In 2012, my wife and I spent our 20th wedding anniversary in New York. It was our first visit to New York and we walked for miles on end around Manhattan, seeing all the typical tourist attractions. When we travel or take vacations, we make the most of our time, from morning until late at night, we try not to miss anything. Two attractions we planned to visit were Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. We visited the Ellis Island Museum and walked around Liberty Island, but one thing struck me as odd. Why was the hospital on the south side of Ellis Island left abandoned? The hospital must have equal historic significance as The U.S. Immigration Station, right? When we returned from our trip, I did some research online and found that several organizations offer guided hardhat tours of the hospital for small groups.
Upon learning this, we had something new to add to our bucket list for a return trip to New York.
In August of 2018 we made our return, but this time we took our two teenage sons. With everything we had planned for the week, I wasn’t sure what kind of feedback, or misery, I’d get from the family about taking them on a hardhat tour of an old hospital. I expected to get some groans, or at least are we done yet? comments from our boys. And I was completely wrong!
Talking around the dinner table the following week, my two sons said that the hardhat tour was a highlight of our trip.
Photographing the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital
There is a universal fact about photographers. We are attracted to old, abandoned, rusty and deserted places. It doesn’t matter where they are, we manage to find and photograph them. Is it because we see beauty in things that have been discarded? Or because we want to document and preserve by means of a photograph? I’m not sure that I have an answer.
In the months prior to our trip, I looked through hundreds of images of the abandoned hospital. Like so many captured images before, why would I want to do the same? I knew I wanted to make my own photos. To make my own versions of the images I previsualized. To add them to my own catalog and to share them with others.
Ellis Island Immigration Station
What many people don’t realize is Ellis Island consists of three islands. The islands are joined together at the west side by the New Ferry Building that was built in 1936 and renovated in 2008. Over time, island 3 was added and later, islands 2 and 3 were joined. This was all made possible by the rapid expansion of the New York City Subway System. Earth from new train tunnels was brought to the harbor to expand the island.
The Ellis Island Museum is the building that most people think of when they imagine immigrants arriving in New York.
The U.S. Immigration Station officially opened in 1892 and closed in 1954. During its 62 years of operation, about 12 million immigrants passed through the Immigration Station, roughly 70% of U.S. immigrants. It’s believed that 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. For me, it’s my great-great-grandfather. Anyone can check ship passenger manifests of 25 million immigrants at www.libertyellisfoundation.org.
These records contain the names of sponsored immigrants to third-class passengers, and the name of the ship they arrived on. Each person spent an average of 5 hours on the island. They were asked a series of questions and were evaluated on their physical, mental and moral defects. Only 2-3% of immigrants were denied because they lacked working skills, had a criminal record, or a contagious disease. And roughly 20% were held on the island for several days or weeks because of medical or legal issues.
Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital
On the south side of the island sits the abandoned Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. The hospital operated from 1902 to 1930. During its peak, the hospital and medical campus had 29 buildings, all connected by vast hallways and corridors. The hospital complex was in full operation by 1914 and that year treated 10,000 patients from 75 countries. With 750 beds, the hospital was the first public health hospital in the United States and was one of the largest medical facilities in the country.
As immigrants entered the Immigration Station, the third class, steerage passengers, were visually inspected. About 1 in 5 were selected for additional evaluation. Half received a chalk mark on their clothing, indicating a medical issue. While doctors made medical assessments, it was the responsibility of Immigration Inspectors to decide who was allowed into the United States. Doctors were specifically looking for immigrants that showed signs of contagious diseases like trachoma, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. Other health concerns were poor physique, pregnancy, and mental disabilities.
Only 1% were deported due to medical reasons. Typically, the first few weeks of hospital care were paid for by the steamship companies that brought people to the island. However, 13% of immigrants were denied hospital treatment. Most of those were not treated because they could not pay for medical expenses due to their Class A condition, this included mental conditions like insanity or epilepsy.
Ellis Island Hospital Facts
- Island 2 was the location of the General Hospital, built in 1902. It had 250 patient beds, featured 4 operating rooms on the top floor with skylights in each to vent gas from ether used in surgery.
- A total of 355 babies were born in the General Hospital. This includes births by the staff who worked on the island. In 1915, the infant mortality rate was 100 deaths per 1,000 live births.
- Island 3 was the location of the Contagious Disease Hospital, built in 1907. It had 500 patient beds, featured an 800-foot long corridor with patient wards jutting off from the sides. This offered large pavilion style patient wards in large rooms. Isolation style wards had a call buzzer system for ill patients with contagious diseases like Tuberculosis.
- In many of the isolation rooms, you’ll find two sinks. One standard sink with hot and cold water. Another with a smaller basin located next to, but a little higher on the wall. Patients with TB were encouraged to cough up blood or sputum in the small sink, and carefully wash in the larger sink.
- A total of 3,500 deaths occurred in the hospital complex. Half of those were children. The deadliest disease was the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. The Spanish Flu killed 20 to 50 million people worldwide and is noted as one of the deadliest diseases in the last 100 years.
- The General Hospital and Contagious Disease Hospital were originally separated by 200 feet of water. At the time, the Surgeon General believed that this was adequate space to prevent disease from spreading. Eventually, this area was filled in by earth brought to the site from tunnel expansion in the New York City Subway system.
- Water to both hospitals was piped from Jersey City, New Jersey. Though you may not want to drink the water in Jersey City now, it was the first city in the country to chlorinate its water. This is believed to have assisted the patients’ recovery.
- Meals were prepared onsite in a large kitchen, around the clock, and delivered to patients in the individual wards.
- A large autoclave was built to sterilize mattresses. One of the largest of its time, the autoclave used heat and steam to sterilize mattresses after patient use, effectively killing bacteria and bed bugs. In addition, sheets with limited creases were placed on beds to eliminate bacteria and dust mites.
- Physicians and nurses were part of the National Public Health Service, working in immigration hospitals on rotations. In both the General Hospital and the Contagious Disease Hospital, the nurse to patient ratio was 1:10.
- The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was a teaching hospital. An autopsy theater with stadium seating was built for medical students to observe as doctors and forensic surgeons performed autopsies on each deceased patient. New medical discoveries were made and rarely seen diseases were documented. Within the theater is cold storage for 8 deceased bodies.
- Nine out of ten immigrants were admitted to the United States after receiving treatment at the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital.
The tour we took was booked through Untapped Cities. You can also schedule the tour in advance directly through the National Park Service at a cheaper price. The tickets included the ferry on Statue Cruises and entrance to both Ellis and Liberty Islands. When you take a hardhat tour, 100% of the ticket price goes to Save Ellis Island, the non-profit organization that’s trying to preserve the island’s south-end buildings.
Why are hardhats required? When the hospital closed in 1930, everything was abandoned. The facility was left unlocked, leaving furniture and medical equipment exposed to the elements. After decades of neglect, the buildings were emptied of their contents, and special vented windows were installed. In several spots along the tour, walls are crumbling, and exposed wood beams can be hazardous. In the doctor quarters, a large room with a beautiful fireplace, a large crack in the ceiling had formed a few weeks prior to our visit. Our guide explained that many of the upper levels of the General Hospital could not be toured because of a severe black mold issue.
The tour guides are all volunteers that spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the island just for the hospital tour. Our guide was in his early 20’s. He must have answered what seemed like hundreds of questions from our small group. He was also what I would consider being photographer friendly.
He could see that another woman and myself were always at the rear of the group, composing shots. At an early point in our tour, I felt the need to apologize to our guide for lagging behind the group. He said he didn’t care as long as he knew where I was. Being given this kind of treatment and freedom made the tour so enjoyable both as a photographer and someone fascinated with the history. The information found online and in the Ellis Island Museum is interesting, but it doesn’t replace the dialog you can have with a professional guide. There are two fascinating facts that our guide shared that stuck with me.
He stated it was a requirement that each immigrant who died in the hospital have an autopsy done. In the years 1909 to 1911, 420 immigrants were quarantined and died. Of those, 85% were children under the age of 13. This would indicate that an average of three autopsies were done each week, for three years, and two of them each week would have been children. I can’t imagine how busy the autopsy theater must have been during the Spanish Flu Outbreak in 1918.
Our guide also stated that during the hospital’s 28-year history, local New York immigrants became upset at one time with autopsies being performed on the deceased. They believed the government was doing unnecessary autopsies. The disease research and medical training they claimed to be doing were not essential, causing additional heartache for family members.
In some of the photos of the hospital complex, you’ll see black and white images of people, on the walls and in the windows. This is an art installation called Unframed by French artist JR. These images represent the immigrants that came from all over the world, leaving their family and belongings behind. The nearly two dozen black and white images are actual archived photos taken in and around the hospital. The art installation went on display in October of 2014 and will stay permanently until the images fade, extinguished by the natural elements.
Within the first 10 minutes of our tour, our guide indicated that many visitors have felt cold spots or the presence of spirits in the hospital. He also indicated in an anxious tone that if anyone had these experiences, he did not want to know about them. Considering that 3,500 people died in the hospital complex, you would expect to hear some ghost stories. The circumstances of the hospital and death, match the environment where people would describe or experience a paranormal occurrence. For example, many of the patients in quarantine with a view of the Statue of Liberty a short distance away likely created a mass of emotion and energy that remained in the hospital. Then again, if you’re a skeptic like me, where are the stories and evidence that the hospital complex is haunted and home to some lost immigrant spirits?
Maria Newman from The New York Times wrote:
Inside a narrow room, with its grimy concrete floor, a rusted iron cot
sits forlornly by a tall window that faces the Statue of Liberty. A corroded fan hangs motionless above the bed. There are ghosts in this room. A cool breeze may have blown over a sickly immigrant here. Another man, misunderstood because of language and cultural differences, may have waited here until some doctor declared him sane or healthy enough to pass through the Golden Door…. Most of the buildings on the 27-acre island have not been used since 1954 and show the effects of time and weather. The spirits of thousands of immigrants, many of whom spent time here healing or being evaluated, still seem to inhabit the abandoned buildings.
Curious about their belief in the hospital being haunted, I asked my family what they thought. There was no consensus. None of us saw or felt anything, and we weren’t particularly frightened.
However, the thought of what might have occurred in specific places in the hospital stuck out in our minds. For example, my youngest son, Connor (15 years old) says the psychiatric ward in the General Hospital was disturbing to him. At this end of the hospital, patients could exit the main building and go outside in a confined caged area. He also made the comment that this end of the building was large. Connor said, “They must have had a lot of patients with mental diseases.”
Recently, I received this email from Save Ellis Island. It’s promoting the hardhat tour of the hospital complex for Halloween. The email subject was: Ghosts of the Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital. When Isaw the four images displayed in this email, I immediately contacted Save Ellis Island to inquire about them. I had an email exchange with Janis Calella, President of the Save Ellis Island Foundation.
Unfortunately, I was not given permission to share these photos, but you can see them here. According to Janis, While the photos are pretty interesting and if you saw the rest (not included in the article) I’m sure you would be convinced there was something unexplainable happening at the hospitals.”
During the renovation of the Immigration Station, there were two differing opinions. One, don’t rehabilitate every blemish of the structure, let the building speak for itself. Two, renovate the building and make it a pristine museum for visitors.
With the Immigration Station, I believe they’ve achieved a balance between the two. What can be done with the hospital complex that also has historic significance, but is slowing being demolished by the elements? Abandoned or restored, the Ellis Island Hospital is something we shouldn’t dismiss. It provided care for people in need. It prevented disease from entering the country. Immigrants were born there, and they died there.
The hospital represented American health care, sending 90% of patients on to New York City to become productive citizens in the melting pot of America. Ellis Island was an island of hopes and dreams for 12 million immigrants. And an island of sadness and misery for 3,500.
Shaun Nelson is a photographer from South Ogden, Utah. You can see his portrait work at www.ShaunNelsonPhotography.com. He also writes about vintage cameras and using film on his website www.UtahFilmPhotography.com.
Follow Shaun on Instagram @shaunnelson