Travel There – Share the Immigrant Experience
My family, on both sides, got here before the 1890’s, so they did not go through Ellis Island or get dumped into the great melting pot of NYC. Some came when America was more wilderness than civilization. Some fought in the Revolutionary War. Others served as indentured servants to pay off their debts. Two brothers married Cherokee women in Georgia about the time of the Civil War. We didn’t come with the Conquistadors or sail to Plymouth Rock, but we did not sail past Lady Liberty as we entered New York Harbor, either.
However, Deborah’s family did. Hence, the whole experience was more profound for her than it was for me. She really identified with the challenges faced by those shuffling through the halls of Ellis Island with everything they owned in a satchel. She was disappointed the records center was closed on the day we were there, because she wanted to go and find her relatives listed on the logs they kept. To her, this was her family’s history and heritage.
A Shadow of Their Experience
Whether they intended it or not, there was a feeling of lostness as we arrived on Ellis Island. There were arrows and people pointing you in what was the right direction, but you had no way of knowing whether it was the direction you really wanted to go or not. What’s going to happen? Will there be someone to explain the process to me? Will I get a chance to sit down? What about food? Will there be any?
What they had for us were signs, but they were informative and told you what you were seeing and where to go next. You entered through the Baggage Room. Were you an immigrant, you would have had to let go of your luggage here. Imagine that everything you own in the world, the only things you could bring with you from your home, is in a carpet-covered satchel and first thing that happens to you in America is that someone takes it away.
In our modern day of mobile phones, apps and GPS, it is hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to arrive here. Some people had family or friends to connect with, but there would be no contact until they were through Ellis Island. How could they tell anyone they had actually arrived or had run into issues with immigration? And if you didn’t have anyone here, where were you going to eat and sleep? How would you protect your family and provide for them? It had to be so overwhelming.
Next you climbed the stairs to enter the Registry Room or what’s called The Great Hall. For most of the immigrants this was a crowded, potentially embarrassing and inconvenient experience, but soon enough they were on their way. Not everyone was so lucky. Some people were sent back where they came from. Others were held in dormitories on the island. The third floor has many exhibits that demonstrate the hardships of the less fortunate people who came to America through Ellis Island.
The Ellis Island Café
Deb and I had a big breakfast at the hotel, so we were able to last until the afternoon without thinking about food, but towards the end of our tour we were feeling the need for sustenance. I’d brought along a Meal Replacement Bar, but I desperately needed caffeine. Deb was looking for lunch. Our only option was The Ellis Island Café.
The café is not some cozy little getaway with lace curtains. It is a very efficient little snack bar, but everything offered is prepackaged. You can get wraps and sandwiches, chips and candy bars. There’s plenty of bottled water and a variety of soft drinks. There is, however, no Diet Dr Pepper. I knew that going in, but if you’re me, it’s worth mentioning. A certain portion of my life is spent identifying places where I can score my favorite beverage. Just for the record, there’s no beer or wine either.
Refreshed and refueled, we discussed our options for the afternoon. Had the Records Room been open, we would have spent some time there, but now it was time to start our exploration of Manhattan in earnest. We headed for the ferry and were treated to a much easier cruise than we’d had that morning. The first picture in last week’s post is Deb and I on our way back to the mainland.
Come back next week and join us in Downtown New York City. We’ll be following in the footsteps of some of our Founding Fathers.