdi had traveled to Egypt in 1856 to see the pyramids and the Sphinx. Their grand scale awed him and confirmed his own predilection for statues of colossal size. He returned to the land of the Nile in 1869, to attend the opening of the Suez Canal. Bartholdi hoped to convince the then ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, to commission the Alsatian to create a monument in the form of a giant peasant woman holding aloft a torch, its theme to be "Progress" or "Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia." This statue would be twice the size of the Sphinx and stand beside the entrance to the canal, serving the double purpose of monument and lighthouse. The pasha rejected the idea, and Bartholdi returned to France to rekindle the American proposal.

The sculptor went to see Laboulaye, who was enthusiastic, brought others into the discussions, and suggested Bartholdi visit the United States to present the project to American friends and officials. In June 1871, Bartholdi arrived in New York. He spoke to President Ulysses S. Grant, who showed no interest, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who promised support, members of the New York French-American Society and others. The sculptor unfolded before them his vision of a colossal statue in the classical tradition to be known as the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. That same year Bedloe's Island (the name of Liberty Island until 1956) was mentioned as probably the most appropriate site on which to erect such a monument. [1]

Up to that point Bedloe's Island had served varied purposes. In 1758 the City of New York acquired it from its private owner to place a quarantine station there. After the Revolution the State of New York took over operation of the facility and, also in cooperation with the federal government, built fortifications on the island as part of the city's harbor defenses. In 1800 title to the property transferred to the federal government, which abandoned the quarantine operation and concentrated on defense. By 1811 it had completed there a new eleven-point, star-shaped structure known as Fort Wood. The fort served as a garrison, and, during the Civil War, as an ordnance depot. [2]

Meanwhile, back in France, Laboulaye became chairman of the Union Franco-Americaine, which launched a fundraising campaign to finance designing and building the statue. Eventually it collected some $400,000 from French cities, private citizens and French corporations doing business with the United States. Bartholdi, starting with a draft sketch in 1871, set to work creating the statue he had envisioned.

In 1877 the United States Congress by joint resolution accepted the French gift and authorized the President to designate a home for it upon either Governors or Bedloe's Island. William M. Evarts, a prominent New York Republican politician, chaired the American Committee that took on the task of raising funds for designing and building the statue's pedestal. During its ten-year existence, the committee grew to a membership of 400 that included such prominent people as the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant; the first president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Taylor Johnson; and industrialist Samul D. Babcock. By 1885, the committee had raised $180,000, most of it through donations from wealthy businessmen, such as John Jacob Astor, Cyrus W. Field, and Andrew Carnegie. [3]

Work in France, however, progressed more rapidly than in America. By 1881 the statue was erected in Paris and ready for shipment to the United States. The American Committee, at that point, had not collected sufficient money to permit construction of the pedestal to commence. Its appeal to Congress for federal funds was killed in the House, and the $180,000 that it had raised by 1885 was still not enough to complete the base. All looked hopeless until Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, launched a public subscription campaign that took in an additional $100,000 from more than 120,000 individual donors. [4]

In April 1883 work on the pedestal began, and by 1886 the base was ready for the colossal statue that stood 151 feet high and weighed 450,000 pounds. Shipped in pieces from France to the United States, the reassembled figure was placed around a framework designed by the French engineer Gustave Eiffel. On October 28 President Grover Cleveland dedicated and unveiled the magnificent French gift, proclaiming, "We will not forget that Liberty has made here her home, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected." [5]

In the years that followed, the federal government's administration of the property sometimes belied Cleveland's ringing promise. The Lighthouse Board of the Treasury Department first took jurisdiction over the statue since some considered it an aid to navigation. In 1901 Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage, however, stated that the monument had no value as a navigational light and was a financial burden on his department. He, therefore, recommended transferring its care to the War Department, which had continued to maintain Fort Wood whose walls surrounded the pedestal. The new arrangement was approved by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. [6]

Although President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the statue a national monument in 1924, its administration by the army continued. Not until 1933 did President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign an executive order transferring the Statue of Liberty to the Department of the Interior, to be administered by the National Park Service. In 1937 the Park Service's jurisdiction was expanded to include all of Bedloe's Island. With the help of labor supplied through the Works Progress Administration, the NPS began to redevelop the area for use as a park. In succeeding years it demolished all of the military buildings outside of old Fort Wood and erected administration, concessions and maintenance buildings and residences for six employees. [7]

The early history of Ellis, the other island comprising today's Statue of Liberty National Monument, parallels that of Bedloe's Island. Like Bedloe's, Ellis Island, named after its last private owner, was first fortified by the State of New York in the 1790s to defend the harbor against a possible British or French attack. In 1808 New York State acquired the island through condemnation proceedings from Samuel Ellis's heirs and turned it over to the federal government for the sum of $10,000. By 1812 it had erected Fort Gibson on the site, making it, along with Fort Wood on Bedloe's Island, Castle William and Fort Columbus on Governor's Island, and the West Battery (later Castle Clinton) at the southern tip of Manhattan, New York harbor's chief defense. An interstate agreement between New York and New Jersey in 1834 declared Bedloe's and Ellis Islands part of New York although both lay on the Jersey side of the main ship channel. Ellis Island continued to house an arsenal and powder magazine until 1890. [8]

During the 19th century thousands of Europeans would see the two islands from ships entering New York harbor, but between 1855 and 1890 immigrants were admitted by New York State at a station in Castle Garden, as Castle Clinton was then called. Then, in 1890, the federal government assumed control over admission of immigrants. It made a study of New York harbor to determine the best location for a new station since Castle Garden was clearly no longer large enough to handle the swelling tide of newcomers.

The army wished to retain its headquarters on Governors Island; New York public opinion objected to the use of Bedloe's Island on which the Statue of Liberty had been dedicated four years earlier. By process of elimination Congress chose Ellis Island, ordered removal of the powder magazine, and appropriated $75,000 to convert it into an immigration reception facility. [9]

By January 1, 1892, the station was ready. The island had been enlarged; a ferry boat basin was constructed, along with a number of buildings made of pine. During the next five years approximately 1.5 million persons were examined and passed through the area. But in 1897, fire broke out, destroying the wooden structures and irreplaceable state and federal immigration records. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.

The federal government awarded a contract in 1898 to the New York firm of Boring and Tilton to design and construct new, fireproof, brick and masonry structures. Two man-made strips of land were connected by a narrow corridor to the original island, now enlarged with landfill. The main or original island housed the massive immigration building, which opened in 1900, as well as the adjacent kitchen and laundry facility and powerhouse, completed in 1901, and other structures built subsequently. Island two, separated from the first by a ferry slip, contained the general hospital buildings, which were opened in 1902, and the third area was used for contagious disease wards, completed in 1909 and opened in 1911. [10]

The main immigration building was finished just in time for the greatest flood of newcomers. Between 1900 and 1914 an average of about 1,000,000 persons a year entered the United States, up to three-quarters of them cleared through Ellis Island. The facilities and inspectors were strained to the limit to keep up with the flow. Additional floors, wings and whole new buildings were constructed to provide essential space (Fig. 1).

The outbreak of World War I in Europe in the summer of 1914 curtailed immigration sharply, with the numbers passing through the island gateway falling by 90 percent. Soon, however, the facilities on Ellis were put to supplemental uses. In 1917, when the United States entered the war against the Central Powers, some 2,200 German sailors, from ships seized in our harbors, and other enemy aliens, were interned there. The following year a large hospital for wounded and injured American servicemen opened. In 1919-1920, during the "great red scare," the government rounded up hundreds of aliens it suspected of being radicals, held them on Ellis and subsequently deported many without a hearing.

The island also suffered war-related damage, when on July 30, 1916, German saboteurs blew up munitions awaiting shipment to Russia on the nearby Black Tom Wharf. Glass shattered, fires broke out, and sections of roof caved in, requiring considerable repair and renovation. [11]

With the return of peace, the number of immigrants again climbed rapidly, and the facilities at Ellis returned to their earlier purpose. Approximately 600,000 newcomers entered the country through this portal in 1921. Restrictive legislation passed during that year and even more importantly the National Origins Quota Act of 1924 brought to an end the period of mass immigration to the United States. The latter not only cut the number who could enter annually to less than 200,000, giving preference to those from northern and western Europe, but also provided that prospective immigrants would be inspected at American consular offices abroad, where visas would be issued to those found acceptable.

From that point on, the Ellis Island station functioned primarily as a detention center for aliens who were about to be deported because of illegal entry or other violations of immigration rules. During World War II the Coast Guard shared the island with a hospital for returning wounded and injured servicemen and detained enemy aliens.

The Coast Guard left in 1946, and Ellis continued to hold those awaiting deportation. After passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950, many of the individuals were persons excluded for suspected radical beliefs or past membership in the Communist party (or less frequently, in Fascist organizations). The Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, was finding operation of the huge, aging facility for this purpose costly and inefficient, especially since the numbers detained were declining. In November 1954, the INS transferred its offices to Manhattan, freed on parole almost all of the remaining aliens and notified the General Services Administration that it had no further need of the property. [12]

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The chapters which follow concentrate on the history of the Statue of Liberty National Monument from 1952 to 1982, since the earlier years have been ably covered by Walter Hugins in his Statue of Liberty National Monument: Its Origins, Development and Administration, which was written for the NPS in 1958. The present study describes how the monument has come to symbolize an expanding set of ideas, how the symbolism has produced responses in various groups of people ranging from celebrations to physical attacks upon the statue, and the manner in which the National Park Service has administered, maintained and planned for its famed property. This work also relates the story of the conception, financing, and development of the American Museum of Immigration, as well as covering the history of Ellis Island from the time when the INS abandoned it, through government attempts to dispose of it, to its incorporation in the monument. The study proceeds to discuss the NPS's problems in administering and preserving the run-down facility. Finally, this account summarizes the efforts now underway by the NPS, in cooperation with the private sector, to repair, restore, and develop the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in time for their respective centennials in 1986 and 1992.

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2001