By Wilton S. Tifft
Contemporary Books. 256 pp. $35
Now that it has become a museum, Ellis Island needs, as all museums do, a guidebook -- a catalogue, if you will. Wilton S. Tifft's "Ellis Island" is just that: not cheap, to be sure, but a handsome memento for visitors to the newly opened shrine and, for other readers, an informative, amply illustrated history of the island and the people for whom it was the gateway to America.
"The story of Ellis Island and American immigration is best told in a book of black-and-white photos," Tifft writes. "Like history itself, the tones in the photographs range from inky black shadow to stark white light with myriad grays in between. The faces of the people pictured convey the gamut of emotional experience: joy and sorrow, happiness and despair, hope and fear. The photographs evince contrast in the buildings as well, from the high vaulted ceiling in the Great Hall to the crowded pens where the immigrants were detained."
The decision to tell the story entirely in black-and-white was risky in this age of lavish, gaudy coffee-table books, but it was wise. Though the reader may wish that the closing photographs of the main building in all its restored glory were in full color, that would be inappropriate to -- not to mention a jarring departure from -- the somber tone of all that goes before. In our national consciousness Ellis Island is in black-and-white; to depict it otherwise would be unfaithful to our sense of it.
Many, but by no means most, of the pictures are of the island itself: the main building (replacing an earlier, wooden one that had been destroyed by fire) rising in 1900; immigrants undergoing various physical and mental examinations; the island and its many buildings falling into decay in the 1950s and 1960s. But because Ellis Island was, for all its symbolic weight, merely a way station on the immigrants' passage, there are other sights as well: "picture brides" aboard ship in 1907; steerage passengers crammed onto a steamship's deck; Mulberry Street and the Lower East Side, congested and filthy yet alive with the energy of the new arrivals.
These pictures are the heart of the book; a few are amusing, many are in one way or another informative, some are moving. But they gain in pertinence and meaning as a result of Tifft's text, which is straightforward and thorough. He begins with the island's physical transformation -- "a mere three-acre blot in the harbor in 1600, the island has been steadily enlarged with landfill to its present size of 27 1/2 acres" -- and ends with its rejuvenation; along the way he provides what amounts to a history of American immigration in miniature.
Which is to say that his text covers such essential matters as the rise of nativism in the early 19th century and the anti-immigration sentiment that accompanied it; the gradual change in public feeling that led to federal action aimed at easing the passage of immigrants; the corrupt administration of many immigration centers and the reform movement, led by Teddy Roosevelt, that cleaned them up; various nativist revivals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the closing of Ellis Island after the McCarran-Walter Act of 1950 combined a quota system with internal-security provisions and resulted in sharply reduced immigration figures.
The island was closed on Nov. 12, 1954, its future entirely uncertain. Controversies surfaced from time to time, while the noble old buildings steadily rotted and the rats settled in. There was sentiment for turning the island over to private ownership, but there was stronger resistance:
"Each time the government offered Ellis Island for public sale to private interests, an unspoken feeling seemed to arise that this was a place of special significance, never to be sold at any price. To the millions of living immigrants who had passed through the station, and to their tens of millions of descendants, it seemed almost sacrilegious to allow such an important place -- an isle of hopes as well as fears -- to be sold off to commercial developers. The symbolic value of Ellis Island outweighed its mere property value."
Finally it was turned over to the National Park Service, which undertook what eventually became "one of the largest restoration projects in the history of the United States, with more than $150 million devoted to the preparation of the northern part of the island." It was a stupendous undertaking and, according to those who have seen the results, an eminently successful one; this book is both a salute to those who reclaimed the island and a memorial to those who passed through it en route to their new lives as Americans.