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The Top Spots to Visit in New York, According to Two Historians

History Stories September 01, 2017

The Top Spots to Visit in New York, According to Two Historians

For over 60 years, Ellis Island was the gateway for millions of Americans to the United States. Explore the legacy of this symbol of American immigration.
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    The Top Spots to Visit in New York, According to Two Historians

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      Natalie Zarrelli

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      The Top Spots to Visit in New York, According to Two Historians

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      August 16, 2018

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      A+E Networks

Location: Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital site, New York, New York
Expert: Wendy Kline, Professor of History at the Purdue College of Liberal Arts

Why It’s Worth a Visit
No place in America better reflects the nation’s long history of immigration than New York’s Ellis Island. During its peak operating period, approximately 5,000-10,000 new arrivals passed through its doors each day, and more than 12 million in all would make their way to U.S. soil.

The Ellis Island Hospital, a 750-bed facility which treated over 1.2 million patients, and where about 250,000 immigrants were treated for illnesses such as tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, trachoma and other contagious diseases. (Credit: Timothy A. ClaryAFP/Getty Images)

For most of these new arrivals the process was relatively simple, “through what looked like cattle pens through the emigration lines,” says Wendy Kline, Professor of History at the Purdue College of Liberal Arts. But for others, the stress and strain of traveling to a new homeland didn’t stop when they disembarked. Up until 1930, every immigrant underwent a 30-second health inspection, either onboard or at Ellis Island. If an immigrant was believed to be ill, their clothing was chalked marked with symbols identifying a variety of ailments, and they were pulled out of line. Those deemed the most ill and infirm were deported, with the rest sent to the Immigrant Hospital for stays that could last months. In all, some 250,000 immigrants spent time in the hospital complex.

The facility may have been terrifying and heartbreaking for some of its patients, particularly those housed in rooms whose windows looked out upon the Statue of Liberty. “You’ve come to the land of the opportunity, and then you’re trapped,” says Kline, “You can be essentially imprisoned, not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because of fear for what your body might spread.” But as the first public hospital in the United States, it provided a unique opportunity for the medical community. “If you were trying to see what diseases from all over the world looked like, then the best place you could be was Ellis Island hospital,” says Kline. The hospital was a double edged sword at times; poor sanitation practices during patient inspections caused doctors to spread a fair amount of disease themselves among immigrants, but the hospital also provided life-saving treatments.

The installation Unframed Ellis Island by French artist JR. Here in the surgical wing is a vintage photograph of the surgical team. (Credit: Karen Foley Photography/Alamy Stock Photo)

While most of the other primary buildings on Ellis Island have been restored, the extensive grounds of the hospital (including operating rooms, laundry buildings, a psychopathic ward and several pavilions used to treat infectious diseases) have a much more atmospheric appearance, with long-abandoned, dilapidated examination rooms and eerie, low-light hallways. The mood is enhanced by the ghost-like photos of immigrants who spent time in the hospital spread throughout the buildings. It’s these immigrants Kline hopes visitors remember, those who were held on the “other” Ellis Island, and how an unchecked fear of disease has the potential to overrule individual rights.

How to Get There:
The Save Ellis Island preservation group, which raises money to restore and maintain the hospital buildings, offer 90-minute hard hat tours of the accessible areas of the complex seven days a week.

Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY. (Credit: Erin/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Location: Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY.
Expert: Ellen Dubois, Distinguished Professor of History and Gender Studies at UCLA

Why It’s Worth a Visit
On July 19, 1848, approximately 300 men and women gathered at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, for an American first: a convention for women’s rights. The meeting was organized in part by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionists who’d met several years earlier at an anti-slavery event and would help lead the the women’s suffrage movement for decades.

On the first day of the conference Stanton presented a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” modeled closely on the Declaration of Independence. And although a woman’s right to vote was a major political aim of the convention, this initial meeting mainly dealt with women’s economic equality; a major issue for the area’s large female labor force, who produced ladies’ gloves.

“It is really the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States,” says Ellen Dubois, Distinguished Professor of History and Gender Studies at UCLA and the author of an upcoming history of the woman’s suffrage movement. “From then on there are sort of regular protest meetings, and slowly the number of people who sign on to the women’s rights platform grows.”

Detail inside the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY. (Credit: Randy Duchaine/Alamy Stock Photo)

Wesleyan chapel was a small Methodist church that was progressive for its time, and the area continued to attract women’s rights activists, even in to the 1960s, when feminists once again used the space, which by then had become a laundromat. Today, only the former chapel’s walls remain, but a restoration project of the “birthplace of women’s suffrage” by the National Park Service is currently underway. “They’ve done archaeological work and recovered parts of the original chapel [inside the building],” says Dubois. The site is part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which includes the chapel and the homes of Stanton and two other co-organizers, Mary Ann M’Clintock and Jane Hunt. The New York State’s Women’s Heritage Trail also runs through Seneca Falls, featuring the homes of Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman.

How to Get There:
The chapel and national park site are easily accessible by car and open to the public.

This story is the 10th in a series about amazing historical travel destinations in America. Read expert recommendations on where to go in Ohio, Florida, Idaho, MassachusettsKansasKentucky, Washington D.C., Illinois and
Los Angeles.

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