Ellis Island is one of the requisite stops for visitors and residents alike in New York City. It was the entry point for over 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954. The architecture of the Ellis Island immigration station is stunning, in handsome brick and interiors of Guastavino tile. Yet, there is a whole history of the island that is often overlooked.
On a tour of the abandoned south side hospitals on Ellis Island to track down the work of artist JR, National Park Service Ranger Mandy Edgecombe gave us lots of secrets about the island, whose history is most commonly associated with immigration.
10. Ellis Island Used to be Privately Owned
The owner of Ellis Island, which he called Oyster Island, was Samuel Ellis. In 1785, he tried to sell it and even advertised it as a “pleasant situated island” in Loudon’s New York-Packet but there were no bites. The city leased the island for military purposes starting in 1794, upon the death of Ellis and buys it from the family in 1808 for $10,000.
9. Pirates Were Hung on Ellis Island
Image via the Wellcome Library Creative Commons London A Man Rides Past a Gibbet. Lithograph by W. Clerk.
In the 1760s, Ellis Island was called Gibbet Island due to the pirate executions that took place there. A gibbet is the post from which the condemned were hung. According to Edgecombe, the pirates were left after their hanging as a warning to others. You can see a real life gibbet that has been retained for historical purposes in Northumberland, England here.
8. There Was Once a Bar for Fishermen on Ellis Island
Before the island came under government jurisdiction, there wasn’t much on the island. But there was a bar and restaurant for fishermen, according to Edgecombe. Today, you can see Ellis Island from a lesser-known floating bar, the William Wall, that serves as the clubhouse for the Manhattan Yacht Club.
7. Ellis Island is Mostly Man-Made
The original part of the island is smaller than the size of the Immigration Inspection Building. Ship ballast and excavation from the construction of the subways increased through landfill the size of Ellis Island by six acres. In total, 90% of Ellis Island is man-made.
See more of the man-made areas of NYC.
6. Half of Ellis Island is Abandoned
The Ellis Island hospital morgue and autopsy theater
The hospital complex on the south side of Ellis Island was once one of the most advanced in the world. So advanced that some of the city’s wealthiest families wanted to be treated there, but were rejected since the hospital was a public health initiative, not for private clients.
You can take hard hat tours of this portion of the island and step inside the hospital spaces, where you can see the 2014 JR art installation Unframed Ellis Island. Book your tickets or the tour below:
5. Ellis Island is Half in New York and Half in New Jersey
The borders of Ellis Island have been contested since the early 1800s, coming to a final head in a Supreme Court case in 1998. There it was ruled that the areas constructed by landfill after 1834 belonged to New Jersey, this includes the entire abandoned side.
This decision means that some buildings are both in New York and New Jersey, so in practice the two states share jurisdiction. The island is federal property however, and the United States government is fiscally responsible and on the hook for maintenance.
4. Ellis Island was a Fort During the War of 1812
Image from Library of Congress made by Historic American Landscapes Survey.
After the island was sold by the Ellis family, the US government proceeded to fortify it and had a role in various wars. First, a twenty-gun battery, magazine, and barracks were built after acquisition in 1808, known as Fort Gibson. During the War of 1812, the island served as a garrison and POW camp. By 1861, the fort was decommissioned and replaced with a naval magazine. During the Civil War, it served as an ammunition supply depot.
3. There Used to be a Waterway Between the Hospital Complexes
Fairchild Aerial Survey photo, in public domain
On the southside of the island, there are two rows of hospital complexes surrounded by a large field. The field was originally a waterway that was filled in during the 1920s and landscaped in the 1930s, part of the New Deal.
9. In Terms of Taxes, Ellis Island is Part of Manhattan
Ellis Island’s tax number is Manhattan Block 1, Lot 201. Block 1 includes Governors Island, Liberty Island (on which the Statue of Liberty sits) and the Holland Tunnel. New Jersey also assigned its portion of Ellis Island a tax number.
1. All of the Corners in the Hospital Complex are Rounded
The latest theories in healthcare were implemented at the south side hospitals of Ellis Island. It was thought at the time that corners harbored disease, so all the corners are rounded. The hallways of the hospital, with curved walls, were designed by Florence Nightingale.
For more on Ellis Island, purchase your tickets for our hard hat tour of its abandoned hospital complex:
Behind-the-Scenes Hard Hat Tour of the Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital