Nov. 12, 1954: Ellis Island closes after admitting millions of immigrants

From 1892 to when it officially closed its doors on this day in 1954, New York's Ellis Island processed more than 12 million immigrants coming to the U.S. At its peak in 1907, Ellis Island saw just over one million immigrants, with 11,747 people processed on April 17 of that year – the all-time daily high.

Since reopening as a museum and national park in 1990, nearly 2 million visitors come to the historic island each year. During Superstorm Sandy in late October of last year, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, which houses the Statue of Liberty, experienced $77 million worth of damage and were forced to close.

Ellis Island stayed closed until Oct. 28 of this year, when both islands were partially reopened. Because many of the artifacts and documents were moved off site and the buildings are still undergoing renovations, the only areas open for visitors are the baggage room, registry room/great hall, the People of America exhibit, presentations in the theater and a limited audio tour, and the gift shop.

There is, however, no elevator or food service and no access to the third floor. Nearly all of the exhibits and educational programs are still closed, as is the American Family Immigration History Center. The site is expected to be fully reopened by the spring of 2014. In the meantime, the National Park Service says, “Your visit will be more similar to that of an immigrant a century ago.”

Before the opening of Ellis Island, immigration in the U.S. was primarily handled by the states. But, in 1890, Congress earmarked $75,000 to build the first federal immigration facility. This included using landfill to expand the island from its original 3.3 acres to just over six acres. It eventually reached its current size of 27.5 acres.

After completion of the facility, on Jan. 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore from County Cork in Ireland became the first person to come through the new Ellis Island. Moore was reportedly arriving with her two younger brothers to join their parents in New York City.

While third-class passengers had to go through a line of immigration officials and screenings for communicable diseases, first-class and second-class visitors were typically able to skip the stop and be processed onboard their ship before disembarking in New Jersey. If a third-class passenger was in good health and had their papers in order, getting through Ellis Island would take just three to five hours. But if not, they could be stuck there for far longer.

A fire swept through the buildings in 1897 and destroyed many of the immigration records from the previous 40 years. What is currently the main building was erected in 1900 for $1.5 million – and was designed to be fire-proof.

During World War I, suspected enemy aliens were detained at Ellis Island. While it reopened as an immigration facility after the war, immigration around the world had changed and the need for Ellis Island changed.

With the U.S. emerging as a major destination for immigrants and as a major international power, embassies were established around the world. People hoping to travel to the U.S. were then able to apply for visas and undergo the necessary medical tests before ever getting on a ship. The Immigration Act of 1924 further regulated and restricted immigration. From then on, Ellis Island was used simply to hold those who were being detained, had problems with their paperwork or were otherwise unwelcome, such as Japanese and German immigrants during World War II.

After communists were banned from entering the U.S. in 1950, Ellis Island had a new influx of detainees, holding a peak of 1,500 alleged communists and fascists at one point. By 1952 only 30 detainees remained on the island. On Nov. 12, 1954 the last detainee, a 48-year-old merchant seaman from Norway, Arne Peterssen, boarded a ferry to Manhattan and Ellis Island shut its doors.