Public Gets First Look in Decades of Long-neglected Ellis Island Hospital

Public Gets First Look in Decades of Long-neglected Ellis Island Hospital

ELLIS ISLAND — As Janis Calella wound her way through the dimly-lit corridors of the long-shuttered hospital on Ellis Island, she spoke of the sickness and disease, life and death, hope and despair that unfolded within its walls.

Though roughly 1.2 million of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island received treatment in the medical complex, Calella said the history there has long been overlooked.

That history will be on display next week, as the hospital opens to the public for the first time in more than 60 years. Ahead of that official opening, Save Ellis Island this morning held a media tour of the complex.

“There’s a big story here, that the masses of visitors that come here and the public have yet to hear, and that story is how the United States took care of [sick] immigrants once they got here,” said Calella, president of Save Ellis Island, a partner of the National Park Service that oversees the rehabilitation and preservation of unrestored buildings on the island. “It’s a story that will complete the entire story of Ellis Island.”

Decades of neglect have taken their toll on the complex. Outside light filters into the powerless complex through busted and missing windows and broken doors. Lime stalactites formed by water dripping through the concrete over the years hang from the ceiling and on a light fixture in a hallway. Electrical panels are encased in rust and leaves and other debris litter the floors of abandoned rooms.

But within its decaying walls are rooms that appear frozen in time. A small table where autopsies were performed sits on a tiled floor in front of raised seating, close to chambers where corpses were stored.

“Doctors from all over would come to watch because they would see diseases that they wouldn’t ordinarily see in their lifetime” said Tony Mrozinski, a retired elementary school principal from Middletown who volunteers with Save Ellis Island.

Mrozinski said autopsies were performed to determine how a person died, but also to try and find a way to better care for people.

“This was a very progressive hospital,” he said. “It was a learning facility.”

The hospital handled people with diseases like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. Some 3,500 people died and 350 babies were born there.

Barry Moreno, historian for the museum at Ellis Island, said construction started on the hospital buildings on Ellis Island in 1901 and was completed by the outbreak of World War I. The hospital was also used as a detention center. Moreno said the U.S. Public Health Service closed the complex in 1951 and then completely left Ellis Island three years later.

“This is a part of a history of immigration that is really not well known because of the fact that this has been virtually, not quite abandoned, but certainly unvisited by people, by the public,” Moreno said. “Now, for the first time in well over 60 years people can actually come to this hospital and see what it was like.”

The 90-minute public tours will be held four days a week and cost $25 per person. Tours are limited to 10 people. Tickets may be purchased through the nation’s park ferry concession, Statue Cruises.

Visitors on the tour will also see parts of an art exhibit by the artist JR called “Unframed – Ellis Island,” which features life-size, historic photos of life on the island.

Standing before one of the images in a hallway, Calella said the exhibit offered a way to bring people back to their rooms and places that they traveled through.

“The photographs that he used, they are all very striking,” she said, “but now they come to life.”