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The Past Comes Home to Ellis Island : Immigrants' Mementos From 1892-1924 Being Assembled for Exhibit

August 09, 1987|MYRA VANDERPOOL GORMLEY | Myra Vanderpool Gormley writes a syndicated column on genealogy.

Three big steamships were lying in New York harbor waiting to land their passengers on New Year's Day 1892. There was an air of anxiety among the immigrants aboard these vessels waiting to land at the new station on Ellis Island, which officially opened at 8 that morning.

The S.S. Nevada from Liverpool unloaded its 148 steerage passengers first. Across the gangplank went Annie Moore, 15, a little rosy-cheeked Irish girl from County Cork who, along with her two younger brothers, was joining her parents in New York City. She became the first person registered in Ellis Island's books, and was presented with a $10 gold piece. It was the first U. S. coin Annie had ever seen and the largest sum of money she had ever possessed.

A 'Pleasant Memento'

"She says she will never part with it, but will always keep it as a pleasant memento of the occasion," wrote the New York Times in its Jan. 2, 1892, edition.

The other two ships--City of Paris, from Liverpool, and the Victoria, from Mediterranean ports--also landed that day.

In all, Ellis Island processed 700 immigrants during its first day of operation. Sixteen million more--90% of all the immigrants to the United States--passed through its gates before the station closed in 1954.

Today, the National Park Service is looking for mementos from those years for an on-site museum scheduled to open in the summer of 1989.

Search for Artifacts

"We are trying to identify the existence and location of artifacts that these immigrants brought to America that descendants are willing to donate to the 'Treasures From Home' exhibit for the Ellis Island Museum," said Phyllis Montgomery. She is director of research for MetaForm/Rathe/D&P, the official designers and producers for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Museum.

"We are most interested in items immigrants brought to this country between 1892 and 1924," she said. "In the long, open, daylight-filled gallery on the east side of the building, visitors will be able to see a rich collection of cherished treasures that immigrants actually wore or carried with them from their homelands."

The "Treasures From Home" collection, to be exhibited in a 3,000-square-foot room on the third floor, will be displayed in free-standing glass cases, organized into five separate categories: spiritual life, dress and ornament, house and home, entertainment, and work.

What kinds of things are the museum interested in? Everything from musical instruments, work-related tools, entertainment-type items, religious artifacts, prayer books, dishes, children's toys and games, to clothing.

Theresa Thomas of Arlington, Va., persuaded her brother to donate the red-trimmed khaki toddler suit he was wearing when they came through Ellis Island. She donated some ankle-high toddler shoes made in Austria and forks with bone handles.

"We came on the Mount Clay from Austria via Germany and docked in New York on March 30, 1925," she said. "I asked my family about donating these items and they were pleased with the idea--I think things like these should be shared with others."

The exhibit was actually initiated by the people, Montgomery said.

"During the course of the fund raising for Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, we discovered that along with their donations, people were offering their artifacts," she said.

Erna Hays of Kennesaw, Ga., was one who donated to the Statue of Liberty/Ellis fund. With her contribution, she included a letter stating she had some European artifacts that might be of interest.

Hays, 81, is the daughter of German parents who went to Russia but left there in 1910 to come to America. She was 5 when she came through Ellis Island.

"I remember being in the cabin and being sick," she said. "We left Rotterdam on the ship Rotterdam in July, 1910, and arrived in America on Aug. 1."

She donated a samovar and a copper tray with smoking accessories that her parents brought from Russia. The latter was a going-away gift her father received from people at the Leningrad glass factory where he worked.

Employees Sought, Too

Montgomery also would like to hear from descendants of former employees of Ellis Island who might have memorabilia to donate. Ellis Island in its heyday employed 650 people.

Iris Kimble of Charlotte, N. C., donated her grandfather's badge to the collection. He was appointed commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island by President McKinley.

"My brother and I are the end of the family with no one to pass things on to. We thought this should be part of history," Kimble said.

The parents of Rose Ishmael Tully, of Bronx, N. Y., were married at Ellis Island. Tully's father, Percy Douglas Ishmael, arrived from Barbados in 1919 and worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. In 1920 he petitioned the British Consul General for permission to marry his fiancee, Eliza Griffith. She was born in British Guyana, but was residing in Barbados.

The bride-to-be arrived at Ellis Island a day early on July 14, 1920, but the bridegroom didn't show up until the 15th.

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