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The Passage

Arrival in the United States

all stages of





The Arrival

The Stairs to the Registry Room

The Registry Room


The Medical Exam


The Legal Inspection



The Kissing Post

The Stairs of Separation



Today, Ellis Island no longer welcomes immigrants, as it has become a museum. Ellis Island has nevertheless welcomed more than 14 million people.



Most immigrants came to Ellis Island to escape poverty or religious intolerance from eastern and southern European countries. The maritime journey was only one stage of the journey since many immigrants previously had to travel on foot, on horseback or by train to reach the maritime coast.The ships divided passengers by wealth and class. Most immigrants were in third class and stayed in steerage whereas the first and second class passengers stayed in staterooms and cabins.

The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was difficult because of the crowds and the dirt, but thanks to the sight of the symbol of America: the Statue of Liberty, it brought joy to the passengers. Boats were inspected by health officers to see if passengers were suffering from diseases. First and second class passengers were the first to be inspected and therefore the first to leave the ship, while third class passengers could wait several days for another ship to take them to Ellis Island.

The immigration process began on the winding stairs where doctors watched each person, looking for those with difficulty breathing, walking or other health issues.

The Registry Room, also called the Great Hall, was composed of a waiting room in which there were long metal rails to keep some order for medical and legal inspections. This room could hold a lot of people which made it very noisy. Officials in the Great Hall decided whether each person could enter the country right away or whether that person's case required further review. From 1903 to 1914 immigrants were checked for trachoma, using a buttonhook, this stage of the immigration process was dreaded by immigrants and those, suffering from the disease, were mostly sent home.

Doctors created a test that was called a "six-second physical" to look for signs of a contagious or non-contagious disease or if an immigrant was limping or short of breath and other signs of illness. People considered to be a risk to public health were marked with a letter with chalk to identify them more easily (the picture below). Marked immigrants underwent a more thorough examination, while those who passed the 6-second test continued on their way to the legal inspection.

A manifest was given to Ellis Island officials upon arrival with the name and description of each passenger. 29 basic questions were put to each immigrant by an inspector but also an interpreter as the immigrants did not necessarily speak the same language. In case of different answers from the manifest the immigrant could be held for further investigation.

Ellis Island had two nicknames: "the island of hope" for the lucky ones, or "the island of tears" for the unfortunate ones. Legal detainees could wait several days or even a month in the dormitory before their case was examined. Detainees for medical reasons were either treated in the island's hospital for several weeks or kept in quarantine. But it is finally a special commission of enquiry with the examination of their medical report that would decide their fate: stay or send them back.

After the medical and legal inspections, the immigrants were faced with a staircase that led them to 3 different locations. The middle aisle was often reserved for detained immigrants, the right side of the staircase for those going west or south and the left side for those going to New York or the north. At the bottom of the stairs were several posts to help the immigrants, such as a post office, a ticket office or an office to exchange money from their country of origin for dollars. Money was needed for immigrants to go anywhere in America.

This space was reserved for family and friends who were waiting for their loved ones. This place was full of joy and hugs because it was a reunion after months or years apart. It was the end of the journey for the migrants and a new life in America awaited them.

Before arriving on American soil, immigrants had to pass through the obligatory stage: Ellis Island.