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The Ghosts of Ellis Island.

Passengers arrive at Ellis Island

Passengers arrive at Ellis Island

I’ve been looking back at my photos of Ellis Island – and the faces that stared out at me from the walls.

What courage those people had! They were journeying into the unknown place grasping the hope of a better life. And for most, there was no chance of coming back.

Only the steerage passengers came to Ellis Island. They were the poor people, often desperately running away from persecution and hopelessness.  Getting off the boat in the new world should have been a wonderful moment for them – but often it wasn’t.

To use the words of one woman…

“They put us into lines. All kinds of lines. If you had visible something wrong with you.. they’d put one colour chalk on you. If it was something else… it’s another chalk and you go to certain lines…. Everybody that was supposed to interrogate us were dressed in uniforms. That had a terrible effect on me. We were scared of uniforms. It took us back to the Russian uniforms that we were running away from.”
(Katherine Beychok, quoted in Ellis Island exhibit)

Not a very good start to a new life.

Ellis Island Immigrant

Ellis Island Immigrant

Ellis Island Immigrant

Ellis Island Immigrant

Ellis Island Immigrant

Ellis Island Immigrant

A lot of the women who passed through Ellis Island were ‘picture brides’.

These were women coming from the old country to marry men they had never met – their courtship being simply the exchange of letters and photographs.

What an emotional moment that must have been – as the potential brides stared over the side of the ship – searching the crowds for a face that matched the photograph in their hands. 

Ellis Island Immigrants

Ellis Island Immigrants

Single women were not allowed to leave the island unless escorted by a family member, so often the marriage took place right there.

Some of the potential grooms, clutching flowers for their bride were doomed to disappointment. A few brides fell in love with a fellow passenger on the ship, and decided to marry him instead.

Health checks were one of the most important facets of the Ellis Island experience. With thousands of people pouring through the doors every day, the doctors had to move pretty fast, but they still had time to use a buttonhook to raise the eyelids of people suspected of
eye disease!

Not a pleasant experience at the best of times – and certainly not while shuffling in a noisy queue of strangers in a crowded hall.

The eye examination

The eye examination

Some people never left the island.

The hospital display

The hospital display

The two hospitals built in the early 1900s to treat sick  migrants were huge – housing hundreds of people.

Over the years, more than 3,000 people died there.

350 babies were born as well.

The hospital is yet to be restored and opened to the public. A single display in the main building gives a hint of what it might have been like.

They have restored one of the cramped dormitories with stacked bunks where the detained migrants slept – but it’s clean and bright and neat.

The dormitory

The dormitory

Where are the signs of the tears that must have fallen during the long dark nights.

Over 100 million Americans can trace their families back to Ellis Island. Some of those ancestors would never have made it – but they rubbed off the damning chalk marks that would have denied them entry.

It’s an amazing story. If I have a criticism of the museum, it’s that is seems to have put a bit to much gloss on everything. The restored buildings are nice – too nice. The museum displays barely mention the heartbreak and trauma so many must have suffered.

I hope that as the restoration of the island continues – someone will realise that a nation’s history is not just in the good – the bad also helps to make us what we are.

Please don’t chase the ghosts away.

Their stories are important.

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Writing retreats 2020 - Intensive tutor-led retreats with Janet Gover and Alison May

Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild OneColorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence Finalist for The Wild One
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