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 The guided tours have been replaced by audio tours (which we did not do) and the exhibition spaces are much more engaging and visually interesting.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.

Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 3 – Statue of Liberty

After breakfasting at the Moonstruck Diner again, we caught the downtown tour bus and hopped off at Battery Park.  Our mission for the day was to visit the Statue of Liberty.  Tickets to get inside and ascend the Statue sell out in advance but we didn’t mind as we only wanted to visit the island anyway.  I personally don’t think I will ever climb that statue as I have claustrophobia and a crippling fear of heights.  The queue for the ticket line moved quickly but the queue to get through the security checks moved like molasses.  I am not against security screening at all.  I completely understand the need for it.  However, there has to be a more efficient system for processing people.  For instance, initially we were in an orderly queue but then the fence opened up wider and we were all directed to fill every nook and cranny of the space which meant any order there had been was completely lost.  It’s the type of anti-queuing that makes we British people twitchy.  That blob of people then had to narrow down to get up a set of steps and through a door which created a bottleneck.  That bottleneck was what slowed everything up because once inside it took really no time at all to go through the security check, not least because we had all had ample time to strip off belts and organise our possessions so that we didn’t bleep.

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Once on board the boat – which can transport a heck of a lot of people – we scurried up to the top deck to get a good view of Governors Island, the NYC skyline, Ellis Island and, of course, the Statue of Liberty.  It was very cold indeed out on the water and I was dressed like a polar gnome for the third day in a row but the views made it worthwhile.  It took no time at all to reach the island and make land fall.  I had seen the Statue of Liberty before but en route to Ellis Island, back in August 2001, so this was actually my first time on Liberty Island too.  After the obligatory trip to the restrooms, we went for a stroll around the statue.

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As impressive as Lady Liberty is from a distance, she is even more striking at close quarters.  I am curious as to what the statue would have looked like when the copper was new and shiny but the patination of the verdigris is effective in emphasising the contours of the figure and the folds of the cloth, the weight in the stance, the facial expression and the contrast with the brightness of the flame element.  It was interesting to see her from different angles, really appreciate the dimension of the sculpture, understand the way the pose works to support the symbolism.  I must have snapped a hundred photos of the statue as we circled around it.

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Back on the boat, it was a hop, skip and a jump to get to Ellis Island.  We were tempted to get off and explore but knew our timings were tight so decided that we would all three return to New York some time and visit both Ellis Island and the 9/11 Museum.  Although I have been to Ellis Island before, my kids have not yet been and I am eager to take them as they are the descendants of immigrants to America as well as being immigrants themselves.  As with our trip to Plimoth Plantation, I do love it when family, social and national history combine and drill some learning into my kids.  So I will be back some time with the family in tow.  The 9/11 Museum, however, will have to wait until the kids are older.  I digress.  We resisted temptation and landed back at Battery Park.

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There, we caught the tour bus which unfortunately completed its downtown circuit by heading up the west shore of Manhattan.  Unfortunate because the blue skies and sunshine of the day had led to the upper deck being opened up; unfortunate because we decided to go and sit on the top deck to get the best views, shored up by our false belief that it was warmer than it was; and unfortunate because the wind sweeping across the Hudson was freezing.  We did our best to scrunch up against the cold, burrowing into our coats, hats and scarves, but our fingers went numb and our skulls felt as if they were vibrating in the chill wind.  And the traffic was slow, painfully slow, so we dragged past the meatpacking district, Chelsea, the piers, before turning inland a bit in the region of Hell’s Kitchen where we then went from a crawl to a standstill as we encountered gridlock.  The slow pace of the traffic seemed to provoke lawlessness too as cars continued to creep out against a red light simply because the vehicles who had a green light were moving so slowly that they could risk it.  It was like bandit country in the middle of the city.  Finally the bus rocked forward far enough to escape the traffic stalemate and we got back to the theatre district.  Had we been permitted to disembark, we would most certainly have been quicker walking the last leg of the journey.

We badly needed to thaw out and eat warm food.  A and M wanted to experience a New York slice so we went off in search of some street pizza.  There were hot dogs and pretzels galore but trying to find a hole in the wall selling pizza proved to be more difficult than we envisaged.  Finally we found a little place just off Broadway and better still it had a place to sit down and better still it had more than 20 tables which meant it had to have a restroom.  It is all about toilets, you see.  The pizza could have stood to be hotter – especially since we were so very cold – but it was really tasty and had a lovely crisp base.  I chose a slice of veggie pizza and a slice with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on it, a warm version of a caprese pizza.  I devoured both.  A great last supper for our trip together.

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Just like that, our trip together was over.  A and M had to catch their bus back to the airport and I had to catch the train to get back home.  I actually lucked out and entered Penn Station and reached the NJ Transit area just as my train was about to head off so I had no malingering to endure.  Our three days as a trio went very quickly and we barely scratched the surface of what Manhattan has to offer.

In terms of tourism, the highlight of this trip to New York City was certainly seeing the Statue of Liberty.  However, for me the highlight was getting to spend quality time with my good friends.  Considering we used to see each other daily and meet up at least once a week, I cannot claim it was just like old times but – after 18 months apart – it was great to know we could just pick up where we left off with our friendship and have a whale of a time together.   “When shall we three meet again?”  We were already discussing where we might meet up next.  Hopefully with warmer temperatures.