Ellis Island

History, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on March 11, 2010
Courtesy of the National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island

Ninety years have passed since Felicita Gabaccia Salto arrived on Ellis Island, but she vividly remembers her fathers excitement as the Dante Alighieri steamed into New York Harbor and her family prepared for a new life in America.

"We came in at dusk and the Statue of Liberty was lit," recalls Salto, 96, of Westwood, N.J. (pop. 10,999). "It was very, very cold, and I remember big chunks of ice on the Hudson River. My father was calling to all of the Italians, 'Come over and see the statue! Come over and see the statue!'"

After 20 days at sea, the Gabaccias took their first steps on American soil on Jan. 29, 1920, at the U.S. Immigration Station Ellis Island. Today, the station houses the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, a memorial to the 12 million people who entered the golden door to America between 1892 and 1954.

Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Chef Boyardee, Knute Rockne, to name just a few, came through here, says National Park Service ranger Jamie Keller, 35, as he stands in the vaulted Registry Room where immigration inspectors once questioned 5,000 or more new arrivals each day.

"Think of all the immigrants brought," Keller says. "They gave us pizza and hot dogs. They built skyscrapers. They built America."

About 40 percent of Americans have at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island, says Stephen Briganti, 67, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

"It's a spiritual home for their beginnings as Americans," says Briganti, whose Italian-born mother, Constantina Massa, passed through Ellis Island as an infant in 1911. "People visit and remember their grandparents and the stories they've heard. It's a very moving and emotional experience."

For the rest of Americans, Ellis Island is a symbol of welcome and arrival and opportunity, Briganti says.

Island of hope and tears
Before Ellis Island was designated the first federal immigration station in 1890, states regulated immigration. Beginning in the 1830s, large numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States, mainly from Northern and Western Europe, especially Great Britain, Germany and Ireland. But beginning in the 1880s, a mighty migration brought shipload after shipload of people from Southern and Eastern Europe, from nations such as Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Russia. Some came for work. Others fled political or religious oppression.

First-class and second-class passengers were inspected aboard ship, but third-class and steerage passengers were inspected in the main building on Ellis Island. Doctors observed new arrivals for signs of labored breathing, limping and other obvious ailments, and marked in chalk on their sleeves—L for lameness or X for mental illness—if further medical examination was needed. They turned up immigrants' eyelids with a buttonhook to check for trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease.

"Officials wanted you coming over here ready, willing and able to work," Keller says.

With help from interpreters, inspectors asked each immigrant a series of questions: "Occupation? Who is meeting you? Who paid your passage? Have you ever been in prison?"

"If you were coming through with 50 cents in your pocket and no family and no job skills, you were probably not going to stay," Keller says. "About 2 percent of immigrants were rejected and returned to their homeland for medical or legal reasons, which led to one nickname for Ellis Island as the Isle of Tears."

Most immigrants passed through Ellis Island in a few hours, but Salto's family stayed 10 days while her mother recuperated in the hospital, most likely from seasickness. "My dad's hair turned white overnight," she recalls, explaining how extreme anxiety aged her father.

At the time, Salto was 6 and her worried father, Domenico Gabaccia, 32, kept her tied to his belt with a dog harness to keep her from getting lost in the crowd. While on the island, she ate her first corn flakes and marveled at the whiteness of bread. She played with her brother, Aldo, 4, and practiced the English words she'd learned on the ship: "Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe."

Five years after his anxious arrival at Ellis Island, Gabaccia, who worked as a machinist for Dexter Folder Co. in Pearl River, N.Y., passed his U.S. citizenship test. "He was so proud to be an American," Salto says.

Treasures from home
In string-tied bundles, suitcases and trunks, immigrants carried their personal belongings and a few mementos from their faraway homes. Salto's mother, Teresa, brought along an alphabet sampler she embroidered as a young girl. Sidor Belarsky, a Jewish-Russian immigrant, lugged an ornate brass samovar, a large urn that his family used for making tea.

His daughter, Isabel Belarsky, 89, smiles when she looks at the nearly 2-foot-tall samovar in her dining room in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It took the 10 American dollars my poppa had to crate it," says Isabel, who was 10 when she passed through Ellis Island on Feb. 6, 1930.

Belarsky, a legendary opera singer, was invited to teach singing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, after the university president heard him perform in Moscow. Along with classical music, he sang and recorded Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs, which brought him worldwide acclaim and an invitation to sing for physicist Albert Einstein. Recently, his music was featured in the 2009 Coen Brothers movie, A Serious Man.

"My father gave 22 concerts at Carnegie Hall," Isabel says. "He even sang on the boat for first-class passengers."

Passenger records
Today, Americans visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum to experience where their ancestors first set foot on American soil. Not only can they trace the steps of their grandparents and great-grandparents, but they also can search for their names on the original ships' manifests. Information on more than 25 million immigrants, who arrived between 1892 and 1924, and the 2,500 ships that transported them is available at the museum's American Family Immigration History Center and online at www.ellisisland.org.

"The first time you see the ship and the writing and the name, it gives you chills," says Susan Bitar, 40, of Sacramento, Calif., who cried when she found her Lebanese grandfather, Farah Bitar, among passengers of the Leopolina, which docked at Ellis Island on July 26, 1920. He was 20, blue-eyed, in good health, and arrived with $200—all documented on the written manifest.

"I'd heard my whole life how he came to America and could only speak Arabic and French," Bitar says. "He was told by his father to go to the United States—and he did."

Within two years, Farah, who changed his name to Frank, opened Bitar Brothers grocery with his brother in Portland, Ore., and became a successful businessman.

Bitar gave a copy of the ship's manifest to her father, William Bitar, 78, who displays the document inside the door of his Portland home. Then she returned to Ellis Island last October with her son, Aaron Davis, on his 10th birthday.

"I want him to have a sense of his ancestors," Bitar says. "When you're at Ellis Island, you see the suitcases and trunks that held the immigrants' entire life possessions. They had so little when they came through."