5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Ellis Island

On Nov 12, 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors. It had served as the reception station for more than 12 million immigrants to the United States between 1892 and 1924. Here are 5 things you didn’t know about this gateway to a new life in America....


The Island Had Been Used to Hang Condemned Prisoners During the early 1800s, Ellis Island was the hanging place of criminals, pirates, and sailors who tried to commit mutiny. New Yorkers called it Gibbet Island, which is where the bodies were displayed, and crowds would gather around the island in boats to watch the spectacle. The last hanging took place in 1839, after which the name reverted to Ellis Island, which was the name of the last man who owned the property.

Three Unaccompanied Children Were the First Immigrants at Ellis Island On January 1, 1892, three unaccompanied children from County Cork, Ireland, were the first to set foot on Ellis Island and go through the processing as new immigrants. The eldest, teenager Annie Moore, had arrived with her brothers, age 11 and 7, to join their family in New York. To mark the occasion, she was given a $10 gold piece, and a statue of the young girl and her siblings is displayed at the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island.


Ellis Island Used to be Privately Owned The island was owned by John Samuel Ellis, a merchant in New York. Ellis attempted to sell the island unsuccessfully for nine years, advertising it as a “pleasant situated island lying in New York Bay". Finding no takers, he leased the property to New York to be used as a military defense against the British. Ellis retained ownership of the island until his death in 1794. In 1808, New York bought the island for $10,000 from his family.

It Wasn’t Opened to The Public Until 1976 The U.S. government tried to sell Ellis Island in the 1950s, and would-be developers proposed everything from a drug rehab facility to a resort marina. None of these projects ever got off the ground, and the island  spent the next 20 years in limbo. The island was finally opened for tours in 1976, but plans for a historical museum and renovation didn’t come together until the 1980s, when automotive pioneer Lee Iacocca helped spearhead a fundraising project for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The restored island was opened to the public in September 1990, and it now receives around 3 million visitors each year.

New Jersey is Now The Official Owner Of Ellis Island While Ellis Island was historically part of New York, a Supreme Court ruling determined most of the island is in New Jersey.  In May of 1998, the Supreme Court ended a long-standing argument between New Jersey and the Empire State over who actually owns the Island. Based on a land claims agreement between the two states made before Ellis Island became a gateway for nearly 12 million immigrants. The court battle resulted in a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling that gave 90 percent of Ellis Island to New Jersey.