Ellis Island and Liberty Island

I am sure we are not alone in having itchy feet 16 months into the pandemic. Although we are not quite ready to return to proper travel, now that our whole family is fully vaccinated, we are eager to return to some of our travel behaviours, such as day trips. Contemplating a destination that would be largely outdoors, we decided to take a trip to Ellis Island and Liberty Island.

We did not want to get caught up in New York City traffic so we set off from the New Jersey side. Liberty Park is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from our home so it was a pretty easy drive for a day trip. We had prebooked our tickets which made things much more efficient but was a wee bit of a pity because the ticket office was housed within the old train station from where newly arrived immigrants would set off across the country. Once we had gone through security, we lined up on the jetty, boarded a ferry, and set off on our first short jaunt on the Hudson.

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Our first stop was Ellis Island. Mr Pict and I had visited Ellis Island in August 2001 but this was the first time the boys had visited. A lot has changed in the intervening 20 years. The guided tours have been replaced by audio tours (which we did not do) and the exhibition spaces are much more engaging and visually interesting. While the focus is obviously on the experience of the people who passed through or worked at Ellis Island, there was also a bigger story of immigration being told so there were also exhibits about forced immigration and immigration that predated Ellis Island. I was pleased to see that they no longer shied away from those darker subjects of slavery, colonization, xenophobia and racism.

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As recent immigrants, it was interesting to consider the way the system and experience has changed and the ways in which it has stayed the same. Sidebar but I don’t think I ever mentioned that a couple of years ago my oldest son was set a school project where he had to research his most recent immigrant ancestor. He pointed out that he was the most recent immigrant. The teacher then had to scramble for an alternative project. As a family historian, I find immigration stories, the push and pull factors, interesting. Between us, however, we have zero connection to Ellis Island. My great-grandparents actually emigrated to the US through New Jersey but two years after the closure of Ellis Island. My Great-Gran only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Shetland, pregnant and with a toddler and baby – my Gran – in tow. My Great-Grandfather stayed, which is why I was able to visit his grave on Long Island. Meanwhile Mr Picts American ancestors literally arrived on The Mayflower and the ships that followed and his Mennonite ancestors arrived from Switzerland in the 1700s.

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You may note that I am relating the ways in which I engaged with the history of Ellis Island. My kids were not really into it at all. Our youngest son paid attention to parts of it but they were all pretty checked out. At such times, I just sigh and hope that they are still absorbing something from the experiences we give them. They did enjoy acting out being the officials who determined who was being permitted to enter the US and who was being denied. Any opportunity to be authoritative and bossy.

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From Ellis Island, a very brief boat ride took us onward to Liberty Island. Weirdly, I am the only member of the family who has visited this site before. Despite spending his teenage years in America, my husband had never been to see the Statue of Liberty. We did not have tickets to enter the statue – and frankly that is something I have zero interest in ever doing – so we had a leisurely stroll around the exterior so we could appreciate the statue from various angles. It’s definitely an impressive sculpture. Even my cynical, “this is so boring” boys actually enjoyed seeing Liberty up close.

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Inside the museum, we watched a good quality video about the history of the Statue of Liberty, Bartholdi’s process, and the continued significance and ironies of her symbolism. I enjoyed the exhibits about the sculpting process because seeing the plaster casts and the moulds again helped me appreciate not just the scale of Liberty but also how arduous the process was and how the smallest error could have made the whole project go utterly pear-shaped. Imagine transporting all of those pieces of precisely beaten copper, the labour of several years, across the Atlantic only to find that slight measurement errors mean it doesn’t all click together like a jigsaw puzzle?

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The roof terrace of the museum provided us with great views over the Hudson towards Manhattan’s Battery and of the statue in that context.

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A final speedy boat trip took us back to New Jersey and our car. After a delicious meal in Jersey City, we took the turnpike home and were back by late afternoon. Not bad at all for a day trip. The boys did not properly gripe once and two even said they enjoyed the excursion and thought it was really cool to see the Statue of Liberty up close. I call that a successful day out.

13 thoughts on “Ellis Island and Liberty Island

  1. We visited in 2001 too, and also went up the Twin Towers. That made a little bit of a personal connection to 9/11 because we could remember some of the staff quite clearly and wondered if they made it. As for your pictures, the “authoritative and bossy” ones made me smile the most.

    • Because we were there so shortly before 9/11, my photos of the World Trade Centre were developed and picked up after that awful day. It was quite arresting flicking through the photos and suddenly seeing the towers. It is hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary. We did not have anyone in the WTC but we had close family and friends in the Pentagon so had a tense wait for news of them. Thankfully they all survived. Still, the stress and anguish of that day and those that followed come back to us every anniversary so I can only imagine how much more amplified that trauma and pain is for those who lost loved ones.

      • That must have been a terrible wait for news. I always think it is important to remember that these awful, traumatic events comprise so many individual tragedies.

      • Especially as we were abroad at the time. John contacted his sister very quickly, and she was far enough out not to know anything about it till he told her! After that, all lines to the U.K. were overwhelmed and we couldn’t get through. Eventually, my dad got news and was able to tell us some hours later that she and her husband, who also worked nearby, were ok. Such a relief.

  2. So glad you had a successful day out! Thank you for taking us along. And human brains are funny things…teens may act bored etc but a decade or so from now speak of this “boring” time as a very good memory.
    I too am fascinated by immigration and the impact the movement of people has on everything: food, clothing, furniture, music… literally every facet of human life is impacted, usually in positive ways, by the movements of people.

    • Exactly. I love how eclectic and diverse things like food and music and art culture become when there are lots of immigrant communities.

      We occasionally experience one of the kids revealing that they have actually been absorbing the experiences and learning we have exposed them to. I have hope.

  3. I can completely relate to your sons not enjoying most of the trip. It seems like all of our vacations are that way, even if they are focused solely on youthful fun things. I think they will appreciate the experience of such an American landmark in the future. And if you ever make cool scrapbooks of all your excursions, they can grab them and show them to their girlfriends and wives LOL.

    • I don’t do scrapbooks but I do make photobooks of both regular family life throughout the year and of our vacations. They do look back over some of the older ones . They also raise some of those experiences in conversation so I know they are absorbing it on some level. That helps motivate us to keep dragging them along to do things.

  4. We had visited Ellis Island a few years ago. Was a interesting place to see. Weather for us was not so good. I was rain, wind, and cold while there, Laura. Had to be inside the Main Hall most of the time. The trip over there via boat was choppy and cold. Braved walking over the see the statue, but not for long.

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