Leaving Liberty Island, you can’t help but think you’ve already had a pretty fantastic experience, but there was much more to come on this special day out – however, whilst we enjoyed the short cruise towards Ellis Island, my camera was still focused on the Great Lady.
Prior to this trip, I didn’t know too much about Ellis Island, other than it being next to Liberty Island, and that it had something to do with early immigration to the US. That ‘something to do with’ turned out to be a gigantic understatement, as the Island was point of entry to the US for some 12 million immigrants between the years of 1892 and 1954.
There are many great posts and videos online about the history of Ellis Island, and our short visit was barely enough to experience more than a brief glimpse of that history. However, it wasn’t hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been in those early days for those hoping to start a new life, to arrive on this small piece of land (much of it reclaimed) after a long, tiring and no doubt uncomfortable sea journey, with an oh so close Manhattan very visible just across the water and Lady Liberty right next door, yet not know for sure that you would get there and be able to pursue your dream.
For whilst the famous sonnet ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus adorns The Statue of Liberty and includes the lines:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The reality was that unless you were medically fit and healthy, capable of hard work, and that you were in no way going to be a burden to your new hosts, you were not welcome. For those that did not tick these boxes there was no ‘Golden Door’, they were uncermonously put back on their vessels and returned from whence they came, having been forced to buy a return ticket as part of the deal.
The island is separated into two parts, the North side is today home to the Immigration Museum, in what was once the main processing areas – the primary destination of our tour. The south side contains the former hospital and morgue buildings; these are not generally open to the public, although private tours can be arranged upon special request.
Along with Robert, our guide, we walked slowly through the museum; we heard stories of how potential immigrants were ‘profiled’ as they entered the grand hall, how they were singled out, based on ‘six second’ checks by doctors. Chalk markings were written on their clothing, to indicate various suspected physical or even mental conditions. For those with chalk markings, further, more detailed health checks would be carried out. Particularly stomach churning were the tests for eye problems, including the highly infectious disease, trachoma – these involved the use of a ‘buttonhook’ to pull up the eye lid – my own eyes certainly watered at the thought of this!
Once processed, immigrants that were accepted were allowed to continue on their way to New York, or beyond, but those who were not to be granted access were left with no choice but to return to their home lands – how desolate they must have felt – looking at this next photo, we can see how close they came to their dream.
Outside of the Museum, there is the ‘Wall of Honour’ – a permanent exhibit of individual and family names of those that have passed through Ellis Island, which currently contains more than 700,000 names. However, to have a name entered on the wall involves a cost, which starts at $150, but it’s a great way to honour those past generations by preserving them for future ones.
Leaving the Museum also signalled the end of the first part of the tour – we were left to our own devices, with time to explore the grounds further, before catching the ferry back to Battery Park. There would be opportunity for lunch before walking up to St. Peter’s Church, the nearby meeting place for the afternoon tour of Lower Manhattan.
Lower Manhattan and 9/11 Museum
Our afternoon started on the steps of St Peter’s Church, where we joined up with our new tour group, and were given an outline of the next few hours – a walking tour of the area, followed by access to the 9/11 Museum, and although the sun shone brightly, for me it felt a sombre afternoon as we walked in the shadow of the new ‘One World Trade Centre’.
There are days in our lives that we never forget, and without doubt 9/11 is one of those days; everyone knows where they were when they first heard of the atrocities. For me personally, as I’ve always worked in the airline industry and been a regular air traveller, any air accident upsets me greatly, but this was a day like no other. To see the planes crash into the towers, and the subsequent impact of the towers collapsing was the stuff of nightmares. Plus of course the other 2 air crashes that contributed to the devastation of that day.
I have my own memories of the twin towers as I had visited them during one of my work trips to New York back in the 1980’s; and at the time of 9/11 I was working for an American company, so it all felt very personal.
But the message of the tour was one of positivity and hope, and nothing emphasised this more than our stop at St Paul’s Chapel. This relatively small church is located directly across from the WTC site, yet it somehow escaped any damage, not even a pain of glass was broken. In the days and weeks after the attacks, it became a place of rest for those working to deal with the aftermath.
…the message of the tour was one of positivity and hope…
On September 11th 2002, 1 year after the attacks, the ‘Bell of Hope’ was presented to the people of New York by the Lord Mayor of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. It was installed into this picturesque spot at St. Paul’s, and the bell is rung every year on September 11th.
From St. Paul’s it’s a short walk to ‘The Oculus’ – the area’s new transportation hub, and Westfield World Trade Centre Mall. This mega structure is designed to connect 11 subway lines, and house over 50 stores – it is said to have cost a cool $4 billion! Our guide was rather begrudging of this amount, joining a fairly vocal group that feel that some of this money could have been better spent on other projects.
For the visitor though, it is an incredible structure which dominates the landscape. It was designed by the Spaniard, Santiago Calatrava, and is inspired by the image of a child releasing a dove.
From The Oculus, we continued on towards the National September 11 Memorial. The memorial comprises two reflecting pools which are sited on the footprints of the original twin towers. Each pool is nearly an acre in size, and they are fed by the largest man made waterfalls in the US.
The names of 2,977 victims of 9/11, together with 6 victims from the 1993 WTC bombing, are inscribed on the parapets that surround the two pools, and as a very special touch, volunteers place flowers in the names to mark birthdays; this for me, somehow made everyone seem more than just a name.
We heard stories of some of those who died that day including Wells Crowther, ‘The man in the red bandanna’, who selflessly helped many people to points of safety, before returning to help others in danger. In events perpetuated by evil, people like Wells teach us how we should treat our fellow man.
The final part of the day was to visit the 911 Memorial Museum; this was probably the most emotional part of the experience. This underground Museum features a wide range of images and artefacts, voice and video recordings from that day. Items such as steel columns from the towers, and aircraft debris are displayed, but not in a ghoulish way, it’s so well done, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed as you walk, mainly in silence, around the various displays.
In some areas photography is not allowed, which seems entirely appropriate, it’s definitely a place to look, absorb and remember. I was particularly struck by a short video of a morning news show, with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer reporting a news flash that a plane had just struck the WTC – up to that moment, everything in the show was normal, but thereafter, everything changed.
Even now, almost 4 weeks after visiting, the impact of the Museum is very much with me – humanity can only hope that one day, we will learn that such acts can never be right, that no matter what our differences are, violence and terror should never be the answer.
So an incredible day came to a close; we hailed a taxi and returned to the comfort of our hotel, mentally drained and physically exhausted, but with memories that will live with us forever. Thank you New York.
Part 1 of the day out can be read here
Our tour was booked through viator.com – details here