Remembering The Dark Side Of Ellis Island

A deserted stairwell at the Ellis Island Hospital where many sick immigrants were treated.
A deserted stairwell at the Ellis Island Hospital where many sick immigrants were treated.

The Statue of Liberty appears like a recurring thought — suddenly, unexpectedly, the embodiment of the American dream — so tantalizingly close, and yet so far away for those who were confined here.

She beckons the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of the world, and for more than 60 years beginning in 1892, they spilled onto the docks at Ellis Island, 12 million of them altogether. Once in 1907, more than 11,000 arrived in one day.

The immigrants climbed the steep stairs into the great hall. Doctors examined them and then decided who was free to go and who was sent to the south side of the island to the hospital, to be held for treatment and possible deportation. Today it is off-limits to the public.

"Tens of thousands of people were taken to the hospital," the author of "Forgotten Ellis Island," Lorie Conway, told Sunday Morning's Martha Teichner. "It's called the island of hope — 350 babies were born in this hospital — and it's called the island of tears — 3,500 immigrants died in this hospital, and many died penniless and were buried in paupers' graves."

To protect the nation from illnesses that immigrants arrived with, the Ellis Island hospital had what was considered one of the best infectious disease facilities in the world. Sick children found themselves separated from their parents.

The staff were ordered to treat immigrants with kindness and they did, but anti-immigrant feeling was strong, and the fear of deportation was real.

"Eugenics was a hard science at the turn of the century, and a lot of people, members of Congress believed in eugenics that held that the American gene pool was being poisoned and polluted by the immigrant stock that was interbreeding and intermarrying in America at that time," Conway said.

Ellis Island finally closed in 1954. The immigrant processing center was restored and is now a museum. But not the "dark side," as the hospital complex came to be known.

In 1998, photographer Stephen Wilkes was asked to walk the grounds and spent an hour documenting what 50 years of neglect had done to the 22 hospital buildings. He took one look and then spent five years coming back again and again in different seasons, to capture the spooky beauty of the place before it was cleared and the buildings stabilized in hopes that it, too, one day would be restored.