A Journey Through Ellis Island

Walking in the footsteps of Ruth Salveson

News Writer and Photographer Gina Selig

Ellis Island

While on a trip to the College Media Association 2017 Conference in New York City, I was on a personal mission to discover more about my past. I knew that if I didn’t get to Ellis Island, my mind would be filled with regrets on the long flight back to Hawai‘i. However, with my coworkers’ conflicting schedules, and a precarious snowstorm underway, my chances to see it were growing smaller by the minute. So I had to make a move, and I had to do it fast.

Having been raised in a small town in South Dakota - and attending college in an even smaller town here in Hawai‘i - walking the streets of New York City alone was an unimaginable idea at first. There are too many dangers in a city the size of New York, and to travel alone was out of the question. It was fear that had been instilled in me growing up. However, I came to appreciate the empowerment that comes with trusting your instincts and traveling alone in a big city.

Although today Ellis Island is a popular tourist sight, the constant crowds of people entering and exiting as they please make it look ‘mainstream,’ and unsatisfying to some. There are so many layers to this building that can be uncovered. An island seemingly built for a single building, there was something about this immigration site that had always captivated me. Partly because I’ve heard some of the stories that my great grandmother, Ruth Salveson passed down to my father.

An immigrant from Norway, she left the familiarity of her country to come to America. Only eighteen, she traveled alone. The road to immigration was not an easy one. It involved a long process of waiting, tests, and many goodbyes. For many, it was a family affair. Advice was sought and help was freely given by mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends and even entire villages. It was not unusual for an entire family to work to earn the money for a single-family member who wanted to make the trip. The practice of one member of a family going to America first and then saving to bring the others over was common.

After making my way through the lengthy security that resembled airport lines, I set out onto the ferry that would take us across the bay to Ellis Island. The sun shined bright through the frigid March air giving the illusion of summertime. I made my way to the very top, the best view on the ferry. As we slowly traveled further from shore, I just closed my eyes for a moment imagining myself in the shoes of an immigrant.

Before the immigrants were allowed to get on the boat, they had to answer up to thirty one questions before boarding the ship. These ranged from name, age, sex, marital status and to whether they had at least $25 or not. The immigrants were then led to their accommodations based on which class they were. Steerage passengers - the lowest class - walked past the tiny deck space, squeezed past the ship’s machinery and were directed down steep stairways into the enclosed lower decks. For most immigrants, especially early arrivals, the experience of steerage was a nightmare. At one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage. The conditions were so crowded, so drearily dark, so unsanitary and so foul-smelling, that they were the single most important cause of America’s early immigration laws.

Ellis Island Entrance

As we sailed closed to Ellis Island, I could only imagine the fear, anxiety and hope that many immigrants had when they saw Lady Liberty. It was the first object to be seen, and the focus of every immigrant’s attention and the symbol of freedom they had been dreaming about. To many, Ellis was an island of hope, essentially the American dream. When I saw Lady Liberty for the first time, I felt inspired. But mostly, I felt a great appreciation for the freedom I was born with.

However, this was not the case for the 12 million that passed through Ellis Island. They had to fight for their freedom. Many factors that drove immigrants to depart their home countries: religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship, among others. Just beyond the statue, about a half-mile to the northwest, was Ellis Island.

As the island grew closer in distance, It felt as if I had been there once before. They always say that the pictures are never parallel to the real thing and that you have to see it in person to get the real image. However, this island looked straight out of the pictures I had seen years ago. It was everything I had imagined it to be, but also still so mysterious. The architecture was profound, seemingly not from its time. I stepped off the ferry and gazed up through the glass entry way.

Where I stood was where many immigrants met their first American, a nameless interpreter. The average number of languages spoken by an interpreter was six and the record for a single interpreter was fifteen languages. Interpreters led groups through the main doorway and directed them up a steep stairway to the Registry Room where they took their first test. A doctor stood at the top of the stairs watching for signs of lameness, heavy breathing that might indicate a heart condition or “bewildered gazes” that might be symptomatic of a mental condition.

When I first entered the registry room, my gaze probably looked the same as many immigrants that walked the same path before me. The room’s vast dome-shaped ceiling and its window lined walls made it look endless. Two American flags were hanging parallel from each other and there were benches on each side.

As each immigrant passed through this same room, a doctor, with an interpreter at his side, would examine the immigrant’s face, hair, neck and hands. If an immigrant was marked with an “X,” he or she continued with the process and then was directed to rooms set aside for further examination.

The next group of doctors were the dreaded “eye men.” They were looking for symptoms of trachoma, an eye disease that caused blindness and even death which was the cause of half of the medical detentions at the island. Getting caught with trachoma meant certain deportation. If immigrants had any of the diseases proscribed by the immigration laws, or were too ill or feeble-minded to earn a living, they would be deported. Even sick children aged twelve or older were sent back to Europe alone and were released in the port from which they had come.

As I walked to the very end of the room, I saw where many families were forced to say goodbye. A gold plaque hung on the side of the wall naming these stairs as the “Stairs of Separation.” It marked the spot where many tearful scenes as families with a sick child decided who would go and who would stay. Walking down these stairs, I could only imagine the pain of separation that was endured here.

Whether alone or with the comforts of family, each immigrant walked through its gates one at a time, person by person. Simply put, Ellis Island was the promise of a better life here in America. My great-grandmother, Ruth Salveson, was one of the millions who risked being deported or leaving behind love ones.

Visiting Ellis Island made me appreciate my freedom. It gave me a greater perspective on the conditions the immigrants faced as well. Their journey was a long one. Above all, it gave me the confidence to know that all journeys begin by leaving the comforts of the place you know, and not being afraid to do it alone. Ellis Island is a not just a tourist destination - it’s a lens into the past, where history comes alive.

*The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. *