Polishing the Golden Door

By David A. Fryxell Premium

New Jersey has a $300 million dream for Ellis Island, the gateway through which 12 million immigrants entered America. Closed in 1954 and put up for sale as surplus federal property, Ellis Island underwent a seven-year, nearly $170 million restoration unveiled in 1990. But much of the historic island remains overgrown with weeds and fenced off from visitors. The New Jersey plan, announced in January by Governor Christine Todd Whitman, calls for redeveloping the island with two new museums and a center for meetings ranging from corporate confabs to international peace talks.

As a first step, Whitman said, $8.6 million has been committed in state, private and federal money to stabilize falling-down historic buildings. The island’s southern half, where sick immigrants were once hospitalized, is in particularly bad shape.

Under a 1998 court ruling that ended a long border dispute, most of the island’s 27.5 acres lie in New Jersey. The main immigrant museum stands on the New York side of the line. However, the National Park Service actually owns and operates the entire island.

An 18-member committee appointed by Whitman to make recommendations on the island’s future swiftly rejected commercial development ideas, slamming the door on prospects for an Ellis Island hotel or theme park. Instead, the group recommended three projects:

  • a Center for Immigrant Contributions and Ethnic Learning
  • a Public Health Learning Center, drawing on the island’s history as birthplace of the US Public Health Service
  • an International Conference Center.

Finn Casperson, who chaired the committee, conceded that the $300 million goal to make the plan a reality is a long way off. Much of the funding, he argued, would ultimately have to come from the federal government rather than from New Jersey.

For more on Ellis Island, including details on the American Family Immigration History Center, opening late this year, which will allow access to your ancestors’ immigration records, see <>.

From the June 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine