Today in History: Ellis Island closes in 1954

November 12th, 2013

On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island, gateway to America for more than 12 million immigrants, closed permanently. An estimated 40 percent of American citizens can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island, the first federal immigration center.

Ellis Island is named for Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker who purchased the land during the American Revolution. The state of New York leased the island in 1794, and the United States took over the land to create a federal arsenal. After the War of 1812, Fort Gibson was constructed on the island, and it remained a military outpost for 80 years.

From 1857–90, more than 8 million immigrants arrived in New York and were processed by state officials. On April 18, 1890, the federal government assumed control of immigration, necessitating the creation of a federal immigration office. Ellis Island was chosen for the site of the new post, and landfill was brought to the island to double its size to accommodate the influx of immigrants. Ellis Island opened on January 2, 1892 when young Irish immigrant Annie Moore became the first person to enter America through Ellis Island.

With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the number of immigrants allowed into America sharply decreased, and Ellis Island served as a detention and deportation center. During World War II, Ellis Island was used as an internment facility for German merchant mariners before the station finally closed on November 12, 1954.

The immigration processing building fell into disrepair, but a $150 million fundraising effort led by political consultant Wyatt A. Stewart allowed for significant renovations during the 1980s. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public on September 10, 1990.

Read Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” which describes the hope of immigrants looking for a new life in the United States. 

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