At the height of immigration between 1902 and 1924, the public was permitted to visit Ellis Island as observers of the “immigrant experience.” The article below written by Ernest Hamlin Abbott, published in the Outlook MAGAZINE.

1902 – Ernest Hamlin Abbott

In October 1902 Ernest Hamlin Abbott published an article in Outlook, describing his impressions after taking a ferryboat to Ellis Island to see how immigrants were processed at the station. His observation included:

At a distance apparently rising from the surface of the water in the middle of the harbor, were some grayish looking buildings. As they came nearer into view they became reddish. It was plain they were of brick with some grey stone trimmings. They were very ugly. The treeless strip of land upon which, as it could now be seen, they rested was Ellis Island, the New York station of the United States Immigration Service under the Treasury Department. Towering high above these buildings, but on the other island, separated by a narrow channel, stood the gigantic bronze Statue of Liberty. The greenish white verdigris that streaked the huge goddess bore witness to her indifference to weather as she symbolizes the freedom which the thousands who pass her shrine are seeking. When the ferryboat had at last entered the slip and was made fast, the passengers streamed out, many to greet relatives or acquaintances among the new arrivals.

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On one side of a long passageway, divided in two by a high partition of iron latticework, some of these passengers from the ferryboat joined a group of respectable-looking men and women who were waiting to see their immigrant friends. On the other side, a few made their way into the building. The first impression which every visitor to Ellis Island must receive is of the surprising cleanliness and good ventilation. The height of the ceilings and number of windows account for the good ventilation; and the statement, made on the authority of the Deputy Commissioner, that the floors, apparently of concrete, are washed from two to five times a day accounts for the cleanliness. If the first building the immigrant encounters is not beautiful, it is at least clean.

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At the end of the passageway is a sort of transept in which is what seemed to be a labyrinth of iron latticework and railings. At one end, near some benches, and seated at work at a desk, was a representative of the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. From his first word of greeting to the end, as he acted as guide and interpreter in conversations with the immigrants, he gave evidence of an unaffected personal care for the individual difficulties and needs which he had to deal – that human feeling which the King James Version calls “charity.” Indeed it was amazing to see how, in spite of the routine that is necessary in managing hundreds and sometimes thousands every day, each individual seemed actuated by the human more than by the professional -motive. The visitor to Ellis Island would have to be of very callous heart not to be conscience of the real tenderness with which helplessness is there treated.


At the end of the passageway was the room of the rejected. It was not easy to face a room full of men whose hope for all their future had been dashed. In the front of the group, crowding near the door, were three figures, as it happened fairly representative. To the right was a man evidently blind, though he was trying to create the impression that he could see; to the left was a tall, gaunt man, “senile at forty-three;” between the two, a pert young fellow, a stowaway, with a smirk and a twinkle, looked up now to the right and now to the left with amusement at their despairing expostulations. Yet every case was not hopeless.

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If it should transpire, for instance, that the middle-aged man, rejected on account of senility , should have some friend, or, rather, near relative who could be made responsible for his support and prevent him from becoming a public charge, he would probably be allowed to enter.

It was half past eleven, the time for dinner. The doors on the corridors were opened. Out streamed the men, women and children. For the most part they passed in silence.

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All made their way to the dining room. There they lost no time is disposing of the big bowls of soup, the generous plates of fish and potatoes, and the cups of steaming coffee. Some, especially the women, made decent even dainty use of spoon and fork; others, especially the men, recklessly poured down soup and coffee, and crowded fish and bread into their gaping mouths. The only sound was that of clinking dishes and of eating. This was no time for social conversation. ..

It was about noon when the announcement was made that a boatload of Italian immigrants that had been transferred from a steamer just come to port was landing at the island. Along the wharf they came trudging, the men staggering along with heavy bags and bundles in their hands, the women either carrying children in their arms or walking along upright and steady under the weight of bundles on their heads. The great hall on the second floor, all marked off into passageways by railings, was ready for their arrival. The doctors, detailed by the army for this work, were standing in position with their hands already dipped into antiseptic. Up the stairs came the immigrants in single file, turned to the right past one doctor, then, passing another doctor, turned to the right again. The trained eye of the physician in most cases was satisfied with a glance. Now and then, however, he would examine the eye of a man or woman, turning the lid back with his skillful fingers. One old man, as he came along, he turned by a motion into a cage at his right. The man looked hungrily, but in vain for some sign of relenting from the officer. The others were sorted out – those whose names appeared together on the same manifest being kept together. Each group was sent past an inspector who verified the statements made on the manifest filled out by the steamship company. There was no time for leisure. The inspector rattled off his questions sharply in Italian; the immigrants, crowding closely and leaning forward, anxiety depicted in every face, answered breathlessly…

And so the lines passed and the inspectors outwardly gruff, but every now and then smiling at some little incident that amused or excited their sympathy. Of the immigrants who had passed the lines, some were buying their railway tickets at a window, others changing money at another. Some were going down the stairway to the right where the room where the railway companies had their agents, passing on their way the lunch counter, where for very small sums they might buy good food for their long journeys. The Immigrant Aide Society here has an opportunity for assisting them in their purchases. Down the staircase to the left were going others who likewise were not detained, but instead of continuing their journey by rail were to remain in New York. It is only among this class of immigrants, independent and self reliant, that the victims of the padrones and runners are to be found. Those who were going down the middle staircase, to be either temporarily detained or finally excluded, had the best protection. To the alien who comes to America the surest defense is defenselessness; his greatest protection is his weakness. He will be released only when the government is sure he will be cared for…

9 Exchange Money

Downstairs the agent of the Italian Immigrant Society was hastening back and forth through the corridors, seeing that the immigrants were delivered safely into the hands of their friends. His work involved an elaborate system of record in books and on cards. After much calling of names and asking of questions, a woman was allowed to receive her sister-in-law, with considerable kissing; a stalwart middle aged man was happily put in charge of his granddaughter; a rough looking laborer was permitted to meet his sister. At last the cards of this group of visitors were all accounted for.