Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A field trip back in time: The cousins visit Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty
So last Friday, Cousin April, Cousin Andrew, and I made the trek into New York City to go visit Ellis Island. Even though I don't have family who came through there, it's still one of those places that is so steeped in history, so integrated into the very fabric of modern American culture and the personal family histories of millions upon millions living here today, that for anyone with an interest in history or genealogy who has the time and means, the trip is worth it. Even though it wasn't quite the day we thought it would be...

For anyone who has never been, you have to take a ferry to Ellis Island - there's one that leaves from New Jersey but we took the one that leaves from Battery Park. The ferry, unfortunately for anyone just heading to Ellis, servies Liberty Island as well. Since the Statue of Liberty is such a popular tourist attraction (and especially this year, when it turns 125 - boy, she looks good for her age!), that means waiting on an extremely long line just to get on the ferry. I was naive in thinking we'd get down to Battery Park and just hop on board. Oh, how nice that would have been! I think we got into the city at about 10:45 a.m. - we made it onto the 12 noon ferry.

Welcome to Ellis Island!

The trip itself is not that long (thank God for people like April, who have no love of the water), although more time gets chewed up docking at Liberty Island before heading on to Ellis. We got there about 12:30. So already we'd spent almost three hours traveling (from only 30 miles away no less!) and had only just arrived. But Ellis Island is beautiful. The building is gorgeous, both inside and out, the grounds very pleasantly park-like. The people who spent years restoring the place in the late 1980s did a wonderful job.

Ellis is basically a museum, albeit inside the actual building where actual history occurred. There are displays of photos of immigrants, passports that have been donated, old clothing and trunks and other knick-knacks that these immigrants brought with them, along with the stories behind them, as told by the immigrants themselves or their descendants, which is pretty fascinating. Unfortunately, a lot of the display cases were empty as Ellis seems to be in the middle of a big conservation project. My favorite part is walking through the big hall where people lined up and were questioned by immigration agents, dormitories off to the sides, staircases leading to either the ferry that would finally usher them into New York or to detention rooms if they were sick or needed to be held further.

Family possessions on display at Ellis Island.

The Great Hall at Ellis Island.

Now, apparently every site within the National Park Service has a library pertaining to the history and subjects about that site, and April had been corresponding with the head librarian there about their oral history project - interviewing immigrants as well as former employees - and he was out but invited her to stop by the libary to ask one of his techinicians for a tour of the oral history recording room and listening room, and to ask any other questions she might have. I won't name any names, but what should have been a 20 minute stop turned into an hour long visit as the library technician basically showed us the entire library, repeated himself a million times, and didn't pick up on any of the clues April was dropping that we were politely trying to leave. The reading room there is beautiful, I'll admit - I would definitely feel inspired to do research in that room. However, I would have liked to have seen more of the displays and exhibits than just the reading room and the library stacks. (April, it's not your fault!)

The Bob Hope Memorial Library reading room at Ellis Island.
The one other pretty neat thing is that for anyone who doesn't have Ancestry.com or access to passenger lists, Ellis Island has a specific research area where, if you have an ancestor who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, you can look them up on Ellis' database and print out the passenger list. I don't know how much it costs, but especially for that later period of immigration, finding an ancestor on a passenger list can be pretty exciting, not only to see their name, but to see what other information it reveals to you (later passenger lists will often list specific towns a person came from, the name of relatives back home, and all sorts of other information.)

Mentally and physically drained from our hour-long library sojourn, we decided to tour the grounds of Ellis Island. We stepped outside, and it started to pour. When we heard thunder and saw lightning in the not-too-far distance and dark, ominous clouds, we decided it was probably best to just get back on the ferry and head home.

Not all field trips will turn out the way you expect. Did I learn anything new, personally? Not family history related - I did learn to not be quite so polite in trying to extricate myself from a conversation with a person who doesn't pick up on cues you're sending him that you've had enough. But I was reminded that we can do so much research on the computer, just sitting at home, but besides the fact that sometimes you have to go into the field to really get the answers you're seeking, there's something just so inspiring about actually stepping foot into a place where history actually happened.

(All photos courtesy of April Earle)


  1. It IS all my fault! But the adventure confirmed for me that if you're going to take a family history-ish field trip, you should take it with people you love, whose company you enjoy, and who won't blame you for the, um, unexpected.

  2. The unexpected can happen at any time...a field trip can always turn into an adventure. At least if you're with like-minded friends, you have someone to share it and laugh about it with! :)

    (You don't know Jeff...)