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A Brief History of Ellis Island

December 4, 2017
Ellis Island

Ellis Island:

1620s: The Dutch arrive in New York harbor and begin building their colony of New Amsterdam. The Dutch would refer to this island as one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York harbor. Native Americans were the first to utilize the land. They often visited the island because of its’ large oyster beds, which was an integral source of food. This was the inspiration for the Dutch naming of the islands.

Credit: National Parks Service

1674-1679: After the British took hold of New Netherland, the island was bestowed to Captain William Dyer by Sir Edmund Andros, the Colonial Governor of New York. It was then renamed Dyer’s Island.

1774: Samuel Ellis purchases the island. This New York merchant builds a tavern on the island where men would come to dig for oysters and enjoy the views of the harbor.

1785: Ellis attempts to sell the island, but fails. He eventually passes away in 1794 and the island is given to his descendants.

1808: The United States Federal Government acquires the island from New York State for harbor defense.

1811: Fort Gibson is constructed by the United States War Department, built to protect the harbor during the war of 1812. The fort consisted of barracks, gunpowder magazine, and a battery of canons.

Credit: National Parks Service

1812: The British never directly attacked the harbor during the war and thus Fort Gibson never saw any action.

1890: The Federal Government takes control of immigration from the states.

1890-1891: Before the immigration depot began construction, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip and dock were built, and some of the older military post buildings were adapted for reuse.

1892: New immigration station opens up at Ellis Island on January 1.

Credit: National Parks Service

1897: Immigration station destroyed by a fire on June 15. No one was killed.

1900: Current Main Building opens, made completely fireproof by the architectural firm of Boring and Tilton. Opening day was December 17.

Credit: National Parks Service

1901: Kitchen, Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were built and the island was further enlarged by landfill to allow for a hospital complex.

1902: In March, the Main Hospital Building officially opened, with space and equipment for up to 125 patients.

1903-1909: A number of other buildings were added to the hospital complex such as an administration building, a new hospital extension, and the psychopathic ward. Enlarged again with landfill, the island then allowed room for the building of the Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards.

Credit: National Parks Service

1920s: Last swell of construction involving a New Immigration Building, New Ferry House, and the new Recreation Building and Shelters.

1939-1946: United States Coast Guard occupies Ellis Island to establish a training station, utilizing many of the buildings already on the island. By 1946, the training station was decommissioned.

1951-1954: The Coast Guard returns to the island to establish a Port Security Unit.

1954: Ellis Island Immigration Station is closed permanently and the island is abandoned.

Credit: National Parks Service

1955: The island is declared surplus Federal property.

1965: Ellis Island becomes part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Put into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a signed proclamation.

1986: The work begins to repair and refurbish the main immigration building on Ellis Island.

1990: Restored Main Building reopens as an immigration museum.

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