ellis island

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Ellis Island Immigrants
ca. 1905–14
Photographer: Augustus F. Sherman (American; 1865–1925)

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New York. Original Ellis Island Buildings,1894. 

The United States Immigration Station as Ellis Island was built of wood, and succumbed to fire on June 15th 1897. The cause was thought to be faulty electric wiring.   All 270 people awaiting processing were moved to safety aboard the ferry John G. Carlisle. All immigration records from 1855 to then were lost in the blaze.

THE ELLIS ISLAND BLAZE.

WONDER EXPRESSED THAT THERE WAS NO LOSS OF LIFE.

DR. SENNER SAYS IT WILL BE A LESSON TO THE GOVERNMENT–
HEROIC WORK OF WOMEN NURSES–TAKING CARE OF THE IMMIGRANTS

“Ever since I have been in office the fear of something like this fire has haunted me, and now that it has come and no lives were lost, I am glad of it. A row of unsightly, ramshackle tinderboxes has been removed, and when the Government rebuilds it will be forced to put up decent fireproof structures.”

Thus did Dr. Joseph H. Senner, Commissioner of Immigration, in charge of Ellis Island, speak yesterday of the fire that devastated the island, leaving it a mass of smoking ruins inside of two hours and seriously imperiling the lives of the 222 persons sleeping in the flimsy wooden structures. That no lives were lost, that not even an injury was sustained by any one in the flames that spread with such frightful rapidity was the wonder of every one yesterday, and was the subject for congratulations on the part of Dr. Senner and his assistants. To these assistants–especially the women nurses in the hospital, the watchmen and Surgeon White–is entirely due the remarkable escape of every panic-stricken immigrant. Dr. Senner could not express too feelingly his appreciation of the cool-headed courage of his aids in the face of extreme danger.

A DANGEROUS PLACE.

Every person who was seen yesterday by The Tribune reporter in regard to the fire condemned in the severest terms the condition of the buildings which the United States Government had allowed to be used to house at times over night thousands of immigrants. The peril from fire to these helpless and generally ignorant people was fully appreciated by Dr. Senner, and he did all in his power to provide against the loss of life from the fire which he felt would one day occur. The value of his foresight and precautions as displayed in the efforts of his assistants was generally commented on yesterday, and offered a strong contrast to the peculiar inertness of he Government in providing fireproof structures for the island.

Ellis Island yesterday presented a sadly forlorn picture. Three stone buildings remain standing, the engine-house, the electric light and steam plant, and Dr. White’s house–all else is in ruins. The buildings destroyed were the main one, which was 750 feet long and 250 feet wide, and three stories high; the detention pen, which was recently reconstructed; the restaurant, the laundry, the record building, the morgue, the storage-house, and the new disinfecting plant, which had not yet been completed, but upon which $25,000 had already been expended, and in which machinery costing $15,000 had been placed. The southwest landing pier, which had been recently reconstructed and covered at a large expense, was also entirely demolished. Estimates upon the total monetary loss sustained by the United States Government, the immigration officials and the immigrants could not yesterday be made with any degree of accuracy. Dr. Senner puts the rough estimate at somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000. It is said that the Government is not responsible for the loss of the personal effects of the immigrants. The poor creatures were in such a state of collapse yesterday at the Barge Office, where they were huddled together, that no definite idea of individual losses could be obtained. The losses were chiefly of clothing and personal trinkets, which probably had no great intrinsic value.

New York Daily Tribune, June, 16th 1897.