Statue of Liberty National Monument | SECOND FLOOR OF THE ELLIS ISLAND NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION

Registry Room at the Ellis Island Immigration facility

Registry Room at the Ellis Island Immigration facility

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REGISTRY ROOM

After entering the main building of the Ellis Island immigration facility and having their baggage taken care of, newly arrived immigrants proceeded up to the Registry Room (aka The Great Hall) on the second floor. In this room they would wait in long lines to be interviewed by inspectors standing at podiums at one end of the room. Also, without realizing it, doctors gave everyone entering the building a quick visual inspection for any noticeable infections, mania, depression, or other symptoms that might require quarantining, or worse, deportation.

Inspector podiums in the Ellis Island Registry Room

Inspector podiums in the Ellis Island Registry Room

The Registry Room has been restored to its 1918-1924 appearance, as these years were the busiest at Ellis Island.

Replicas of benches used in the Ellis Island Registry Room

Replicas of benches used in the Ellis Island Registry Room

In addition to seeing the Registry Room from ground level, there is a third floor balcony from where you can view it. On the balcony are photos from the early 1920s that you can compare to today’s view.

View of the Ellis Island Registry Room from the third floor balcony

View of the Ellis Island Registry Room from the third floor balcony

Photo of the Registry Room taken around 1924

Photo of the Registry Room taken around 1924

One of the interesting features of the Registry Room is the arched, tiled ceiling. While the entire roof of the building had to be replaced during the mid-1980s renovation, only a few tiles of the ceiling required any restoration. The tile work was done by Spanish immigrants Rafael Guastavino Senior and Junior, who came to the United States in 1881. They actually patented the tiles, which were both fireproof and sound dampening. Their work can also be seen at Grand Central Terminal, the Bronx Zoo Elephant House, Holy Trinity Church on West 82nd Street, and the Alexander Hamilton U. S. Custom House, among others in New York City.

Guastavino tiled ceiling in the Ellis Island Registry Room

Guastavino tiled ceiling in the Ellis Island Registry Room

PEAK IMMIGRATION YEARS: 1880-1924

Exhibit in the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

Exhibit in the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

The Peak Immigration Years is one of three permanent exhibits at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. This gallery covers the era when Ellis Island was most active. The facility actually opened in 1892, replacing an immigration station at Castle Clinton (then called Castle Garden) that had been run by the state of New York when immigration matters were still state issues. However, the original wooden buildings on Ellis Island burned to the ground in 1897. What you see today are the fireproof replacement buildings made of brick and stone that were opened in 1900.

Large portraits hang on the walls just outside the entrance to the Peak Immigration Years exhibit gallery. These were taken by Augustus Sherman, an Immigration Service employee who worked at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925. These photos actually hung on the walls during his time. You’ll see some of his portraits in other areas of the museum as well.

Photos by Augustus Sherman

Photos by Augustus Sherman

The Peak Immigration Years exhibit bears no resemblance to the other permanent museum rooms on the first floor, The Peopling of America and the New Era of Immigration. It opened in 1990, whereas the other galleries opened in 2011 and 2015 and were designed to resemble one another. They are also much larger, each taking at least three hours for a thorough examination. It takes a little over an hour to see the exhibits and read all of the information in the Peak Immigration Years gallery.

The story of immigration in the Peak Immigration Years is told almost exclusively through historical photos and reprints of immigration propaganda posters, both pro- and anti-immigration. Information panels introduce a topic, and a collection of photos illustrates the point.

Historical photos on display at the Peak Immigration Years gallery

Historical photos on display at the Peak Immigration Years gallery

Anti-Japanese immigrant photo

Anti-Japanese immigrant photo

Of particular interest are quotes from newly arrived immigrants. These often accompany the photos or are posted above a wall of photos. My favorite quote is one attributed to an anonymous Italian immigrant:

Well, I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.

Quotes from immigrants adore the walls of the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

Quotes from immigrants adore the walls of the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

If you like looking at old photographs, the Peak Immigration Years exhibit will certainly be one of your favorites at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

Wall of old photos in the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

Wall of old photos in the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery

THROUGH AMERICA’S GATES

Medical Inspection exhibit room

Medical Inspection exhibit room

On the opposite side of the Registry Room from the Peak Immigration Years museum gallery is another exhibit area not to be missed, Through America’s Gate. Housed in a series of small rooms that were once used for legal hearings, waiting rooms, detention quarters, and staff offices, the exhibits focus on the different steps that most immigrants had to go through in order to be granted admission into the United States. Topics include the medical, legal, and health inspections; medical care and the Ellis Island hospital; the ticket office; the currency exchange room; immigrant aide; detention; and the Ellis Island dining room where immigrants could get a meal while waiting for inspection or to take with them once they were allowed to leave Ellis Island.

As with the Peak Immigration Years, much of the Through America’s Gate exhibit is comprised of historical photos, reprints of posters and documents, and quotes from both employees and immigrants at Ellis Island. Each room is small, and it only takes a few minutes to read the information, but there are a lot of rooms, so expect to spend an hour if you want to read everything.

Detention room exhibit

Detention room exhibit

The Hearing Room has been restored and furnished to its 1911 appearance, whereas the other rooms simply showcase exhibits. The room was used for Board of Special Inquiry hearings, which were legal hearings. Anyone suspected of such things as being an illegal contract laborer (a modern indentured servant or slave) or possibly becoming a pauper could defend themselves in the Hearing Room. Three boards were in session every day, each hearing 50 to 100 cases. Most immigrants were admitted after personal testimony and testimonies of family and friends. Roughly 10 percent of all immigrants were required to attend a legal hearing, of which 10-20 percent were deported. Overall, this amounted to only 2 percent of immigrants that came through Ellis Island.

Restored Hearing Room

Restored Hearing Room

THEATER

A second movie theater is located directly above a theater on the first floor. Both show the same film, the 30-minute Island of Hope, Island of Tears. Shows alternate on the half hour so that a film is always starting just as the other ends. The film is narrated by Gene Hackman and covers the entire process of immigration, from the journey abroad to all the steps taken to being admitted into the United States. It is an older film (1992) comprised mainly of narration and old photographs, and a little dry compared to the documentaries made today, but the history hasn’t change and it is still highly fascinating and should not be missed. There is no objectionable material, so the film is suitable for all ages.

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Last updated on November 19, 2021
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