The Statue of Liberty: a green-skinned icon, proudly shining her light over New York Harbour and welcoming the weary traveller to the self-proclaimed Land of the Free.
It might seem odd, then, to talk about Lady Liberty in the same post as Ellis Island: New York’s former immigration centre, renowned as the place that detained people as they struggled to be admitted into the United States. Surely that represents the opposite of freedom?
Actually, as the very informative Ellis Island audioguide points out, most people passed through Ellis Island and across to Manhattan in a matter of hours. And of those who were detained, most were kept on the island for medical reasons and treated, then permitted entry to America once they had been healed.
But people tend not to be interested in the stories where everything goes smoothly.
As we wandered around the restored facility at Ellis Island, listening on our audioguides to the voices of people who had passed through the building on their way to Manhattan, I must admit that I welled up several times.
Alright, so I probably can’t even begin to list all the times I’ve gotten teary while travelling (the Grand Canyon, the Sagrada Familia, eating fish & chips on the pier in San Francisco…) – but the stories were so moving, so emotional, so true.
It wasn’t that they were all sad stories, either (although one woman’s account of how her elderly mother was refused entry, and how she never saw her again, definitely did leave me in tears). Some of the tales that made me cry were tales of hope, of exciting new prospects in a new country. Stories of struggle and perseverence, and of winning out against the odds.
My lasting impression of Ellis Island will be as an incredibly human place.
Go early. We got to Battery Park at around 9:15am, and it was about 90 minutes before we were on the boat. I’m told this is a relatively short wait.
Take lunch. Liberty Island and Ellis Island both get very crowded, and it can be difficult to find a seat in the cafes there. They’re also pretty expensive places to buy food. (You can buy food on the boat, but it’s also kinda pricey.)
Statue of Liberty: We didn’t climb the statue, or even climb the pedestal; apparently, you have to book online well in advance if you want to do either of these. (Pedestal climb is included in the price of the ferry from Manhattan, but you still have to reserve it in advance.) Personally, I don’t think it mattered. We just walked around the base, admiring the statue and the skyline of Lower Manhattan across the water. Not a view to be missed!
Ellis Island: Give yourself time, and lots of it. Just to give you an idea, we spent over 3 hours there.
Immigration records: If you want to look up relatives who came to the States through Ellis Island, it might be worth visitng New York Public Library earlier in your trip. Apart from the fact that it’s a stunningly beautiful building, you can look up ships’ passenger lists there for free, which could save you money; Ellis Island charges $7 for half an hour to check their digital records. (I tried to double check this figure on the Ellis Island website, and couldn’t find it, so sorry if it’s not quite right.)