Statue of Liberty National Monument | HARD HAT TOUR OF THE ELLIS ISLAND HOSPITAL

Hard Hat Tour of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex

Hard Hat Tour of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex

Story by Rebecca Dieumegarde and Steve Markos
Hospital photos by Rebecca Dieumegarde and Steve Markos


HARD HAT TOUR LOGISTICS

Save Ellis Island, Inc., the National Park Service partner organization that helps with the preservation of the buildings on Ellis Island, operates a tour of the Hospital Complex, a collection of dilapidated buildings on the south side of the island. The tour takes its name from the fact that participants must wear hard hats. This is the only way to see the hospital ruins, and aside from the Main Immigration building (now the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration), it is the only area of the island open to tourists.

Main immigration building at Ellis Island

Main immigration building at Ellis Island

Tours are held six times a day year-round. There is a fee, and you can purchase tickets in advance on the Statue Cruises website, the official ticket vendor and ferry operator for Statue of Liberty National Monument, or in person the day of the tour at the National Park Service information desk in the Immigration Museum (if any tickets remain). I highly recommend getting a ticket in advance, as only twelve people are allowed on each tour. The current price is $68.50, and this includes a General Admission ticket for Statue of Liberty National Monument ($23.50 value). This allows you to visit the grounds of Liberty Island as well (it does not allow you to go inside the Statue of Liberty). If you want to get inside, you’ll need either a Pedestal or Crown ticket, and you must purchase one of these in addition to the Hard Hat Tour ticket. See the Tickets web page here on National Park Planner for complete information on the types of tickets and how to purchase them.

Information desk at the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum

Information desk at the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum

Tickets for the Hard Hat Tour are not that difficult to get because of the extra fee, plus most people come to the park to see the Statue of Liberty. I attended the 1:30 PM tour on a busy Saturday and only 12 of the 15 tickets were sold in advance, though the remaining three tickets were purchased by walk-up customers.

If departing from Battery Park in Manhattan, the ferry stops at Liberty Island before Ellis Island. The trip to Ellis Island itself takes about an hour, but you must also factor in time to go through security before boarding the ferry. I attended the Hard Hat Tour on two occasions. On the Saturday prior to the New York City Marathon (November 4th), I got in the security line at 10 AM and it took two hours to get through security. By the time I docked at Ellis Island it was 1 PM, and my tour was at 1:30 PM. For my second tour in early August, I had a 2:30 PM ticket, but I was at the ferry dock at 8 AM, a half hour before the security line even opened. Needless to say, I was on the first ferry at 9 AM. I stopped at Liberty Island for a couple of hours, then headed over to Ellis Island and got there in time to have lunch and browse through the museum.

If traveling from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, Ellis Island is the first stop (about 20 minutes from the time you board the ferry). You still have to go through security, but the lines in New Jersey are usually much shorter.

Statue Cruises gives suggested times to be in the ferry security line in order to make a particular Hard Hat Tour. These suggestions are fine if you are departing from New Jersey, but if you are departing from Battery Park during the summer season, I beg to differ on a few of these times, so here are my recommendations. (NOTE:  you can get in line for security at any time regardless of the time stated on your ticket. See the Ferry web page for more information on what to expect when traveling to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.) For the 11:30 AM tour, get on the first ferry at 9 AM. This requires being at the ferry dock at least by 8:30 AM, and 8 AM is even better. You’ll probably get to Ellis Island by 10 AM, but there is plenty to do if you arrive early. You might be thinking, well if I arrive at 8 AM and get to Ellis Island one and a half hours early, why not get in line at 9 AM and get there a half hour early instead? Because by 9 AM the security line may already be long. Remember that in November, I was in line at 10 AM and already had to wait two hours in the security line. It’s just better to get there early and not have to be in a rush or have to worry about missing your Hard Hat Tour.

Be in line by 9 AM for the 12 PM and 12:30 PM Hard Hat Tours. For the 1:30 PM tour, I also suggest getting in line at 9 AM, but for sure no later than 10 AM. Had I taken Statue Cruises advice to be in line by 11 AM, I’d have been a half hour late the first time I did the Hard Hat Tour. Since the security lines get longer as the day goes on, I recommend being in line four hours prior to the 2 PM and 2:30 PM tours. As I said, there is plenty to do at Ellis Island if you arrive an hour or so early.

If you want to do the Hard Hat Tour and get inside the pedestal or crown of the Statue of Liberty, your best strategy is to purchase either an 11:30 AM or 2:30 PM Hard Hat Tour ticket, currently the first and last tours of the day. Either way, your goal is to get on the very first ferry, which currently departs at 9 AM. To do so, I recommend being in line at least 30 minutes before the security line opens at 8:30 AM. When I visited in August, I was in line at 8 AM along with 50 or so other people. Security opened at 8:30 AM, and ten minutes later I was waiting to board the ferry. Had I arrived at 8:30 AM, I’m sure I still would have gotten on the first boat, but better safe than sorry. I booked the 2:30 PM Hard Hat Tour, so I went to Liberty Island first, arriving at 9:30 AM. I had time to visit the Statue of Liberty Museum and go inside the statue with my Pedestal Ticket that I had purchased in addition to my Hard Hat Tour ticket. I did all I came to do and was on the boat to Ellis Island by 11:30 AM. I arrived at Ellis Island twenty minutes later, had lunch, visited the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, and was ready for my Hard Hat Tour without any rushing. I headed back to Battery Park at 4 PM. If you book the early Hard Hat Tour, visit Ellis Island first, then take the New Jersey ferry to Liberty Island and spend the rest of the day visiting the Statue of Liberty.

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, head inside the museum and sign in for the tour at the National Park Service information desk. All participants must sign a waiver. The tour operator asks that you arrive one hour prior to your tour, but this is not necessary. You just need to show up early enough to sign your name. I don’t recommend arriving with five minutes to spare, but fifteen minutes or more should be fine. Once you register, feel free to roam around. Just be back at the information desk ten minutes or so before your tour time. Look for a tour guide wearing a hard hat.

The Hard Hat Tour lasts 1.5 hours, and you will be standing for almost the entire time. There are a few stairs, but the walk is not very demanding, so the tour is appropriate for most people. The buildings, however, are not accessible to those in wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers. Also, guests must be at least 13 years old to attend, and those under 18 must be accompanied by a person at least 18 years old. No sandals, flip-flops, or other open-toed or high-heeled shoes are permitted. There are no restrooms at the hospital.

No audio or video recordings are permitted during the tour, but you can take photos without a flash. You cannot bring tripods or other photography accessories.

ELLIS ISLAND HOSPITAL HISTORY

From 1892 until 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through the Ellis Island Immigration Depot. Upon arrival, each person was subject to a health and psychological inspection. Those who did not pass the initial visual inspection had their shirts or jackets marked with chalk to indicate that further evaluation was required. Approximately 20 percent of the immigrants failed the visual inspection, though most were treated and later allowed to enter the country. Only around 2 percent of the total immigrants coming through Ellis Island were deported, with less than one percent due to having an incurable disease (the rest were sent back for legal reasons).

Ellis Island, which is almost entirely man-made, is comprised of three separate islands. The first island was the checkpoint where all immigrants arrived (the section where the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration is located). This was the only island that existed from the time the Immigration Depot opened in 1892 up until 1902. During these years, immigrants with infectious diseases were quarantined at hospitals on Hoffman and Swinburne islands.

Wooden building complex on the expanded Ellis Island in 1897

Wooden building complex on the expanded Ellis Island in 1897

All buildings on Ellis Island, which were originally made of wood, burned down in a fire on June 15, 1897. The federal government rebuilt the facility using stone and brick, and when it reopened in December 1900, plans were made to build a second island to house Ellis Island’s own 125-bed hospital. This was completed in March 1902. The facility was quickly overwhelmed by patients, and additional buildings were constructed over the next few years. However, those with infectious diseases continued to be quarantined at other hospitals in the Manhattan area.

Ellis Island in 1903

Ellis Island in 1903

The third island was built to hold a Contagious Diseases hospital. The facility was completed in 1909, but did not open until 1911 due to a lack of equipment. There was a 200-foot harbor separating the General Hospital from the Contagious Diseases facility, a distance that was believed to be adequate in preventing diseases from spreading. The harbor was filled in to create a small green space in the 1920s.

Ellis Island around 1920

Ellis Island around 1920

Satellite view of Ellis Island today

Satellite view of Ellis Island today

The Ellis Island hospital closed in 1930, though some of the buildings were used as offices for the FBI. During World War II the island was used by the U. S. Coast Guard, and the hospital reopened to treat wounded soliders. German and Italian POWs where also interned on the island. After the war, part of the facility continued to be used as a military hospital. It wasn’t until 1954 that Ellis Island was entirely closed and the buildings began to decay due to non use.

See the main Ellis Island web page here on National Park Planner to learn more about the history of the island.

VIRTUAL HARD HAT TOUR

The Ellis Island Hospital complex is located on Island 2 (General Hospital) and Island 3 (Contagious Diseases Hospital). An enclosed corridor makes it possible to walk to any building on the island without venturing outdoors. However, depending on the weather, your tour guide may take the group outside instead, cutting across the lawn from the Main Immigration Building to the first stop on the tour, the restored Art Deco-style Ferry Building from 1936. This is where the ferry originally docked at Ellis Island. The building also had offices for the U. S. Customs Service and a lunchroom.

The current Ferry Building replaced an older, dilapidated building that was torn down in 1935. It was built by the Works Progress Administration, an organization designed to get men back to work during the Great Depression by building public works in urban areas. The Ferry Building was restored between 2000 and 2007 by the Save Ellis Island Foundation. As far as the Hard Hat Tour is concerned, this is where the tour group gets its hard hats before heading over to the General Hospital on Island 2.

1936 Ferry Building is where the ferry originally docked at Ellis Island

1936 Ferry Building is where the ferry originally docked at Ellis Island

Inside the restored Ferry Building on Ellis Island

Inside the restored Ferry Building on Ellis Island

The next stop on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour is the hospital’s Laundry Outbuilding in New Jersey. Yes, you heard that right. While Island 1 is in New York, Islands 2 and 3 are in New Jersey. The small, multi-gabled Laundry building is first building you come to when reaching the other side of the harbor between Islands 1 and 2. This facility was completed in December 1901. In addition to housing disinfecting and laundry cleaning equipment, the building had dorm rooms for staff, a morgue, and an autopsy room.

The laundry facility consisted of two large washers and one dryer. Sheets were washed, dried, and ironed, and then placed directly on the beds to avoided being folded. This prevented creases from forming, which could lead to bed sores. Three thousand pieces of linen were washed daily.

Industrial laundry cleaning equipment left behind in the Laundry Building on Ellis Island

Industrial laundry cleaning equipment left behind in the Laundry Building on Ellis Island

Laundry cleaning equipment left behind in the Ellis Island Laundry Building

Laundry cleaning equipment left behind in the Ellis Island Laundry Building

After the Laundry building, the tour heads outside and stops behind the General Hospital. These are the buildings you see when looking across the harbor from the Main Immigration Building. The lawn area that you will be standing on was once the harbor between Islands 2 and 3, and if you recall from the above article on the history of Ellis Island, in the 1920s this was filled in to create a green space.

General Hospital building at Ellis Island

General Hospital building at Ellis Island

Layout of the Ellis Island Hospital complex

Layout of the Ellis Island Hospital complex

The General Hospital is where physically and mentally sick immigrants with non-contagious diseases were treated. This could be anyone from pregnant women to those suspected of being mentally ill. The complex is made up of three buildings that were constructed in stages between 1900 and 1909. The original hospital building, which officially opened in 1902, is the second building from the Laundry Building (the building next to the laundry is the Psychopathic Ward built in 1906). The middle building, the Administration Building, opened in 1907. The third building, which is nearly identical to the original hospital, opened in 1909. Unfortunately, none of these buildings, including the Psych Ward, are stable, so nobody is allowed inside.

Back side of the Psych Ward (closest building) and General Hospital buildings on Ellis Island

Back side of the Psych Ward (closest building) and General Hospital buildings on Ellis Island

Bordering the lawn between Islands 2 and 3 is another restored building called the Shelter. As with the Ferry Building, this was built by the WPA in the 1930s, and as the name implies, it was nothing more than a place to relax on a hot day.

The Shelter, part of the Ellis Island General Hospital complex

The Shelter, part of the Ellis Island General Hospital complex

From the General Hospital, the tour cuts across the lawn towards Island 3 where the Contagious Diseases Hospital is located. Built from 1906 to 1911, the Contagious Diseases buildings have been stabilized and are visited on the tour.

Entering the Contagious Diseases Hospital on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

Entering the Contagious Diseases Hospital on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

Contagious Disease buildings

Contagious Diseases buildings

As you tour the Contagious Diseases Hospital, you will see various examples of art by a French street artist known as JR. These consist of historical photographs that were enlarged and then wheat-pasted to the walls and windows. Like the decaying buildings themselves, the art will one day peel off and end up in ruins. On one of the windows that looks out into a courtyard between two hospital wards is a photo of children with favus, a disease that affects the scalp. In most cases, this could be cured, but the treatment was extremely painful. Today, fauvs is rare and can be treated with topical and oral medications. (The documentary film Faces Places is about JR and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 2017.)

Photograph of children with favus, enlarged and pasted to the walls by street artist JR

Photograph of children with favus, enlarged and pasted to the walls by street artist JR

A 750-foot corridor runs the length of the Contagious Diseases Hospital, connecting all buildings together. Branching off from the corridor on either side is a series of hospital wards that once held up to 14 beds each. Oftentimes the nurses’ station would be behind a glass window so they could watch the patients without having to unnecessarily expose themselves to contagious diseases. While approximately 3,500 people died on Ellis Island, surprisingly, no doctor or nurse passed away or became infected with any disease.

Corridor connects all buildings in the Contagious Disease Hospital on Ellis Island

Corridor connects all buildings in the Contagious Disease Hospital on Ellis Island

The first stop at the Contagious Diseases Hospital is at a multipurpose building located at the very northwest corner of Island 3. The building featured a powerhouse, a laundry facility, and a mattress autoclave, a machine that was used to sanitize up to four mattresses at once.

Mattress autoclave inn the Contagious Diseases Hospital on Ellis Island

Mattress autoclave inn the Contagious Diseases Hospital on Ellis Island

Also located in the corner building is the morgue, a section of which doubled as a medical training facility. With the wide variety of people who passed through Ellis Island, the medical students were able to learn a great deal about ailments from around the world. The multi-tiered area with steps on either side is where students would sit to watch autopsies and other medical demonstrations. This is one stop on the tour where participants can sit while listening to the tour guide.

Training facility in the morgue of the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Training facility in the morgue of the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Refrigerated storage for corpses at the Contagious Diseases Hospital morgue

Refrigerated storage for corpses at the Contagious Diseases Hospital morgue

As the tour continues down the corridor, there are a number of open rooms that you can take a peak inside.

Ruins of a former ward at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Ruins of a former ward at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Abandoned hospital ward at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Abandoned hospital ward at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

The next stop on the Hard Hat Tour is the Administration Building, the large building at the center of the Contagious Diseases Hospital. The desks and other furniture were left behind by the Coast Guard, which occupied Ellis Island from 1939 to 1946, and again from 1951 until 1954. The 1924 National Origins Act allowed potential immigrants to have their paperwork processed and health and other inspections done in their home countries, thus making a facility like Ellis Island less important. When World War II broke out in 1939, the island was used as a training facility for the Coast Guard, though the hospital continued as a functioning hospital. Once the United Stated entered the war, the hospital was mainly used to treat injured soldiers. The few immigrants on the island were either criminals or terminally ill who were waiting to be deported, or those who somehow lost their papers on the way to America. In 1951 the Coast Guard established a Port Security Unit that remained in operation until all facilities on Ellis Island were closed in 1954.

Offices at the Contagious Diseases Hospital on Ellis Island

Offices at the Contagious Diseases Hospital on Ellis Island

The hospital kitchen is located behind the Administration Building, and it was here that 1,500 meals a day were prepared and served. Mothers and children were given milk and biscuits twice a day. Not much remains of the kitchen other than a range hood and a few tables. Notice the JR artwork underneath the range hood. This photo is of a ferryboat built in 1904, the Ellis Island, and it is upside down. After Ellis Island closed in 1954, the Ellis Island remained docked at the island, rotting away with the rest of the buildings until it sank during a storm in 1968. The boat was finally removed in 2009. The JR artwork is positioned so that the range hood appears to be the hull of the upside down ferry.

Range hood at the former hospital kitchen on Ellis Island

Range hood at the former hospital kitchen on Ellis Island

Old kitchen tables and equipment left behind at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Old kitchen tables and equipment left behind at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Tour participants can see some of the actual patient rooms, as well as a communal restroom. The rooms themselves had sinks, but no toilet or shower. Patient rooms in the tuberculosis ward had two sinks. The taller one, which was situated closer to the bed, was for vomiting or regurgitating blood, while the lower sink was used for hygiene purposes.

Patient Room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Patient Room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Bathroom with shower and tub in the contagious diseases section of the Ellis Island Hospital complex

Bathroom with shower and tub in the contagious diseases section of the Ellis Island Hospital complex

Farther down the hallway are the operating rooms. JR’s artwork depicts surgeons and nurses preparing for an operation, and a photo of a surgeon adorns the entrance to the operating room.

Artwork adorns the wall of an operating room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Artwork adorns the wall of an operating room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Photo of an Ellis Island doctor at the door of the operating room

Inside an operating room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

Inside an operating room at the Ellis Island Contagious Diseases Hospital

The final stop on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour is the home of one of the two head doctors on the island, the Chief of Psychiatric and the Chief of Surgery. There was a second house, but this was torn down. As unlikely as it sounds, both doctors lived within the Contagious Diseases Hospital along with their families.

Doctor's house (right) on Ellis Island

Doctor’s house (right) on Ellis Island

Interior of the doctor's house on Ellis Island

Interior of the doctor’s house on Ellis Island

Kitchen of the doctor's house on Ellis Island

Kitchen of the doctor’s house on Ellis Island

Empty room in the doctor's house on Ellis Island

Empty room in the doctor’s house on Ellis Island

The Hard Hat Tour concludes by exiting from the buildings and onto the grounds at the south side of the island. From here you can get some nice photos of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Total time for the tour is 1.5 hours, time well spent for those interested in history and old buildings.

View of Manhattan from the south end of Ellis Island

View of Manhattan from the south end of Ellis Island

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Last updated on November 22, 2021
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