Coming Off the Boat

These are the photographs from my visit to the National Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island with my husband, the beginning of my discoveries of my grandparents’ lives. It was’t so much the catalyst to writing the family memoir, but being there certainly had sparked the wonder to know more about them. From the ferry ride that took us to the island and then throughout the tour, I remember feeling like I was in my grandmother’s shoes during the era when immigration had reached its highest tolls. Passing the Statue of Liberty, I saw her in such a different light, from the perspective of the immigrant. Her greatness felt profoundly as we floated closer and she towered over Liberty Island.  

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Entering the museum on Ellis Island, on the walls there were large murals depicting the immigrants  coming off the steamships with their baggage. They and the surroundings made it easy to transcend myself. Other murals were placed throughout the tour also capturing each of the phases that had transpired while processing into the United States. 

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The stairs we climbed to the Registry Room were not the same as the ones from the era, but nevertheless, as we ascended the steps I felt the crowd of passengers climbing with us and the stares that had come from the doctors on the landing above, watching each group of passengers and spotting the weak during the Six-Second Physical. As all passengers proceeded up the stairs to file in one of several lines, some shoulders were marked with symbols that alerted the medical staff of what specifically to examine for. Of course there were no doctors at all during our climb in 2010, but as I had mentioned, I wasn’t me then, nor in this century. I was Angelina, back in 1911, almost 100 years after she’d been there. The Registry Room is a massive space with a tall ceiling and very large dome-shaped windows. The high volume of noise and confusion that consentrates in one area sets the backdrop for what the atmosphere was like back then. 

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Aisles where the physical examinations were conducted were roped off and doctors had been placed at the head of each, while passengers stood for hours in line waiting to be examined one by one for symptoms that alerted the potential of a specific communicable disease from a list of commonly borne diseases in countries around the world. Any one of them sent a passenger back home or to be quarantined in the hospital on the island. If necessary, passengers were also asked to complete puzzles to check for any mental abnormalities.

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The Registry Room was lined with benches, where passengers waited with number tags for their turn to answer the verbal question and answer exam given by one of the officials sitting at a tall desk with interpreters standing by and the manifests from the ships opened in front of him. It was the last hurdle for most. And as you read in young Vita’s story, the results had determined the fate of each immigrant passenger. 

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A room off to the side had collected those tired and dejected passengers who were denied entry for a variety of reasons mentioned in the book and about to return home on the next ship that headed in that direction.

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Detainees in question had spent days in limbo waiting for a witness to come forward to attest on their behalfs and hearings were set with the BSI to determine whether to grant or deny US clearances. The artifacts tell their stories. Children like Vita had no choice but to wait patiently.

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Passengers in waiting monopolized their time in the dining hall for three meals a day, played cards, and caught up on the sleep they’d missed during the voyages at sea.

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To pass the time and make their mark in history, some left graffiti on the columns throughout the Registry Room. The face of a man drawn on this one.

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Passengers who had gotten immediate acceptance sent telegrams of their arrival to friends or loved ones to meet them. Others had purchased train tickets at the ticket office downstairs and boarded the train from Manhattan after catching the ferry.

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Ultimately, it was the Stairs of Separation that had divided the large group of passengers that filled the immigration station, pointing them towards their final destinations. But not all left.

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Jeff and I had returned to Ellis Island in 2016. By then we’d been to Sicily twice and I was deep into writing the book. I just had to see it again and capture the photographs displayed here in the blog. I hadn’t photographed the first time around because I was just too mesmerized and caught up in the experience. I should mention also that many photographs here in the blog are of the murals, which were created from photographs dating back to 1918-1924. The second time we also had taken the Hardhat Tour of the remnants of the hospital on the other side of the island, where the immigrant patients with diseases that had no cures were treated and detained. The hospital included separate wards designed for each of the diseases common during the period. Tunnels connected the wards to allow the medical staff to move from one to the other.

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Some of the equipment, such as an autoclave that heated the mattresses to kill the germs and a washing vat for laundering bed linens, remain in place still.

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We toured an operating room and the morgue, where after death the bodies had been autopsied to learn of the foreign diseases and discover cures, and there was also the doctors’ quarters nearby.

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For passengers who had traveled with these fatal diseases or contracted them during their passages in the unsanitary lower steerage compartments of steamships, their journeys to America had ended there on Ellis Island. They could not even go home, considered health risks to the population because of their contagious illnesses. Men, women, and children stayed quarantined in the hospital wards until death, with a vision of Lady Liberty seen daily from their hospital rooms, but never had they experienced the freedom that she had promised newcomers.

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Records from 1900 show that over 3,500 people, including more than 1,400 children, died on Ellis Island. Burials were arranged by either friends or relatives, or a charity organization, or as a last resort, by an undertaker contacted by the Immigration Service.

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Leaving the island I saw Manhattan in the mist of a rain shower that fell over us. The skyline had changed from the one I’d grown accustomed to, the Twin Towers replaced, and probably different from the one my grandparents had seen too. As the fog rolled in, it became rather an eerie reflection of their past that by then I had known a little something about and mentioned in the memoir.Behind me, Lady Liberty was slipping further away and a glimpse of Old Glory flying free off the back of the ferry whispered their American story to me.

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On the main floor of the museum there had been a digitized image of the American flag with faces of the immigrants who came here from all over the world and settled. As the Star Spangled Banner waved in the breeze on the ferry, through the rain I saw the faces of my grandparents and felt content that I had taken the journey to understand their journey.

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And in the next blog post I will reveal the immigration records of the Ferro men and women I’d followed and images of artifacts that I’d found during my studies in the Italian-American Museum that all helped me tell their stories of survival after landing in America.

I leave you to ponder this Sicilian proverb; “When you leave the old for the new, you know what you are leaving but not what you will find.”

If this post has piqued your interest, feel free to preview the book on Google or purchase the book from the Shop page on this website!

A presto! 👌🏼

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30 thoughts on “Coming Off the Boat”

    1. Hi Amy-
      The flag has the faces of the immigrants whose families submitted their photographs and paid for space on the flag. Maybe someday we can all pitch in! But the sentiment of Giuseppe, Angelina, Carmelo & Vita is all there just the same.

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