Ellis Island is in the upper New York Bay, a short distance from the New Jersey shore. The island is 3 acres in size. Originally, Ellis Island was known to American Indians as Kioshk, or Gull Island, because of the birds that were there. The Dutch called it, “Little Oyster Island” because of the oysters found in its sands. In the 1700s, the island was often called “Gibbet Island” because of the executions of state criminals who were hanged from a “gibbet” (or gallows-tree).
Ownership of the island changed hands many times over the years. Then about eleven years after the Revolutionary War, construction of Fort Gibson was begun on the island. The location was considered to be an excellent defense for the harbor, and there were fears of new attacks from the British.
In 1890, the island was chosen as the site of a new Immigration Station for the Port of New York. A channel 1,250 feet long and 200 feet wide was dredged to a depth of more than 12 feet. New docks were constructed, and landfill from subway tunnels and from the Grand Central Station excavation was brought in to create the “ground” for the new buildings. Since there wasn’t enough fresh water on the island, artesian wells and cisterns were dug.
The first buildings were constructed of Georgia pine with slate roofs. The main building was two stories high, about 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. Four-story peaked towers marked the corners. There were baggage rooms on the ground level and a great inspection hall above them. Smaller buildings included a dormitory for detainees, a small hospital, a restaurant, kitchens, a baggage station, an electric plant and a bathhouse. Some of the old Fort Gibson brick buildings were also converted into dormitories and office space.
The number of employees varied between 500 and 850 people. Most workers commuted to the island by ferryboat from Manhattan. The Immigration Station officially opened on January 1, 1892; its final cost was approximately $500,000.