ON this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, swung open to the world 70 years earlier, for the last time.
Prior to 1890, immigration into the US was regulated by individual states rather than the Federal Government.
The political, economic, and religious turmoil plaguing the European continent made the New World a lucrative destination, and the number of newcomers grew substantially over the course of the 19th century.
When numbers soared to new and unprecedented heights, the state-based immigration system became untenable.
Ellis Island was established as a buffer zone for new arrivals, who from 1890, would be assessed by Federal authorities.
The first immigrant to enter the US via Ellis Island on 1 January, 1892, was an Irish teenager called Annie Moore, from Co Cork.
Over 12 million immigrants followed in her footsteps, three million of which were estimated to be Irish.
Their journey was immortalised in songs like Willie Nelson’s Immigrant Eyes.
The first lines read:
Oh, Ellis Island was swarming
Like a scene from a costume ball
Decked out in the colours of Europe
And on fire with the hope of it all
But it wasn’t plain sailing for all of the new arrivals: two per cent were deported back to their country of origin, and ten per cent were detained in the Island’s hospital complex.
The lucky remainder were subjected to a series of tests to determine their mental and physical fitness.
This included a wooden 10-piece puzzle known as the Feature Profile Test.
According to the Smithsonian, “Those who failed to assemble it correctly could be labelled “feebleminded” and sent back home.”
The goal of these tests is was to discern whether immigrants held radical views, would be able to support themselves financially, and if not, whether they and their offspring were likely to be a burden to the state.
The magazine goes on to describe the conditions upon entry: “For these new arrivals, who in many cases came from simple rural villages, Ellis Island could be a frightening place—a bedlam of unruly crowds and indecipherable tongues, presided over by grim-faced immigration officers.”