In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, the over eight million immigrants arriving in New York were processed by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan. The Federal Government assumed control of immigration on April 18, 1890, and Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct America's first Federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug, and using landfill from the construction of New York City's subway tunnels and ballast of incoming ships, Ellis Island was expanded to six acres, or twice its original size. While the building was under construction, immigration processing took place at the Barge Office located nearby at the Battery.
The First Immigration Inspection Station
The first federal immigrant inspection station was an enormous three-story tall structure, with outbuildings built of Georgia pine and containing all of the amenities that were thought to be necessary. It opened with celebration on January 1, 1892. Three large ships landed on the first day, and 700 immigrants passed over the docks. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station during its first year.
On June 15, 1897, a fire of unknown origin, possibly caused by faulty wiring, turned the wooden structures on Ellis Island into ashes. No loss of life was reported, but most of the immigration records dating back to 1855 were destroyed. About 1.5 million immigrants had been processed at the first building during its five years of use. Plans were immediately made to build a new, fireproof immigration station on Ellis Island. During the construction period, passenger arrivals were, once again, processed at the Barge Office.
The Second Immigration Inspection Station
The present main structure was designed in French Renaissance Revival style, and built of red brick with limestone trim. When it opened on December 17, 1900, officials estimated 5,000 immigrants per day would be processed. The facilities, however, were barely able to handle the flood of immigrants that arrived in the years just before World War I. Writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia in 1913, and described the night he and many other immigrants slept on bunk beds in a huge hall. Lacking a warm blanket, the young man "shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores" and dreams "in perhaps a dozen different languages. " The facility was so large that the dining room could seat 1,000 people.
After opening, Ellis Island was expanded with landfill and additional structures were built. By its closing in 1954, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration had processed 12 million immigrants . It is estimated that 10.5 million immigrants departed for points across the United States from the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, located just across a narrow strait. Others would have used one of the other terminals along the North River (Hudson River) at that time. The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 processed immigrants. The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were displaced persons or war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans (one third of the population) can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country.
Generally, immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. The American government wanted to ensure that the new arrivals could support themselves and had enough money to get started. The government wanted immigrants to have an average between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island's hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than 3,000 would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered "likely to become a public charge. "
About 2% of immigrants were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons including having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as "The Island of Tears" or "Heartbreak Island" because of the 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs, and kisses, greeted new arrivals.