The room we’re standing in has been crumbling for decades—paint and plaster have fallen away from the once whitewashed walls in large chunks, revealing a dingy concrete base. The dirt on the floor is so thick that it records footprints. Industrial machinery is scattered around the room, massive in size, and in a dramatic contrast, a life-sized black and white photo is splayed across a huge arched window on the back wall. The people in the photo have their backs turned to us. A man in a uniform towers over a family of three, his arm pointing off into the distance to a place that we, from our vantage point must imagine, because we cannot see it. What’s capturing my imagination even more is that I’m walking on the same path that my ancestors paved when they immigrated to the U.S. more than 100 years ago.
I’m on the Hard Hat Tour of Ellis Island, a 90-minute tour of the hospital buildings on the southern part of the island, buildings that had previously been shuttered for more than six decades. The photo on the window is part of an exhibition titled “Unframed” by the French artist JR, who is known for his projects that speak to the often harsh realities of life. For this exhibition, JR gathered photos from the Ellis Island archives, and staged them—as large as life—on 16 walls throughout the hospital complex.
Though the machinery in the room we’re standing in is obviously from another era, it’s familiar enough that we recognize it as laundry apparatus. Our tour guide confirms that we are in fact in the laundry room, where the clothes and mattresses of the sick and dying were regularly sanitized so long ago.
A few minutes earlier, our tour guide described how immigrants who were processed through Ellis Island were given a cursory physical assessment and if anything, such as a fever or a rash, aroused suspicion of further health problems, particularly contagious diseases, they were remanded to the hospital for further evaluation.
Of the 12 million immigrants who entered the United States between 1892 and 1954, approximately ten percent warranted a further physical exam. Once that was set in motion, the average stay in the hospital for a new arrival was two weeks. Those who were diagnosed with the worst, incurable illnesses were tragically returned home to their place of origin, a fate which befell two percent who had made the arduous sea crossing to the U.S.
The Hard Hat tour began in 2014. It is an effort of the non-profit organization called Save Ellis Island, whose mission is to bring back to full restoration the 29 buildings of the vast hospital complex that have been abandoned since 1954, when the final person was processed at the immigration mecca. One of the main goals of Save Ellis Island is to “celebrate the spirit of immigrants everywhere—not just those who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island.” The Hard Hat tours are led by volunteers and proceeds go towards this restoration process.
As we stand in a long corridor with rusted pipes lining the ceiling, our guide describes the array of tests patients had to undergo: throat, anal, urine and stool samples, and blood drawn for syphilis. He then takes us to tour the morgue, eerie for its cavernous concrete amphitheater style seating and tidy-looking cupboards where cadavers were kept. Because all the world’s diseases passed through Ellis Island, doctors flocked there to study, and it became a world-class teaching hospital. Diseases such as trachoma, diphtheria, measles, hookworm, and tuberculosis were just a few of the contagious diseases that doctors treated.
I love this tour so much that I’ve been on it three times. I love that it’s a time capsule of the place where millions of people arrived, full of hope, looking to change the tides of poverty for the good of their families. I’m fascinated by every alien-looking piece of equipment, by a room that once served as the cafeteria and another that was a break room for the doctors and nurses.
In the infectious diseases ward, I think of my great-great aunt Anna. Anna was 4 years old when she, her four older sisters, and their mother Rosa left Crotone, a coastal town in Southern Italy. Three weeks later, in November 1912, the family disembarked and stood in a queue to be processed. Anna had contracted the measles on the ship, so the entire family was held in quarantine for five days, where they slept on cold concrete floors and benches. They celebrated their first American Thanksgiving in quarantine, where they laughed because they thought the purpose of the holiday was because Americans worshipped turkeys. I think of this small tribe of females and all they had to endure and I hope they knew the futures they were making possible, as well as the history they would become a part of.
The whole hospital complex is in extreme disrepair. White tiles have fallen off the walls and lay in small heaps on the floor. Doors have fallen off their hinges and, with nothing but time on their hands, have broken apart and turned into dust, the doorknob the only identifying feature that remains poking out of the rubbish heap. Visitors must wear a hard hat and sturdy shoes and it’s crucial to watch where you walk. It is a study in contrasts, this tour. You’ll be standing in a drab concrete room looking out a filthy window, its iron panes bent and rusted, and then you’ll catch a glimpse of the shimmering blue harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Maybe you’ll wonder if your ancestor looked out at the same view. Or you’ll pass a sagging stairway you wouldn’t trust to hold your weight, and there will be the most stunning life-sized portrait of the immigrants who trudged up those stairs, their faces weathered and tired, and looking at the camera with serious gazes. The most beautiful thing about JR’s photos is you don’t know when they will appear throughout the tour.
It’s a profound gift for a person to know their history, and I’m lucky because my ancestors left a paper trail by immigrating through Ellis Island. A distant cousin did the research and put together the history of our family’s Atlantic crossing, and I am deeply grateful that she did so I can know my story.
After Anna’s quarantine was lifted, she, her mother Rosa, and the sisters took a train to Rome, NY where Rosa’s husband Salvatore awaited them. Salvatore had arrived four years earlier, in 1908, and worked and saved to bring his wife and daughters to America.
Salvatore and Rosa rented a small apartment on Lock Street. They had five more children, for a grand total of ten. On Lock Street, a pot-belly stove kept the family warm and served as a gathering point. Salvatore drank homemade wine and liked to sing loudly, and the kids told stories, played cards, and crocheted. Among those children gathered around the stove was my great-grandmother, Catherine, who stepped off the S.S. Calabria in 1912 with Anna and her sisters, who giggled with her sisters over a culture that would honor a turkey, and who grieved over little Anna five years later when Anna died of a bone disease.
For me, this family history is vivid, not abstract. I was five years old when Catherine died, so I have a murky, black and white memory of a stout lady, her hair pulled back from her handsome face in a stern bun. Her home smelled like Italian cookies and powdered sugar, a smell which has traveled through time and into my own mother’s kitchen when she bakes cookies at Christmas time.
Catherine married a man named Leonardo and they had seven children, among them my grandfather Salvatore, a man who these days likes to flirt with ladies in the grocery store and drink one Genesee Light beer on Sunday afternoons, and who will turn 98-years-old on his next birthday.
The Hard Hat Tour, as well as the entire Ellis Island museum, is a place anyone interested in history should visit; it’s a tribute not only to the history of the U.S. but to the people who traveled here to begin new lives.