In 2012, my wife and I spent our 20th wedding anniversary in New York. It was our first visit to New York and we walked for miles on end around Manhattan, seeing all the typical tourist attractions. When we travel or take vacations, we make the most of our time, from morning until late at night, we try not to miss anything. Two attractions we planned to visit were Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. We visited the Ellis Island Museum and walked around Liberty Island, but one thing struck me as odd. Why was the hospital on the south side of Ellis Island left abandoned? The hospital must have equal historic significance as The U.S. Immigration Station, right? When we returned from our trip, I did some research online and found that several organizations offer guided hardhat tours of the hospital for small groups.Upon learning this, we had something new to add to our bucket list for a return trip to New York.In August of 2018 we made our return, but this time we took our two teenage sons. With everything we had planned for the week, I wasn’t sure what kind of feedback, or misery, I’d get from the family about taking them on a hardhat tour of an old hospital. I expected to get some groans, or at least are we done yet? comments from our boys. And I was completely wrong!Talking around the dinner table the following week, my two sons said that the hardhat tour was a highlight of our trip.
There is a universal fact about photographers. We are attracted to old, abandoned, rusty and deserted places. It doesn’t matter where they are, we manage to find and photograph them. Is it because we see beauty in things that have been discarded? Or because we want to document and preserve by means of a photograph? I’m not sure that I have an answer.In the months prior to our trip, I looked through hundreds of images of the abandoned hospital. Like so many captured images before, why would I want to do the same? I knew I wanted to make my own photos. To make my own versions of the images I previsualized. To add them to my own catalog and to share them with others.
On the south side of the island sits the abandoned Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. The hospital operated from 1902 to 1930. During its peak, the hospital and medical campus had 29 buildings, all connected by vast hallways and corridors. The hospital complex was in full operation by 1914 and that year treated 10,000 patients from 75 countries. With 750 beds, the hospital was the first public health hospital in the United States and was one of the largest medical facilities in the country.As immigrants entered the Immigration Station, the third class, steerage passengers, were visually inspected. About 1 in 5 were selected for additional evaluation. Half received a chalk mark on their clothing, indicating a medical issue. While doctors made medical assessments, it was the responsibility of Immigration Inspectors to decide who was allowed into the United States. Doctors were specifically looking for immigrants that showed signs of contagious diseases like trachoma, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. Other health concerns were poor physique, pregnancy, and mental disabilities.Only 1% were deported due to medical reasons. Typically, the first few weeks of hospital care were paid for by the steamship companies that brought people to the island. However, 13% of immigrants were denied hospital treatment. Most of those were not treated because they could not pay for medical expenses due to their Class A condition, this included mental conditions like insanity or epilepsy.
The tour we took was booked through Untapped Cities. You can also schedule the tour in advance directly through the National Park Service at a cheaper price. The tickets included the ferry on Statue Cruises and entrance to both Ellis and Liberty Islands. When you take a hardhat tour, 100% of the ticket price goes to Save Ellis Island, the non-profit organization that’s trying to preserve the island’s south-end buildings.Why are hardhats required? When the hospital closed in 1930, everything was abandoned. The facility was left unlocked, leaving furniture and medical equipment exposed to the elements. After decades of neglect, the buildings were emptied of their contents, and special vented windows were installed. In several spots along the tour, walls are crumbling, and exposed wood beams can be hazardous. In the doctor quarters, a large room with a beautiful fireplace, a large crack in the ceiling had formed a few weeks prior to our visit. Our guide explained that many of the upper levels of the General Hospital could not be toured because of a severe black mold issue.The tour guides are all volunteers that spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the island just for the hospital tour. Our guide was in his early 20’s. He must have answered what seemed like hundreds of questions from our small group. He was also what I would consider being photographer friendly.He could see that another woman and myself were always at the rear of the group, composing shots. At an early point in our tour, I felt the need to apologize to our guide for lagging behind the group. He said he didn’t care as long as he knew where I was. Being given this kind of treatment and freedom made the tour so enjoyable both as a photographer and someone fascinated with the history. The information found online and in the Ellis Island Museum is interesting, but it doesn’t replace the dialog you can have with a professional guide. There are two fascinating facts that our guide shared that stuck with me.He stated it was a requirement that each immigrant who died in the hospital have an autopsy done. In the years 1909 to 1911, 420 immigrants were quarantined and died. Of those, 85% were children under the age of 13. This would indicate that an average of three autopsies done each week, for three years, and two of them each week would have been children. I can’t imagine how busy the autopsy theater must have been during the Spanish Flu Outbreak in 1918.Our guide also stated that during the hospital’s 28-year history, local New York immigrants became upset at one time with autopsies being performed on the deceased. They believed the government was doing unnecessary autopsies. The disease research and medical training they claimed to be doing were not essential, causing additional heartache for family members.
Curious about their belief in the hospital being haunted, I asked my family what they thought. There was no consensus. None of us saw or felt anything, and we weren’t particularly frightened.However, the thought of what might have occurred in specific places in the hospital stuck out in our minds. For example, my youngest son, Connor (15 years old) says the psychiatric ward in the General Hospital was disturbing to him. At this end of the hospital, patients could exit the main building and go outside in a confined caged area. He also made the comment that this end of the building was large. Connor said, “They must have had a lot of patients with mental diseases.”Recently, I received this email from Save Ellis Island. It’s promoting the hardhat tour of the hospital complex for Halloween. The email subject was: Ghosts of the Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital. When Isaw the four images displayed in this email, I immediately contacted Save Ellis Island to inquire about them. I had an email exchange with Janis Calella, President of the Save Ellis Island Foundation.Unfortunately, I was not given permission to share these photos, but you can see them here. According to Janis, While the photos are pretty interesting and if you saw the rest (not included in the article) I’m sure you would be convinced there was something unexplainable happening at the hospitals.”
Final ThoughtsDuring the renovation of the Immigration Station, there were two differing opinions. One, don’t rehabilitate every blemish of the structure, let the building speak for itself. Two, renovate the building and make it a pristine museum for visitors.With the Immigration Station, I believe they’ve achieved a balance between the two. What can be done with the hospital complex that also has historic significance, but is slowing being demolished by the elements? Abandoned or restored, the Ellis Island Hospital is something we shouldn’t dismiss. It provided care for people in need. It prevented disease from entering the country. Immigrants were born there, and they died there.The hospital represented American health care, sending 90% of patients on to New York City to become productive citizens in the melting pot of America. Ellis Island was an island of hopes and dreams for 12 million immigrants. And an island of sadness and misery for 3,500.Shaun Nelson is a photographer from South Ogden, Utah. You can see his portrait work at www.ShaunNelsonPhotography.com. He also writes about vintage cameras and using film on his website www.UtahFilmPhotography.com.Follow Shaun on Instagram @shaunnelson