Ellis Island – the gateway for thousands of Irish immigrants seeking a new life in America

Annie Moore

On January 1, 1892 a 15-year-old Irish girl, nervous but determined, stepped off a boat from Ireland on to Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay.

Her name was Annie Moore and she was to be the first of 12 million immigrants for whom the processing centre on the island would be their first taste of America over the next 62 years.

Annie was little more than a child herself, yet she had to look after her two younger brothers Anthony and Philip. They had boarded the S, S. Nevada Queenstown (now Cobh) in Cork on December 20, arriving in New York on December 31.

immigrants, Ellis Island

After passing through Ellis Island, they were reunited with their parents who were already living in New York.

As Annie was the first immigrant to be processed at the centre, she was given $10 gold coin – the largest sum of money she had ever seen or owned.

The last person to pass through was merchant seaman Arne Peterssen from Norway in 1954. There was no medal for him.

Ellis Island began an immigration processing centre to deal with the growing wave of immigrants arriving from Europe and elsewhere, seeking a new life. Previously, processing had taken place at the Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan.

The new centre was the work of the federal government, which took over responsibility for immigration on April 18, 1890. It wanted a more efficient system and so spent $75,000 on a new custom-built centre on land, largely reclaimed from the mud flats in the bay.

The new station proved its worth by processing 450,000 Immigrants in the first year, but its reign was to be short lived. On June 15, 1897, the wooden construction was completely destroyed by fire. The country’s immigration records dating back to 1855 were destroyed too – a loss that was to cause great difficulties for future generations of Americans trying to trace their family trees.

arriving at Ellis Island

The replacement building was made of brick and designed to be more durable. It opened on December 17, 1900 and still stands today.

The centre worked efficiently for the next 12 years but then struggled to cope with the extra flood of immigrants fleeing the conflict in Europe during the First World War. Extra buildings were added over the following years, including a dining room that could accommodate 1,000 diners at a time.

If all went smoothly, immigrants could be processed in a couple of hours. They were asked a series of basic questions such as name and occupation and crucially, how much money they had with them to tide them over until they had settled in America and started working.

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

They were expected to have about $20 so they would not become a burden to others.

Unskilled workers were sometimes rejected because it was feared they might not find work and again, become a burden.

Buildings near Ellis Island pier

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

Most people passed through Ellis Island without any problem, but others were not so lucky. People found to be obviously unhealthy, having a contagious disease or a criminal record, were rejected and sent back where they came from.

About one in 50 people were unsuccessful and their obvious distress led to the island sometimes being described as the Heartbreak Island or the Island of Tears.

At the other end of the scale there was the ‘kissing post’. This was a wooden column near the registry room where immigrants would be met by their family or friends, leading to the predictable hugs and kisses.

By the time the centre closed on November 12, 1954, it had been used by the US Bureau of Immigration to process 12 million immigrants. It’s estimated that more than 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to immigrants who passed Ellis Island.

The centre is now a popular immigration museum attracting tourists not only from America but from all over the world.

immigrants carrying luggage

Did you know?

‘The Irish Robin Hood’ - Redmond O’Hanlon is a legendary figure in Ireland. His ancestors had been a powerful family up until the 17th century, when their land was taken during the Catholic uprising and the Cromwellian invasion. So he became a highwayman. Find out more.