Caring for the health of immigrants was there from the start. Even before Ellis Island began receiving newcomers in 1892, provisions were made for ill travelers:
The hospital is to have two large bedrooms for the men and women patients, and eight padded cells, four for insane men and four for women.
There will be two dining rooms, and the extension will contain the kitchen and storerooms.
Near the hospital will be a house for the physician, and also a morgue and dissecting room. (1)
But more needed to be done.
In the summer of 1893, as a cholera epidemic was sweeping the world, the International Conference of Boards of Health was tasked with protecting the United States. It quickly concluded that “the safety of the interior States [depends] largely on the efficiency of the quarantine at New York.” So the group set about inspecting the isolation facilities in New York Harbor on Swinburne and Hoffman Islands. Eventually, 30 members of the conference journeyed to Ellis Island. An Italian vessel had just landed, so they were able to examine how the Island’s staff handled some 800 people coming ashore.
Dr. Wheeler, one of the Island’s leads, explained the process:
‘We issue a certificate to each [immigrant] showing that he has been though the station properly.’ (2)
To which Dr. Baker, a member of the conference, asked, “What does it amount to as indicating the health of the immigrant?”
‘Nothing,’ said Dr. Wheeler. ‘We have nothing to do with contagious diseases. Those are disposed of at [Swinburne and Hoffman Islands]. We prevent those immigrants who are not admissible under United States laws from going to the City. The certificate simply shows that the man has been through the mill… they say nothing as to the health of the ones who have them.’ (3)
But Dr. McCormack, President of the Boards of Health, stood aghast:
‘So much grist has to go through this mill that it can’t be very closely looked after, it seems to me.’ (4)
Realizing that the Island’s administration had no place to quarantine contagious arrivals, let alone the wherewithal to spot them, the Conference sent an appeal to John G. Carlisle, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. They demanded he immediately “authorize the U.S. Marine Hospital Service to establish a system of immigrant inspection service with special reference to Asiatic cholera” on Ellis Island.
The Secretary, however, never acted. Perhaps that’s because Congress had been auditing the Immigration Bureau’s practices on the Island. Maybe he was deferring to its forthcoming report.
Back in March 1892, a band of lawmakers went to the Island “to conduct an investigation.” Their purpose was to “recommend improvements to the plan of medial inspection.” But they were also going to “consider the matter in which [the Immigration Bureau] spent over $650,000 in putting the Island in condition and erecting proper buildings on it.” What they found there was alarming:
The Senators and Congressman had noticed as they walked through the buildings after landing that they were very cheap-looking affairs, unsubstantial though comfortable. The wood put in them was evidently soft and poorly seasoned, for in the partitions and elsewhere great seams had opened up, through some of which the hand could be placed. (5)
Despite the ominous experience, they never redressed what they saw. And on June 15, 1897, the lapse proved catastrophic: A massive fire reduced the Island’s original hospital and immigration building to ashes. There was no suspicion of foul play, but the exact cause was never determined.
This time, however, the new administration in Washington responded. With support from President William McKinley, Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage petitioned Congress for $600,000 in funds to rebuild. The expenditure was quickly authorized and on January 27, 1898, the Treasury was ready to go.
As the announcement in New York Times declared, there’d be no expense spared on safety again:
New York Design for the New Buildings of the Ellis Island Station Accepted —
The Exterior and Interior —
Elaborate Arrangements for the Safety and Convenience of Arriving People and Their Friends —
Everything Made Fireproof! (6)
And no expense saved on the hospital either. While the Main Immigration Building was being erected, a whole new island was created from landfill for the infirmary. Finished in 1899, it was dubbed “Island #2.” A ferry slip partially separated it from the original Ellis. This was the vision:
The hospital will harmonize with the main building, and will accommodate forty-five patients easily, and more if necessary. (7)
And, just to reiterate:
The next building in importance to [the Main Immigration Building] is the hospital…. This structure, while plain in plan, is arranged with perfect details for the purpose for which it is to serve. (8)
But four years later, with 3,000 to 5,000 migrants arriving each day, the Island was in need of an upgrade.
Calling on Congress for help, George B. Cortelyou, U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor, requested $1,036,000 to make improvements. What prompted him most was the stress being placed on the medical facilities:
There are accommodations for only 125 patients, while at times provision must be made for 500. A hospital double the size of the present building is recommended. (9)
So he urged that Ellis be augmented again
To erect a contagious disease hospital on a proposed new island, in which patients suffering from measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and like diseases may be treated. (10)
And soon the need would be dire.
Photos by Rick Stachura. Ellis Island, New Jersey. March 28, 2015.
(1) Covered Way C-8A [Built 1900-01]. Connects Laundry/Hospital Out-Building [1900-01] to Main Hospital Building [1900-01] and Psychopathic/Psychiatric Ward [1906-07] on Island #2.
(2) Psychopathic/Psychiatric Ward on Island #2.
(3) Laundry/Hospital Out-Building and Psychopathic/Psychiatric Ward, from left to right, on Island #2.
(4) Mortuary/Animal House [1908-09] on Island #3.
(5) Kitchen  on Island #3.
(6) Administration Building [1905-07] and Hospital Extension Building [1908-09], from center left to center right, on Island #2.
(1) “The Work on Ellis Island,” The New York Times. August 21, 1890.
(2) + (3) + (4) “Health Boards Criticise,” The New York Times. April 8, 1893.
(5) “A View of Ellis Island,” The New York Times. March 6, 1892.
(6) + (7) “A Palace for Immigrants,” The New York Times. January 28, 1898.
(8) “New Immigrant Station,” The New York Times. December 3, 1900.
(9) + (10) “Million for Ellis Island,” The New York Times. January 16, 1904.
(Portions of this story were originally posted to my old Tumblr site on May 18, 2015.)