Skip to main content
Year
1954
Month Day
November 12

Ellis Island closes

On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island, the gateway to America, shuts it doors after processing more than 12 million immigrants since opening in 1892. Today, tens of millions of Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor off the New Jersey coast and named for merchant Samuel Ellis, who owned the land in the 1770s.

On January 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore, from Ireland, became the first person to pass through the newly opened Ellis Island, which President Benjamin Harrison designated as America’s first federal immigration center in 1890. Before that time, the processing of immigrants had been handled by individual states.

Not all immigrants who sailed into New York had to go through Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers submitted to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked at the piers in New York or New Jersey, where they passed through customs. People in third class, though, were transported to Ellis Island, where they underwent medical and legal inspections to ensure they didn’t have a contagious disease or some condition that would make them a burden to the government. Only two percent of all immigrants were denied entrance into the U.S.

SEE MORE: 20 Ellis Island Immigration Photos That Capture the Hope and Diversity of New Arrivals

Immigration to Ellis Island peaked between 1892 and 1924, during which time the 3.3-acre island was enlarged with landfill (by the 1930s it reached its current 27.5-acre size) and additional buildings were constructed to handle the massive influx of immigrants. During the busiest year of operation, 1907, over 1 million people were processed at Ellis Island.

With America’s entrance into World War I, immigration declined and Ellis Island was used as a detention center for suspected enemies. Following the war, Congress passed quota laws and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduced the number of newcomers allowed into the country and also enabled immigrants to be processed at U.S. consulates abroad. After 1924, Ellis Island switched from a processing center to serving other purposes, such as a detention and deportation center, a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II and a Coast Guard training center. In November 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman, was released and Ellis Island officially closed.

Beginning in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a $160 million renovation, the largest historic restoration project in U.S. history. In September 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public and today is visited by almost 2 million people each year.

WATCH: America: Promised Land on HISTORY Vault

Tags
terms:

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

First meteor shower on record

Andrew Ellicott, an early American astronomer, witnesses the Leonids meteor shower from a ship off the Florida Keys. Ellicott wrote in his journal that the “whole heaven appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant ...read more

Akihito enthroned as emperor of Japan

Crown Prince Akihito, the 125th Japanese monarch along an imperial line dating back to 660 B.C., is enthroned as emperor of Japan two years after the death of his father. Akihito, the only son of the late Emperor Hirohito, was the first Japanese monarch to reign solely as an ...read more

Seymour Hersh breaks My Lai Massacre story

In a cable filed through Dispatch News Service and picked up by more than 30 newspapers, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reveals the extent of the U.S. Army’s charges against 1st Lt. William L. Calley at My Lai. Hersh wrote: “The Army says he [Calley] deliberately ...read more

Jimmy Carter shuts down oil imports from Iran

On November 12, 1979, President Jimmy Carter responds to a potential threat to national security by stopping the importation of petroleum from Iran. Earlier that month, on November 4, 66 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had been taken hostage by a radical Islamic group. ...read more

Plane crashes in Rockaway, New York

An American Airlines flight out of John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport in New York City crashes into a Queens neighborhood after takeoff on November 12, 2001, killing 265 people. Although some initially speculated that the crash was the result of terrorism, as it came exactly two ...read more

Scott Peterson convicted of murder

On November 12, 2004, Scott Peterson is convicted of murdering his wife Laci and their unborn son. A jury of six men and six women delivered the verdict 23 months after Laci Peterson, who was pregnant, disappeared on Christmas Eve from Modesto, California. The case captivated ...read more

High school sweethearts murder their newborn child

Young lovers Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson check into a Delaware motel. During their stay, Grossberg gave birth to a 6 pound, 2 ounce baby. When the infant was later found dead in a trash container behind the motel, the strange and unsettling story drew national attention. ...read more

Yuri Andropov assumes power in the Soviet Union

Following the death of long-time Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev two days earlier, Yuri Andropov is selected as the new general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. It was the culmination of a long, but steady march up the Communist Party hierarchy for Andropov. ...read more

The destruction of Atlanta begins

On November 12, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman orders the business district of Atlanta, Georgia, destroyed before he embarks on his famous March to the Sea. When Sherman captured Atlanta in early September 1864, he knew that he could not remain there for long. His tenuous ...read more

Abigail Adams leads rhetorical charge against Britain

Upon hearing of England’s rejection of the so-called Olive Branch Petition on November 12, 1775, Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John, “Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them and instead of supplications as formerly for their prosperity ...read more