The main building was restored after 30 years of abandonment and opened as a museum on September 10, 1990.
Before being designated as the site of one of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Ellis Island had a varied history. The local Indian tribes had called it “Kioshk” or Gull Island. Due to its rich and abundant oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, it was known as Oyster Island for many generations during the Dutch and English colonial periods
To create additional space at Ellis Island, two new islands were created (from about 1903 – 1910) using landfill from New York City subway tunnels and other sources. The second island became home to the hospital administration and contagious diseases ward, and the third island held the psychiatric ward.
Even though Ellis Island is considered a New York City attraction, only part of the island is actually in the state of New York – about 80% of the island is in New Jersey. In fact, after a lengthy court battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state of New Jersey had authority over most of the 27.5 acres that make up Ellis Island.
The problem for many of those who wanted to emigrate was that they couldn't find any regular employment in the first place. Without steady income, saving such a fare could be difficult if not impossible.
The journey to Ellis Island, the New York immigration reception point from 1892, usually began with receipt of a pre-paid ticket from a family member already settled in America. Those that could afford to buy their fare themselves were small in number. Steerage fares between 1880 and the start of World War 1 held fairly steady at £4-£5 which was equal to half the annual income of a labourer.
Immigrants who arrived here (Italy and Austro-Hungary had the largest numbers of immigrants) in possession of a first or second class ticket were given cursory examinations shipboard and allowed to enter America with little delay. Steerage - or poorer passengers - were subject to more rigorous examinations and were denied entry if obviously ill. In all, only 2% of all arrivals were sent back to their countries.
From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the immigrant gateway to America. More than 12 million people would arrive here on the way to their new life in a new country. Many had little or no money, some were ill, others had family waiting for them on the other side of the gate
It has been estimated that one out of every two Americans living today can trace his or her family history back to at least one ancestor who passed through the famous immigration station on New York's Ellis Island.
Contrary to popular mythology, a huge percentage of European immigrants to the United States never dreamt of settling permanently on these shores, but rather hoped only to earn enough money in America to return prosperously to their home countries. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nearly half of all European immigrants eventually repatriated to their homelands