"The Golden Door"
We offer grateful thanks and appreciation to Mr. Hearn for
sharing the following thoughts and information about Ellis
Island. Although he is not a Freemason, Mr. Hearn has certainly
brought us a vivid account of the influence of Freemasonry at
Ellis Island. Mr. Hearn is an executive with the Statue of
Liberty--Ellis Island Project.
It is not a name that one normally associates with the Ancient
and Accepted Order of Freemasons. Yet in the last few months,
after repeated visits to the island, I have come to see this
historic immigration facility as one of the most "Masonic"
structures on the planet.
It is not a feeling that can be easily explained. Free Masonry
after all, was a respected institution in America long before
Ellis was built-long before this country even was a country
(The Free Masons have been in existence for longer than many of
the world's nations for that matter). And while I'm sure there
were Masons among those who passed through her halls, it's
unlikely that there were more than a handful. The immigrants who
were processed on Ellis came primarily from Central and Eastern
Europe and were for the most part farmers and laborers too poor
to afford any passage other than steerage. Most of them probably
didn't even know who the Masons were, much less the part that the
Ancient Order had played in erecting the magnificent Lady whose
strong, benevolent gaze they passed beneath as they entered the
Yet the feeling persists--the sense that the very existence of
this remarkable landmark is somehow related to the precepts of
Little of the island's early history would suggest such a
viewpoint. When the Dutch founded their settlement on Manhattan,
Ellis was a three acre mud flat, barely breaking the surface of
the water at high tide. Together with Bedloe's and several others
in the harbor, it formed what the Dutch called the Oyster islands
and though the colonists felt it important enough to buy from the
Indians in 1630, they never found a use for it. The island went
through a number of name changes during the next century and a
half, particularly after the British assumed control of the
area, but it wasn't until a businessman named Samuel Ellis built
a tavern there--around 1785--that the island got the name it
would keep. Nine years later, the State of New York secured the
island as part of its harbor defenses against a war with Britain
and France that fortunately didn't materialize. The
appreciation of her strategic position became apparent again in
1808 however, and this time New York State employed condemnation
procedures to purchase the island from the tavern owner's heirs.
Immediately after, the state ceded the property to the federal
government for $10,000. She was fortified again, and while war
did come--in 1812--Ellis was once more only a spectator.
In 1834, an interstate agreement declared both Bedloes (now
Liberty) and Ellis Islands to be part of New York State, even
though both are on the New Jersey side of the shipping channel,
and nearly three decades later, with the advent of the Civil War,
the fortress on Ellis was replaced by a powder magazine.
Once again the little island seemed destined for a life of
obscurity, often called, but never chosen. America, however, was
about to undergo what would become known by immigration
historians as "The Second Wave", and the participation of Ellis
Island had already been ordained-inadvertently--by an argument
almost a century earlier.
When the framers of the Constitution adjourned in 1787, most
were not happy with the results. The majority had strongly
opposed the continued existence of slavery in the new republic.
But the proponents of slavery joined with the antifederalist
forces who feared a strong central government and forced a
compromise. Part of that compromise was a clause which stated
that the federal government would not interfere with the
immigration policies of the states until 1808. This served two
purposes. For the anti-federalists, it was one more area in which
states rights were preserved and to the pro-slavery group it
meant that the "forced immigration" of black Africans would
continue for another twenty years. The abolitionists regarded it
as the lesser of evils-slavery was no longer as economically
attractive as it had been and in fact was dying out in the
colonies--and two decades, it was assumed would be sufficient for
it to pass from the scene.
Just five years after the Constitution was ratified however, in
1793, Eli Whitney introduced his new cotton-gin, and the slave
based economy of the southern states took off. There were other
factors involved of course, but the upshot was that there would
be no real federal immigration law until after the Civil War.
Nor did there seem to be much need. In the half century between
1820 and 1875, barely 9 million immigrants had arrived and
federal intervention simply hadn't seemed necessary.
These 9 million were the so-called "First Wave" which reached
its peak during the Irish Famine (1845-1850) and consisted
primarily of Northern and Western Europeans from the Scan-
dinavian countries, England, Ireland, and Germany. There had
been difficulties--most notably with the Irish who were the
targets of strong anti-Catholic sentiments--but it was a largely
homogeneous group of nationalities. The only exceptions at the
time were the roughly 300,000 Chinese, and when Congress finally
got involved in 1882, it was simply to declare that unfortunate
group ineligible for citizenship. Unbelievably, that piece of
legislation remained law until 1943!
The period following the Civil War however, coincided with a
dramatic shift in the immigration pattern. The new arrivals
were from Southern and Eastern Europe, and their numbers were
increasing rapidly. So rapidly in fact, that the state run
facilities were proving unable to handle them. Thus, in 1891,
the federal government assumed full responsibility for
immigration matters by creating the Bureau of Immigration under
the direction of the Department of the Treasury.
It was then that a remarkable thing happened. Faced with a new
and culturally "different" group of immigrants, we might have
been expected to close the door. These newcomers after all were
Italian Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and Polish Jews. They were
Greeks, Slovaks, Hungarians and Lithuanians. Their customs, their
faiths and often their bloodlines were markedly different. We had
already passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The easiest route would
have been to extend it. Yet that didn't happen. Instead, Congress
appropriated $75,000 for the construction of a federal
immigration facility. The site they selected was Ellis Island.
Certainly there were considerations other than pure altruism
involved in that decision. The explosive growth of the
industrial revolution had reached full flower in the United
States, and the country needed labor. Or perhaps we simply never
expected the numbers that the next two decades would bring.
Whatever the combination of factors, the result has proven to be
one of the most remarkable chapters in human history. And part of
it would be made possible by the construction of New Yorks mass
The process of enlarging and stabilizing the island's surface
area was accomplished by hauling rock, earth, and rubble from
the excavation of New York's subways out to the site and com-
bining it with the ballast from incoming ships. By the time the
station opened in 1892, the island had been doubled in size.
Over a million and a half immigrants were processed in that
first facility before it was destroyed by fire in 1897. Congress
immediately approved funds for a new station, and the first major
government architectural contract ever let to a private company
was awarded to the Broadway firm of Boring & Tilton. The result
was an enormous, 1.5 million dollar complex which included a
second island (created with more landfill) and the massive French
renaissance-style structure which stands today. Constructed of
brick laid in Flemish bond with limestone trim, the new fireproof
facility was designed to handle up to 5000 immigrants a day. It
opened on December 17, 1900. Within months of its opening, the
new station was bulging at the seams, and work was immediately
begun to expand the facility. That work would continue almost
uninterrupted for the next twenty years. Not only was America
widening the door, she was trying to assure that all who entered
gained a seat at the table.
Theodore Roosevelt would throw the weight of the Presidency
behind ending corruption and graft on the island, Fiorello
Laguardia (who began his career of public service as an
interpreter at the facility) would spend years railing against
inconsistencies in immigration policy, and Commissioners like
William Williams, Robert Watchorn, and Edward Corsi would
dedicate their administrations to creating a more humane at-
mosphere for the immigrant.
Over forty immigrant aid societies would labor at Ellis,
providing everything from Christmas and Passover celebrations to
new clothing and occupational therapy. Concern for the
immigrant would prompt additional hospital facilities, enlarged
dormitories, improved lighting and ventilation, landscaped
playgrounds and large openair porches.
Armies of men and women would labor on the island translating,
providing medical care and treatment, lodging, food, counseling,
religious services, and even entertainment. Staggering quantities
of milk, meat, and produce would be consumed as the island's
bakery, power house, and laundry struggled to feed a thousand
people at a sitting, and shower 8000 a day. All of it was free
and all of it awaited anyone with the courage to make the
journey. Such courage was abundant: On one day--April 17,
1907--the staff on Ellis processed 11,747 immigrants. The total
that year; a staggering 1,004,756 new Americans.
In all, more than 17 million people would come through the
immigration facilities in New York's harbor in just three
decades. Most arrived with literally nothing more than what they
carried on their backs. The majority could not speak English and
nearly all were--in the eyes of those already here--"different".
Yet they would become the ancestors of nearly half of the
Americans alive today.
This is not to say that there were not antiimmigration forces
at work. There were, and by the 1920's, they had gained enough
strength to seal the island's fate. A series of quota restric-
tions were enacted, followed by legislation mandating
inspection at U.S. Consuls in the Country of Origin. By 1924 it
was essentially over. But these battles were fought in the
context of economic protectionism and the political fears that
followed the First World War and the rise of Bolshevism. The
knowledge that our actions are so often determined by such fears
is the most triumphant reality of Ellis Island. Our own Civil War
demonstrates how easily we might have succumbed to division
along ethnic, economic, or religious lines.
Now, as thousands from Cuba, Central America and Southeast Asia
flee the tyranny of their homelands, we are opening our door to
the "third wave". It is in this convergence of historical streams
that the real message of Ellis Island lies, and it is here that
the Masonic nature of this monument reveals itself.
The Freemasons among our Founding Fathers brought to their work
the ancient Masonic Landmarks of Truth and Brotherly love, and
they fashioned a constitution which, by the depth and strength of
its conviction, imbedded those principles in the conscience of
a nation. While we as a people have not always lived up to them,
neither have we been able to ignore them.
Time and again, when challenged by the events of history, we
have returned to the "self evident" truths of our inception. Time
and again we have re-examined--sometimes painfully--our
direction. It would be wrong to regard those reassessments as
signs of failure. They are proof rather, that we seek to build
our world upon the highest principles, and that we will not
accept anything short of our goal.
That which was once no more than a sandbar was built up stone
by stone to become an island. Upon it, we constructed a great
edifice to welcome all who sought shelter. The building itself
required brick, but the purpose behind its construction demanded
building blocks of a different sort. Had she been made of brick
alone, Ellis might have remained the powder magazine she once
was. But by cementing those bricks with compassion and tolerance,
we have laid the cornerstone of an even greater structure.
By forcing us to examine our underlying beliefs, by compelling
us to confront our own fears and weaknesses, and by bringing
their own strengths to our cause, those who came through Ellis
have enabled us to build the strongest, most diverse, and most
democratic republic in the history of the world.
The old building is being restored now--as a monument. Many of
us are inscribing the name of an ancestor there--not unlike the
marks of a Master Mason. For us, those names will say that the
work done here was good. And they will say something else. To
others, yet unborn, they will say: "To you who stand before the
names of your fathers, we bequeath the task of completing the
world they sought to build. There is much work yet to be done,
but here, on this spot, we have examined the foundation. We have
tested our beliefs, and they were not found wanting".