Review: Hard Hat Tour of Ellis Island

The General Hospital
My friend MaryClaire and I both love going to a historic site (especially one that's likely to be haunted) so for her combined Christmas and birthday present, I bought us tickets for the Hard Hat Tour of Ellis Island. As someone who had been to Ellis Island several times, I was very interested in getting to see some of the hospital that sits across from the immigration station, looking eerily empty and dilapidated. We went in April which turned out to be the perfect time as it was neither too hot nor too cold and we didn't even experience any rain (the tour weaves in and out of buildings and many windows are missing glass).

A peak into the General Hospital
Ellis Island opened in 1892 as a station to filter third class immigrants on their way into the United States. While first and second class passengers had their health checks onboard the boats they sailed on and could immediately enter the country, most of those coming to America had to flow through the new station in between New York and New Jersey for a health check and questioning.

The original structure burnt down in 1897 and a new station was built along with a second island for the hospital to be built upon. Later, a third island was added and the contagious disease hospital was opened in 1907 at which point the other building became a general hospital. As immigrants went through line in the large hall of the immigration station, they were marked with white chalk on their coats if they were suspected of having a physical or mental illness. These evaluations were done so quickly, they were called "six-second examinations."


Most immigrants only spent a few hours at Ellis Island before moving through to their new lives, but some spent days, weeks, or even months at the hospital complex. About nine out of ten people pulled out of line for further examination or treatment later passed through to the United States. The rest died on the island or were sent back to their home country, after failing to be healed by treatment or failing a mental questionnaire. (Anarchists, for example, were refused entry.)

The Ellis Island Hospital saw over a million patients between its opening in 1902 and its closing in 1930. They had about 3,500 deaths -- 1,400 of which were children -- which was a very impressive mortality rate for the time. The 750 bed hospital was the largest Public Health Service facility in the United States in the early twentieth century.


It used methods that were very advanced, based on Florence Nightingale's discoveries, including mattress sterilization and individual air ventilation. People were grouped into wards based on the illness they were suffering from, rather than all put into the same room as was normal at the time. It was also a teaching hospital, which is very obvious from the autopsy theatre which has rows for seating.

The tour starts in the laundry facilities which houses much of its original equipment. While the pressing was done by women, only men worked in the large laundry room because of the intense physical labor it took to launder all of the sheets and clothing for the hospitals. This room also shows the state of "arrested decay" that much of the hospitals are in. This indicates that rather than attempting to restore the buildings to their original state, they are trying to freeze its decay and not allow it to become further dilapidated while also making it safe for visitors to enter.


The tour goes through the kitchen, mortuary, autopsy rooms, and infectious and contagious disease wards. We got a peek at the general hospital as we passed by and it was in a state of complete disrepair. The state of both hospitals is actually rather alarming. They're surrounded by overgrown plants (sometimes spilling inside), most of the windows are missing glass, and rust covers many surfaces. And while the historian in me shudders, there's an otherworldly charm to it. It feels more sinister than the castle ruins I've visited in the UK, but somehow similar.

In the autopsy room, the bodies were stored in this frozen container
The main diseases that the people at Ellis Island were concerned about were trachoma, a very contagious eye disease, and tuberculosis. The tuberculosis wards of the hospital are perhaps the most eerie today and the ones with the most reported ghost sightings. These wards have two sinks: one that had normal running water for washing up and the other for patients to cough up blood or sputum into. This part of the hospital was tightly quarantined to keep the disease from spreading and the nurses who worked in it even had to live in the hospital.


From one of the tuberculosis wards, there is a clear view of the Statue of Liberty. It's heartbreaking to think of the people who had come seeking a better life, only to find themselves isolated from their families and suffering from a terrible disease, often caught onboard the ship during the voyage. Tuberculosis was one of the diseases at Ellis Island that claimed the most victims. Despite translators, many of these people were surely confused and frustrated, being treated by doctors who didn't speak their language and with new and modern techniques that would have been largely unknown to them. And while experiencing all of this, they could see the symbol of the life they had come in search of from their window, a tangible reminder of how close they were. 

The view from one of the TB wards
The psychopathic ward is also rather chilling though it can only be seen from the outside, with the large cage on the front. Our tour guide shared that people were pulled for further psychopathic testing if they seemed dazed, confused, or nervous. They were given a hot meal, a warm bed, and a night's rest before having further questioning where they were asked simple math questions (with a translator if necessary) or to match shapes. Many were disoriented after getting off of a boat they had been on for weeks and were able to easily pass the next day's questioning and enter the United States.

The psychopathic ward
The psychopathic ward was originally the pregnancy ward. I was shocked at first to hear that visibly pregnant women were detained on Ellis Island until their baby was born, but it was actually because the public health service workers knew that immigrant women would receive little healthcare once entering the US. They were thought to be much better off giving birth in a clean and regulated hospital than in the cramped tenement homes that awaited them. There were 350 babies born on Ellis Island and not a single mother or baby lost, which was astounding for that era. It's easy to imagine that the women appreciated the care they received as many of the babies were fondly named after doctors or nurses in the hospital.

The art exhibit by French artist JR called "Unframed - Ellis Island" is dotted throughout the buildings on the interior walls. There are installations on sixteen interior walls of photographs of people at Ellis Island blown up very large. They add to the feeling that there are spirits still very much present in the buildings.

One of the pieces of the art installation
During WWI, wards were dedicated to treating soldiers suffering from what was then termed "shell shock." This may explain the blue paint still visible in some of the wards they were housed in, as it was thought to be calming for patients. After the hospital closed in 1930 as immigration was slowing down, it was used for other purposes including as an FBI center and a treatment center for disabled soldiers returning from war. Ellis Island finally closed as an immigration center in 1954 and it would appear that the buildings have sat mostly empty since then.

It was actually rather jarring to come out of the onsite physician's quarters at the end of the tour and walk back around to see the 'normal' Ellis Island building across the water that I've visited many times. Sometimes that building feels a bit overly restored, with lots of exhibits and glass cases, a stark contrast to the broken-down hospitals nearby. While some of the stories might seem cruel today (looking for trachoma by inverting the eyelid with a buttonhook, for example) and were certainly traumatic for many immigrant families, the hospitals themselves were actually incredibly modern. They were state of the art for the early twentieth century and many immigrants were healed and reunited with their families in America. 


The Hard Hat tours are operated by the non-profit company, Save Ellis Island, which has been giving tours of the hospitals since 2014. Hard Hats are required to be worn by everyone, no children are allowed, and they require a significant amount of walking. The tours last approximately 90 minutes and our guide was very knowledgable and friendly. The cost seems a bit pricey but is actually reasonable as it includes your ferry ticket and admission to the main Ellis Island Museum. For more information, you can visit their website. If you have any questions about the tour or the information we learned on it, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or in the comments. 

In addition to getting a completely different look at Ellis Island and delving deeper into its history, your admission helps fund the restoration and upkeep of the island. I would highly recommend going if you're in New York and look forward to returning at some point in the future. (And maybe having a proper ghostly encounter?) 

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