New York: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Presented to the people of the United States by the people of France, the Statue of Liberty recognizes the friendship between the two nations. The statue, on Liberty Island, rises more than three hundred feet from its tip to the bottom of its pedestal. It was established as a national monument in 1924, placed under the management of the National Park Service in 1933, and underwent an extensive $69.8 million renovation just prior to the statue’s centennial in 1986. Ellis Island was the gateway to more than twelve million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Because of its historic importance in the settling of the United States, Ellis Island was declared a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. After undergoing an eight-year, $156 million renovation through the efforts of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, it was opened to the public as a museum in 1990.

Site Office

Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island

Liberty Island

New York, NY 10004

ph.: (212) 363-3200

fax: (212) 363-6304

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have existed side by side in upper New York Harbor for more than a century. The Statue of Liberty was the first object that greeted millions of immigrants as they arrived in New York Harbor. It represented their hopes and cherished aspirations. Nearly all of these immigrants were fleeing political or religious oppression and grinding economic depression. Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, was the gateway to freedom through which the immigrants had to pass in order to gain entry to the United States. It was often a painful and fearful passage as the new arrivals struggled through the labyrinth of regulations, physical and mental examinations, and other barriers that separated them from freedom.

Origins of the Statue

The Statue of Liberty owes its origin to a dinner party hosted by Edouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye in France in 1865. Laboulaye, a scholar and jurist opposed to the autocratic regime of Napoleon III, commented during the course of the evening on the close sympathy between the ideals of the United States and those he wished to rekindle in France. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he proclaimed, “if the people in France gave the United States a great monument as a lasting memorial to independence and thereby showed that the French government was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty?” Laboulaye’s words stuck in the memory of one of the guests, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a thirty-one-year-old sculptor.

Bartholdi started as a painter but soon switched to sculpture, a medium that lent itself to his passion for large, patriotic works. A trip to Egypt, where he toured the pyramids and the Sphinx, only reinforced this love of the monumental. In Egypt he also formed a friendship with the builder of the Suez Canal, Count Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps. In 1867, Bartholdi created plans for a massive sculpture to be placed at the entrance of the canal. The sculpture, based on the Colossus of Rhodes, was to be twice the size of the Sphinx. Bartholdi envisioned a robed Egyptian peasant woman with light shining from her headband and from a torch in her raised hand. Despite repeated revisions made to please Isma’il Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, the plans were ultimately rejected. In later years Bartholdi denied that the plans for this work influenced his design of the Statue of Liberty, but the resemblance is unmistakable.

Following the Franco-Prussian War, Bartholdi was again urged by Laboulaye to create a monument linking the shared ideals of France and the United States. This time, Laboulaye made his appeal more directly. According to Bartholdi’s later accounts of their conversation, Laboulaye told him to go to America and “propose to our friends over there to make with us a monument, a common work, in remembrance of the ancient friendship of France and the United States. . . . ” Laboulaye gave the sculptor letters of introduction to prominent Americans and on June 8, 1871, sent him to the United States.

Bartholdi Chooses a Site

Bartholdi arrived in New York Harbor, which he immediately recognized as the perfect place for the monument, “where people get their first view of the New World.” More particularly, he chose Bedloe’s Island, “an admirable spot” in the middle of the bay. (The site would be renamed Liberty Island in 1956.)

Once in America, Bartholdi pressed his case for the monument to men such as President Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Horace Greeley. Bartholdi crossed the nation by train, stopping at Detroit, Chicago, Omaha, and San Francisco. At every stop he found great enthusiasm for his project, but scant willingness to raise funds for its construction. Bartholdi returned to France and bided his time, all the while refining his plans for the Statue of Liberty.

In 1874 France’s Third Republic was established, and Laboulaye and Bartholdi revived their plans for the statue. They decided that the costs of the monument should be divided between the two countries: France would pay for the construction of the statue; America, for the foundation and pedestal. The statue was to be completed by July 4, 1876, the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Planning the Construction

Bartholdi decided to construct the statue using a procedure known as repoussé, in which sheet metal is hammered inside a mold and applied as an outer skin to a skeletal support. This method cost less than carved stone or cast bronze, and the resulting statue would weight significantly less, a paramount concern when shipping a work of this monumental scale across the Atlantic. To create the statue’s copper skin, Bartholdi chose the firm of Caget, Gauthier and Company, whose craftsmen were skilled in repoussé. For the intricate wooden skeleton, he turned to engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, then known primarily for his iron railroad bridges, and soon to be made famous by the Eiffel Tower of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.

When it became apparent that the statue could not possibly be finished in time for the U.S. centennial, Bartholdi reasoned that he could at least have the raised arm and torch ready for the opening of the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Even this fragment of the work was not completed in time for the opening of the exhibition, however; it was unveiled in Philadelphia that August. Two other pieces by Bartholdi were also shown at the exhibition, and the sculptor was designated as the official French representative there. This high visibility allowed him to create great enthusiasm for his Liberty monument.

Bartholdi next set his sights on creating equal enthusiasm for Liberty on the other side of the Atlantic. He worked furiously to complete the head of his statue for the opening of the Paris World’s Fair in May, 1878. Once again, he was late; the head was unveiled in Paris in June.

Funding the Statue

As had been the case with Bartholdi’s 1871 trek across the United States, however, the enthusiasm generated by the two exhibitions did not translate into funds for the monument. In France, Bartholdi solved the problem through a series of ingenious fund-raising schemes, such as a lottery and the sale of miniature signed and numbered clay replicas of the statue. By the end of 1879, 250,000 francs had been raised. In America, almost no money had been raised. In 1884, with the statue nearing completion, only $182,491 had been raised for the pedestal and the foundation.

To the rescue came Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the St. Louis Dispatch and The World, who saw the opportunity not only to raise funds for the project, but to increase his paper’s circulation as well. He accomplished his goals by running editorials every day in The World, attacking the nation’s wealthy for ignoring the project and calling on the masses to contribute directly: “The World is the people’s paper and it now appeals to the people to come forward. . . . Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.” In return for their donations, Pulitzer promised to print the name of every single contributor. The campaign achieved both of Pulitzer’s goals: By August, 1885, the paper’s circulation had increased by half a million, and $100,000 had been raised for the completion of the pedestal.

Meanwhile, a design by renowned New York architect Richard M. Hunter was selected for the base. His plan called for an eighty-nine-foot-high pedestal resting on a concrete base that rose from the eleven-pointed star-shaped walls of Fort Wood. Overseeing the construction was Charles P. Stone.

The Statue Is Assembled and Dedicated

The statue itself had been completed since June, 1884. A year later it was dismantled and shipped to the United States in 214 wooden crates. It took six months to reassemble the statue and mount it on its base. When completed, the monument reached a total height of 305 feet. It would be the tallest structure in New York until the construction in 1899 of the 310-foot St. Paul’s Building.

The Statue of Liberty was unveiled on October 25, 1886. On hand at the ceremony were President Grover Cleveland and the French ambassador. Given the honor of pulling the cord that would drop the French tricolor veil covering the statue’s face was the monument’s creator, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. (Bartholdi was to pull the cord when Senator William M. Evarts finished his speech, but he mistakenly let the veil drop after Evarts momentarily paused to take a breath.) In his speech, President Cleveland said, “We will not forget that liberty has made here her home, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.”

“The New Colossus”

Although Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” is now inextricably associated with the Statue of Liberty, a plaque inscribed with her words was not affixed to the interior of the pedestal until 1903. Lazarus, a New York resident, had written the poem in 1883 as part of the American fund-raising efforts for the monument. It concludes,

…“Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to be free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It was these sentiments that attracted millions of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If the newly arrived immigrants looked with hope and wonder at the Statue of Liberty, “the Mother of Exiles,” it was with trepidation that they approached the monument’s neighbor in New York Harbor: Ellis Island, the “Isle of Tears.”

Early History of Ellis Island

The local Native Americans had called the island Kioshk, or Gull Island, for the birds that inhabited it. In July, 1683, it was purchased by the Dutch, who named it Little Oyster Island. The island changed owners several times over the next hundred years, finally passing into the hands of Samuel Ellis.

In the 1780’s, with the possibility of renewed hostilities with the British looming ever closer, the island was leased from Ellis’s heirs by the state of New York, which planned to build a fort there. In 1808 the state transferred its lease to the federal government, which recommended that the state buy the island outright and sell it, in turn, to the federal government. On the eve of the War of 1812, the government completed the construction of Fort Gibson there. The fort never saw hostilities, however, and eventually came to be used as an ammunition storage depot.

It was not until 1890 that the Congressional Committee on Immigration selected Ellis Island as the location of the new immigration station for the Port of New York. Before construction could begin on the station’s facilities, the island itself had to be prepared. A two hundred-foot-wide channel was dredged, a dock constructed, and the soft clay ground was solidified with landfill taken from the excavation for the New York subway and Grand Central Station. Once the foundations were stabilized, work began on the immigration facilities themselves. The two-story main building was approximately four hundred feet long and one hundred fifty feet wide, with baggage rooms on the first floor and the inspection hall above. Also constructed were a dormitory, a hospital, kitchens, and an electrical plant.

Opening of the Immigration Center

By the time the station was opened on New Year’s Day, 1892, it had cost $500,000, considerably more than Congress’s initial $150,000 appropriation. In these early years the station was busy, but the activity was not nearly as hectic as it would become later. This slower pace was in part the result of stricter contract labor and immigration legislation passed in 1885 and 1891. The station’s staff averaged between 500 and 850 personnel, including interpreters, clerks, guards, matrons, cooks, doctors, nurses, and engineers. Early on, this staff was known to be open to corruption. Inspectors demanded bribes or sexual favors; false citizenship certificates were issued; railroad tickets were sold at inflated prices; clerks lied about monetary exchange rates and pocketed the difference.

A fire on June 14, 1897, destroyed the original pine buildings (amazingly, with no loss of life), and an additional $1.5 million was required to rebuild facilities. The new main building–338 feet long and 168 feet wide–still stands and is considered one of the finest large-scale brick structures in New York. In addition to the construction of other buildings on the main island, the three-acre Island Number Two was also added. (A third island would be added in 1913.) The facilities reopened on December 17, 1900. In April, 1902, a new commissioner was appointed, William Williams, who rooted out the corruption among the station’s personnel.

Soon, immigrants were streaming into Ellis Island in record numbers for which the station was totally unprepared. The new facilities had been constructed to accommodate only half a million people a year. In fact, the station would process roughly three times that number of immigrants per year–five thousand per day–between 1903 and 1914, the peak years at the island.

Not all immigrants entering New York Harbor passed through Ellis Island. Those passengers traveling in first or second class were inspected aboard ship; few were sent on for full inspection at the island. Mostly, it was the poorer immigrants traveling in steerage who were inspected at the station’s facilities. Steerage itself was a nightmare. In a 1911 report to the president, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported that

ventilation is always inadequate and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of the not too clean bodies and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it.

Processing Immigrants

After a brief period of quarantine aboard ship, immigrants–now emotionally and physically exhausted–faced the rigors of the inspection at Ellis Island. As each passenger passed with an interpreter at his or her side, a doctor would examine the immigrant’s face, hair, and hands. Often, entire groups would be made to bathe with disinfectants. About 10 percent of those examined would be marked by the doctor with a white chalk letter, indicating that the immigrant was to be kept for further medical testing. Particular letters indicated different diseases. All immigrants were examined by the feared “eye men” testing for trachoma, a disease that could cause blindness or death, and which accounted for more than half of all detentions. In addition to these medical examinations, immigrants could also be given psychological tests meant to weed out the “feeble-minded.” Finally, immigrants were asked a series of questions designed to verify the information on their ships’ manifests.

Only about 2 percent failed the various tests. The rest proceeded to the Money Exchange, the railroad ticket office, and, finally, the baggage room. With their official landing cards in hand, they could then leave the island and enter their adopted nation. It is estimated that more than twelve million people, or more than 70 percent of all the nation’s immigrants, passed though Ellis Island during its years of operation, 1892 to 1954.

Immigration slowed to a virtual stop with the start of World War I. On July 30, 1916, a saboteur exploded fourteen barges loaded with dynamite in New York Harbor. Once again, the facilities at Ellis Island needed to be repaired, this time at a cost of $300,000. Once restored, the facilities were used to house citizens of enemy countries; the medical facilities were used by the army and navy. A magnificent vaulted ceiling was added to the main building in 1918.

Attempts to Reduce Immigration

After the war, attempts were made to reduce the number of immigrants entering the country. A 1917 law requiring immigrants to read at least forty words in their native language hardly put a dent in the flood of people passing through Ellis Island. In the 1920’s, however, Congress passed strict new immigration laws, culminating with the quota system that went into effect in 1929. As part of these changes, immigrants were to be inspected before their departure from their country of origin, not upon their arrival in the United States. Immigration dropped drastically. World War II saw a temporary burst of activity at Ellis Island, which was again used as a detention center for enemy aliens. The facilities were finally closed in 1954, in which year only 21,500 immigrants were processed there.

Ellis Island sat abandoned for more than twenty years. In 1965 it was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument (which had been established in 1924). Guided tours of the island were given from 1976 to 1984, but much renovation was needed.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1982, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was created to restore both sites. Similar to Joseph Pulitzer’s fund-raising drive for the Statue of Liberty a century earlier, this foundation, headed by businessman Lee Iacocca, sought private contributions. It was hugely successful, raising more than $295 million.

Restoration of the Statue of Liberty, which included cleaning its copper skin and replacing its torch, was completed by July 4, 1986. An elevator takes visitors to the foot of the statue, but those wishing to look out from the observation deck in the crown must climb the 354-step staircase. A permanent exhibition in the museum at the base of the statue tells the monument’s history. Ellis Island was reopened in 1990. While most of the restored buildings are off-limits to visitors, the 100,000-square-foot main building is open to the public and houses the Immigration Museum. An estimated two million people visit the Statue of Liberty every year; approximately a million and a half people visit Ellis Island annually.

For Further Information
  • Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty: The Immigrant Journey. 8th ed. San Francisco: American Park Network, 1998. A succinct but still comprehensive account of both landmarks.
  • Shapiro, Mary. Gateway to Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. New York: Random House, 1986. A detailed, vivid account of the history and development of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
  • Shapiro, William E. The Statue of Liberty. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985. Written on a somewhat simpler level but contains many interesting and amusing anecdotes about the statue and its creator.
Categories: History