Ellis Island, the gateway to America, shuts it doors on November 12, 1954, after processing more than 12 million immigrants, including an estimated two million Irish, since opening in 1892. Today, an estimated 40 percent of all Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor off the New Jersey coast and named for merchant Samuel Ellis, who owned the land in the 1770s.
On January 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore, from County Cork, becomes the first person to pass through the newly opened Ellis Island, which President Benjamin Harrison designates as America’s first federal immigration center in 1890. Prior to the opening of Ellis Island the processing of immigrants has been handled by individual states.
Not all immigrants who sail into New York have to go through Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers submit to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked at the piers in New York or New Jersey, where they pass through customs. People in third class, though, are transported to Ellis Island, where they undergo medical and legal inspections to ensure they do not have a contagious disease or some condition that might make them a burden to the government. Only two percent of all immigrants are denied entrance into the United States.
Immigration to Ellis Island peaks between 1892 and 1924, during which time the 3.3-acre island is enlarged with landfill and additional buildings are constructed to handle the massive influx of immigrants. During the busiest year of operation, 1907, over 1 million people are processed at Ellis Island.
With the United States’ entrance into World War I, immigration declines and Ellis Island is used as a detention center for suspected enemies. Following the war, Congress passes quota laws and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduces the number of newcomers allowed into the country and also enables immigrants to be processed at U.S. consulates abroad. After 1924, Ellis Island switches from a processing center to serving other purposes, such as a detention and deportation center for illegal immigrants, a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II and a Coast Guard training center. In November 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman, is released and Ellis Island officially closes.
Beginning in 1984, Ellis Island undergoes a $160 million renovation, the largest historic restoration project in U.S. history. In September 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opens to the public and today is visited by almost 2 million people every year.