The lure of the New World had to be strong to encourage residents of other countries to give up their lives and livelihoods, take only that which they can carry and brave weeks in the squalid, cramped insides of passenger ships to make their way to a land they knew nothing about, many without any conception of what they would do when they land. And yet they came, by the thousands, creating a need for some kind of immigrant processing system. The first one that opened was at Castle Garden, on the tip of Manhattan, and a purely state-run facility. When the courts ruled immigration fell under federal jurisdiction, a new wooden structure went up on Ellis Island.
On this day, December 31, in 1890, the immigration facility at Ellis Island, the first American building a generation of arriving immigrants would see, opened.
The first- and second-class passengers had their inspections on board the ships before the docking – it was though those with the means to travel better were less likely to cause trouble once arrived. For the rest, Ellis Island inspectors would check them off against the passenger manifests and doctors would quickly examine them for any outward signs of disease (considering the rush of people, the doctors had on average just six seconds to make their determination.) Most were cleared; about 2% were sent back, usually for health reasons, and a handful were quarantined on the island’s hospital. Life at the island went on – between 1900 and 1954 some 350 births were recorded on Ellis Island.