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Passing Through, They Left a Mark

Ellis Island immigrant manifests will be available online and at the national monument.

April 16, 2001|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ELLIS ISLAND, N.Y. — The massive Great Hall teems with people now, all brought here by boat for a short stay. That is just as it was for dozens of years from 1892 to 1954.

The difference, to be sure, is that in the former years, the people who came to Ellis Island were both expectant and scared, here to be processed as newly minted immigrants. Most had been brought to the island by barge from carrier ships, docked in New York Harbor, on which they had sailed primarily from Europe.

Today's visitors come by Circle Line boat tours from Battery Park in Manhattan or Liberty Park in Jersey City. They are not as expectant or nervous as their predecessors, coming instead to see some history.

Now they can come a bit closer to the past. As of Tuesday, they'll be able to see not only artifacts of the great migration, but also records of the passage. Profiles of all of the nearly 22 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and other New York ports between 1892 and 1924, the peak years of immigration, will be available from computer terminals at the Ellis Island National Monument and, in a more truncated version, on the Internet (http://www.ellisislandrecords.org).

"We always wanted to do this project, but we had to get done other things first," said Stephen A. Briganti, president and chief executive of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

The first task of the nonprofit foundation, which was established in 1982, was to refurbish the Statue of Liberty and the main immigration buildings on Ellis Island. When that project was substantially finished four years later, the foundation turned to the idea of cataloging the immigration data.

"By that time, technology had changed to make it more accessible," said Briganti. "And then two years later, as the Internet had become more popular, we decided to add that component as well."

The manifests of all the ships that legally brought people into New York during those years have been available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., but the five-year effort to catalog the immigrant data makes extracting information from the records significantly easier. Viewers no longer need to travel to Washington to read microfilm, nor do they need to know the name of the boat that carried the people they're looking up. (Without the name of a boat, it would've been necessary to search manifest after manifest to find a passenger.)

Instead, they can search a database that's as easy to use as Yahoo. Plugging in the name of a person brings up both exact name matches and names that are relatively close. There's also a readout of what would have been on the manifest for that person--age, hometown, marital status and the like. You can click to see the manifest itself, usually a photograph of a handwritten document, or read more about the boat that brought the person in, and perhaps see a drawing or photograph of the boat itself. Although this information is available online, there are 31 terminals with broad-band Internet access and large Trinitron screens at Ellis Island.

Five dollars buys half an hour's access that, in addition to the person-search, offers videos about immigration and genealogy to help with a search. But the real fun is going to one of 10 special booths where, for the same $5, you can create a genealogical Web-based scrapbook.

Say you have found the manifest where Great-Grandpa's name is listed. You may want to download to your scrapbook the photocopy of his manifest page, where there may be a few dozen names of others who came over on the same boat. Then you might add a picture of the ship if it is there. But the rooms also will have a scanner, a digital camera and a microphone, so you can add your current photo to the Web site, have Grandma come to tell a story about Great-Grandpa or scan in his photo, a family tree or even a three-dimensional object like his old pocket watch.

"This is the way to have everyone connect with the immigrant experience," said Briganti. "More than 40% of the people living in the U.S. today have one or more ancestors who came through Ellis Island. Though people certainly came through other ports, it is New York that had the most immigrants, and Ellis Island is viewed as the epicenter of that immigrant experience."

Even if you don't have any relatives who immigrated through New York between 1892 and 1924, you can still have fun with the foundation's database.

Look for the name Israel Beilin, for instance. You will find five exact matches and one close match (Israel Beilinsky of Dwinsk). Of the five exact matches, you probably want the first one--a 5-year-old boy who came over in 1893. He was Russian, but he came in on the ship Rhynland out of Antwerp, Belgium, with his family. By early the next century, little Israel had become famous by his Americanized name, Irving Berlin, with the first of his hit songs, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

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