This Day in History

On Nov. 12, 1954, Ellis Island closed down its operations for good. The new immigrant processing center originally opened in 1892 and had processed over 12 million immigrants in total. Incredibly, 40 percent of United States citizens can trace their family histories to the doors of Ellis Island.

In 1890, President Benjamin Harris had designated the Ellis Island center as the United States' first federal immigration processing location. Before Ellis Island, individual states were responsible for processing new immigrants.

Ellis Island is situated in New York Harbor, just off the coast of New Jersey. It is named after the merchant, Samuel Ellis, who formerly owned the property during the 1770s. A 15-year-old Irish girl, Annie Moore, was the first person to be processed at Ellis Island after it opened on Jan. 2, 1892.

Only 3rd-Class Passengers Processed at Ellis Island

Only third-class passengers were processed at Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers were subjected to a quick on-ship inspection and permitted to disembark at the New York or New Jersey piers, where they proceeded through customs. Third-class passengers went directly to Ellis Island for medical and legal inspection. There, the government determined if the new immigrants had a grave medical problem or a legal condition that would cause them to be burdens on the U.S. government. However, very few people were ever turned away at the island, and 98 percent were allowed to proceed into the United States.

The largest influx of new immigrants at Ellis Island occurred between 1892 and 1924. During this time, government officials expanded the size of Ellis Island with landfill by 3.3 acres. During the 1930s, the island became its current size of 27.5 acres. One million people were processed in 1907 alone, which would become the island's busiest year.

Island Later Served as a WWI Detention Center

During World War I, Ellis Island became a detention center for suspected war enemies. After the war, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed and immigration quota laws were instituted, which drastically reduced the influx of new immigrants into the country, and allowed them to be processed outside the United States at overseas consulates. Ellis Island then became a processing and detention center used for the deportation of illegal immigrants. It was also a hospital for wounded World War II vets and a training center for the Coast Guard.

These days, the island serves as a historical museum to remind Americans of its great legacy. Nearly two million people visit the location annually.