In joyful, dignified ceremonies, the “golden door” through which 12 million immigrants entered the United States was reopened at Ellis Island on Sunday.
Trumpets sounded, a military band played and 49 new Americans were sworn in. Guests sipped Champagne and Vice President Dan Quayle cut the white ribbon to open the restored Great Hall as an immigration museum.
“They taught us to give the very best of ourselves to ensure that our freedom endures forever,” said Quayle, acting for President Bush, who was in Helsinki, Finland, meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
“Today, no one is answering the call more effectively than our young men and women in the (Persian) Gulf,” the vice president said. “There, children of Mexicans or Kenyans stand shoulder to shoulder with the grandchildren of Japanese or French next to the great-grandchildren of Poles or Dutch--now Americans all.”
Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca said: “There are thousands of different names, thousands of different stories, but you stitch all of them together and you have one huge saga, and it’s our saga.” Iacocca led a campaign that raised $156 million to save the immigration station.
The restoration project, the most expensive of its kind in American history, was entirely financed from private contributions to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
About 1,500 guests gathered outside the huge, four-towered brick building, to be opened to the public as a museum today.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia swore in the new citizens. As symbols of the millions who teemed ashore here, six Americans who passed through Ellis Island were honored during Sunday’s ceremonies. They included 92-year-old Clara Larsen, who emigrated from Russia in 1911. Now a white-haired woman who moves about with a walker, she traveled alone as a teen-ager to New York, where she later was a founding member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Also on the stage was Johanna Flaherty, 84, who emigrated from Ireland at the age of 16. She came to America, she said in an oral history preserved at the immigration museum, because she “didn’t want to wake up and stare a cow in the face every morning.” Flaherty saw that as her future in her hometown. She settled in New York City and raised a family.
From 1892 until 1954, when the Ellis Island Immigration Station was closed, some 12 million immigrants--who have an estimated 140 million descendants--passed through its portals.
In 1907, the peak year at Ellis Island, more than 1 million immigrants were processed. On the busiest day, April 17, 1907, the total was 12,000. Most of the newcomers spent three to five hours on the island. The processing included medical examinations, during which eyelids were lifted to check for signs of the disease trachoma and scalps were inspected for fungus infections.
What was it like to step off the gangplank at Ellis Island?
An article in the May, 1903, issue of “Everybody’s Magazine” described the experience.
“They are so optimistic, these hordes of foreigners who are pouring into their promised land so confident of flowing milk and honey, so glad that the wandering is over,” wrote Eleanor Hoyt. “They swarm off the boats and are met by loud-voiced, impatient men who have seen shoals of immigrants come and go . . . .
“The nervous, excited . . . crowd must be handled quickly, for more are coming--and more--and more.”
And some of them did not pass the exams.
“Bitter faces, sullen faces, unhappy faces, indifferent faces, all tell the same story--excluded,” the magazine article said. “From the consumptive Italian actor to the English convict, from the mournful-eyed, hollow-chested Hebrew patriarch to the half-blind German musician, they are failures all. And even when the door is closed upon them, an imaginative brain still sees the dreary faces peering through the smoke clouds like a Dantesque vision of lost souls.”