No sooner had the doors to Ellis Island’s main building opened on Oct. 28 than a flood of visitors surged in. For the first time in a year, the high-ceilinged Baggage Room — where immigrants once left their possessions while they went upstairs to the Registry Room to be processed — resounded with a babel of voices in many languages. Between 1900 and 1924, this room was the main immigration portal to the United States. An estimated 12 million people passed through here.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Ellis Island and its immigration museum, landmarks of New York harbor, were ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. For a year, the island was dark. The ferry building and its exhibits were destroyed, all of the heating and air conditioning systems on the island were smashed, the telephone and electrical systems knocked out.
“The entire basement [of the main building] was flooded,” said David Luchsinger, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. “Fortunately, the floodwaters did not reach the first, second or third floors of the building so the artifacts and exhibits were undamaged. However, because there was neither heat nor air conditioning or any climate control, the artifacts had to be moved to Maryland for safekeeping.”
Early surveys of the damage yielded a grim prognosis. It was deemed unlikely that Ellis Island could open again until 2014 at the earliest. But Luchsinger hoped otherwise.
Oct. 28 would be the 127th anniversary of the opening of the Statue of Liberty on neighboring Liberty Island. It would be a glorious way of marking that historic occasion and a declaration of hope if Ellis Island could at least partially reopen.
“To be able to open this place up again and welcome visitors is totally heartwarming,” said Luchsinger. “The statue and Ellis are international icons. They’re not just for the United States. They’re for everybody.”
On opening day, 5,725 people came to Ellis Island. “We were thrilled,” said one of them, Lucy Beck of Corona, Calif. “We were so lucky.”
“The restoration of Ellis Island has been extremely complicated because it’s a historical building,” Luchsinger explained. The main building and several of its satellite buildings date from 1900.
“Liberty Island was easier to restore than Ellis Island because the statue itself was unharmed by Superstorm Sandy. The utilities for that building were inside the monument itself.” Liberty Island reopened on July 4, 2013.
It will take about six months longer to bring Ellis Island back to the way it was before Sandy. The renovation costs for the two islands will probably exceed $77 million, authorized last year by Congress. The work is being done with an eye to future storms.
“Because this is a historic structure, there will be a certain amount of infrastructure still in the basement but it will be cleanable and repairable,” said Luchsinger. In the event of another major storm, “What cost $27 million [to repair] after Sandy will probably cost about half a million to fix and it would probably take two to four weeks to reopen.”
More than a million artifacts from Ellis Island have been stored in Maryland. They include pictures, papers and the clothes that people wore when they arrived.
“When people came here, they wanted to impress us because they were coming to the land where the streets were paved with gold,” Luchsinger said. “They would come in their finest clothes. We have special things like musical instruments, spinning wheels, even cooking utensils. We even have a teddy bear and toys that the kids brought. It’s very moving.”
Ellis Island’s main building is currently being heated with old radiators that use steam heat. A more sustainable heating, air conditioning and electrical system will be installed by spring, with a target date of May 1.
As soon as climate control has been stabilized in the main building, the collection will be reinstalled. This will begin to happen gradually over the next few months.
In the meantime, visitors can see the Baggage Room and the Great Hall, where they can sit on some of the scuffed, oak benches where immigrants once waited for an inspector to call their names. They can study the beautiful ceiling, designed by a Spanish immigrant named Rafael Guastavino. They can walk on the polished terra cotta floor, installed in 1916 and perhaps once trod by their ancestors.
Three hundred and fifty people were born on Ellis Island. Around 3,500 people died there. The island’s structures include several hospital buildings and a morgue — none of them currently open to the public.
“Are there ghosts here?” I asked Barry Moreno, Ellis Island’s historian..
“I haven’t seen them,” he replied, “but many people have. There are people who refuse to work here at night. A lot happened here — families were separated, their luggage was stolen, there were abusive guards, fights, rapes, suicides, one murder that I know about. One woman was detained here for two years without being formally charged with anything. It was called “the island of hope, the island of tears.”
Ellis Island’s theater has reopened and is showing the film Island of Hope, Island of Tears. In heavily accented English, even after many years of residence in the United States, some of the immigrants recount their stories.
“I had a coat and a dress and a pair of shoes,” says one of the women in the film. “That was it.”
They tell of poverty and persecution in their native lands, the hardships of the voyage in steamship steerage, their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, their fear and bewilderment during processing at Ellis Island, and their joy when they were accepted.
Rangers give tours lasting from 45 to 90 minutes, plus audio tours in nine languages are included in the price of the ferry trip from either Battery Park in Manhattan or Liberty State Park in New Jersey.
A multimedia exhibit called The Peopling of America, 1550-1890 has reopened, telling the story of immigration before Ellis Island opened as the country’s first federal immigration station. A companion exhibit will open in the fall of 2014 telling about immigration after Ellis Island closed in 1954.
On the grounds of Ellis Island, people can see the remnants of Fort Gibson, which was built to protect New York harbor just before the War of 1812.
“We didn’t even know it was still here until we started doing the renovations,” Luchsinger remarked.
The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, which is outside, was undamaged by Sandy. It lists the names of individuals and families who emigrated to the United States and whose families donated to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
On Oct. 28, a beautiful fall day when the sky was piercingly blue and the island’s honey locust and maple trees blazed yellow and red, a flock of Canada geese grazed on the lawns before resuming their journey southward. Migrating warblers alighted in the trees, which framed Manhattan’s skyscrapers, so near and yet so far.
After learning about what the immigrants went through and musing on their courage, this was a place to linger. Ellis Island was tranquil, the ghosts were at rest, the storm was far away.