Ellis Island hard hat tour

When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago I went to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I have actually been to them before, in the 1990s, at the end of a Trek America group trip I did. On that occasion we went up the statue, not quite to the top sadly as some of the people I was with needed to catch a train so we left, but we did do it. Back then, it was easy to get in the Statue – you just turned up and bought a ticket to do the climb – it may even have been included in our general ticket. These days, I think visitor numbers are limited and you need to buy tickets to climb the Statue months in advance. The other big difference of course is that the view of the Manhattan skyline has changed somewhat – gone are the Twin Towers which dominated for so long, and in their place the new World Trade Centre.

The view of Manhattan last time I went to Ellis Island
one of my pictures from the 1990’s showing the old NYC skyline
my original souvenir guide!

As I’m a bit of a history geek, I felt like going back to Ellis Island – the honest truth is I don’t actually remember much from my previous visit except that I liked it and found it very interesting. When I was looking into it online, I found out about a hard hat tour you can go on of the hospital on Ellis Island. It sounded interesting and got really good reviews so I decided to do it. So, I paid my money and booked it.

The day of my trip dawned bright and sunny, but cold – it was freezing on the boat!

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Me – freezing on the boat!

The first stop is The Statue of Liberty. Included in the price of the trip is an audio guide, which gives you lots of information as you wander around about the statue, and the small island it’s built on. For example, did you know the plaque the statue is holding is big enough to hold 2 parked cars? I certainly didn’t know that until 2 weeks ago. Or that there is a mini Eiffel Tower inside, holding it all up. And it really is an Eiffel tower, as the same man built both. I spend about an hour there, admiring the views of New York, and of course the statue itself. It truly is a remarkable structure, and well worth a visit.

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Eventually it was time to move on, and I got back on the boat, and headed to Ellis Island. My first stop here was the cafeteria for lunch. Then, I had a wander around outside, and had a look at the Wall of Honor, which lists some the immigrants who entered the USA through Ellis Island. There were a few people there who were looking for ancestors who arrived this way, so it’s clearly an important place for some people.

Then it was time for my hard hat tour. So, I should probably explain what exactly this is. When the US government stopped using Ellis Island in the 1950s, they just abandoned it. Packed up and left. Left it to decay and fall down. It was made a national park and thus given protection in the 1960s, enabling it to survive a proposal to turn the site into tennis courts. It then underwent a significant restoration project, and the main building was opened as a museum to the public in September 1990 (I first visited just 5 and a half years later in Feb 1996), to help visitors learn about immigration to the US. Since then, it has undergone further refurbishment and is now a major museum, with nearly 2million visitors a year.

However, not all of it has been refurbished. The hospital at the back is pretty much as it was left in the 1950s. It is not open to the public, as it’s not safe – there are broken windows everywhere, plaster coming ceilings and walls, and potentially dangerous stairs and floors. The long term plan is to open it up the public, and let them visit on self guided tours so they can see the hospital and learn more about that side of the island’s history. Until they are able to do that, they run 5 or 6 guided tours a day, known as hard hat tours, because of the hard hat due you have to wear. And this is what I went on. You have to stay with the group and the tour leader, and wear the hat obviously, and not touch the walls or very fragile windows, but as long as you agree to those rules you can visit the hospital.

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It was really fascinating, and I’m so glad I did it. The hospital is actually comprised of lots of buildings, connected by corridors, overlooking a big open grassy central area, hopefully giving the patients a nice view as they recovered from their various ailments. The buildings themselves were actually quite attractive, with big verandas and balconies with ornate ironwork on them, and big windows letting in the light.

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Given that I am a nurse, it was really interesting to hear about their efforts regarding infection control, and how they tried to control the airflow to limit the risk of cross infection between wards, and limiting which staff could go in each ward. They also locked the doors to control access, just like we do today. The wards had drug rooms, and treatment rooms, just like we do. But, looking back today I have realised what they didn’t have that I take for granted today – oxygen at the bedsides, emergency buzzers or curtains for privacy.

Our guide also told us about some of the reasons people were admitted there, for example all pregnant women who arrived on Ellis Island were admitted there until they’d given birth, just in case they didn’t know, due to a language barrier or lack of knowledge, where to get help when their time came at their new home – or on the boat back to Europe if they weren’t allowed to stay. Anyone with anything infectious was admitted there. The honest truth is, it was one of the best hospitals in the country at the time, and purpose built. And it was only open to immigrants – the local population in New York was not treated there.

In addition to the wards and corridors we saw the mortuary, complete with fridges for the bodies, and the table for any autopsies which were performed, and the laundry room which still has some the huge washers in them.

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fridges in the mortuary
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the laundry room

One of the highlights of the tours is an art exhibition there. In various rooms or corridors, a French artist, JR, has displayed some photos of the immigrants on the walls or windows. They give the tour a sense of reality when you realise those people were really there, arriving, excited about their new lives.

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It was a really fascinating tour, and hopefully one day they will be able to open the hospital up to all visitors.

After that, I went round the main museum tour on Ellis Island. This starts in the registry room where the immigrants were first processed, and continues in other rooms, telling visitors what happened after that. What I didn’t know before was that if an immigrant was accepted into the US they bought their onward train ticket there, at Ellis Island. That way they wouldn’t be ripped off by someone outside taking advantage of their lack of English. It was a really informative tour, but sadly I didn’t have to see it all as they were closing for the day – I ended up on one of the last boats back to Manhattan. I definitely need to go back to finish seeing it all.

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the registry hall

How to visit

Boats leave New York from Battery Park, near Wall Street frequently during the day. Boats from New York go to the Statue of Liberty first, then Ellis Island, and then return to New York. You can also go from New Jersey, but I’m not sure where exactly.

Tickets can be bought in advance, but I think some are available on the day.

Tickets include all the boats, an audio guide of The Statue of Liberty, and an audio guide to Ellis Island.

The hard hat tour, and tickets to go up the Statue of Liberty are an additional cost, and are definitely best bought in advance to guarantee getting them.

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2 thoughts on “Ellis Island hard hat tour

  1. We went in 2002, just about a year after 9/11. At that time Ellis Island was open for visitors but the Statue of Liberty was not – we just cruised past it. There was also tight security for the trip – I think there was a restriction on the number of bags, etc, that could be taken onto the boats. I remember that I had to demonstrate that my camera worked, i.e. that it really was just a camera! (This was pre smartphone era, of course.)

    But we certainly enjoyed it. I’ve got some photos somewhere, but not online – that camera I had to demonstrate was an old film camera.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’ve relaxed security since then. Airport style security, but I didn’t see any signs about how many bags you could, or anything like you’ve just described.

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