Between 1892 and 1924 approximately 12 million men, women, and children first set foot on U.S. soil at the Ellis Island federal immigration facility. By the time the facility closed in 1954, it had processed ancestors of more than 40% of Americans living today. The island's main building, now a national monument, is now known as the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, and tells the story not just of Ellis Island but of immigration from the colonial era to the present day, though numerous galleries containing artifacts, photographs, and taped oral histories. The centerpiece of the museum is the white-tile Registry Room (also known as the Great Hall). It feels dignified and cavernous today, but photographs show that it took on a multitude of configurations through the years, always packed with humanity. While you're there, take a look out the Registry Room's tall, arched windows and try to imagine what passed through immigrants' minds as they viewed Lower Manhattan's
skyline to one side and the Statue of Liberty to the other.
Because there's so much to take in, it's a good idea to make use of the museum's interpretive tools. Check at the visitor desk for free film tickets, ranger tour times, and special programs. The audio tour (included in the price of your ferry ticket) takes you through the exhibits, providing thorough, engaging commentary interspersed with recordings of immigrants themselves recalling their experiences.
Along with the Registry Room, the museum's features include the ground level Peopling of America Center, a major expansion to the Ellis Island Museum that explores immigration to the United States before, and after, Ellis Island was a portal for immigrants. Interpretative graphics and poignant audio stories give first-hand accounts of the immigrant's journey—from making the trip and arriving in the United States to their struggle and survival after they arrived. There's also the American Family Immigration Center, where you can search Ellis Island's records for your own ancestors; the American Flag of Faces, an interactive display filled with a montage of images of immigrants submitted online (submit yours at FlagofFaces.org). Outside is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, which has the names of more than 600,000 immigrant Americans against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
There is no admission fee for either the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, but the ferry ride (which goes round trip from Battery Park to Liberty Island to Ellis Island), costs $18. Ferries leave from Battery Park every 30 to 40 minutes depending on the time of year (buy your tickets online at www.statuecruises.com). There are often long lines, so arrive early, especially if you have a reserved-time ticket. There is a pleasant indoor/outdoor café on Ellis Island.