Trips

See the Forgotten Side of Ellis Island

Visiting Ellis Island is a must-see on a New York City vacation. One of the most unique ways to experience this landmark is on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour.

Broken window on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour with pictures of child immigrants.

The north side of Ellis Island has been restored. It is home to the National Immigration Museum, where most visitors spend their time. 

Registry Room at the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum
Registry Room at Ellis Island, New York, NJ 10280

In contrast to the busy north side, the south side sat abandoned for 70 years.

The south side is home to the Immigrant Hospital and was almost demolished for redevelopment. The only way to see the island’s south side is on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour.

Outside of the Ellis Island Hospital

Why was such an extensive hospital complex needed?

Immigrants seeking a better life in America purchased transport from steamship companies. The steamships, however, had to provide return transportation if passengers were denied entry into the United States. So passengers were subjected to health inspections before departure.

Window with images of a healthcare worker and cabinet of medicine on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

But the journey to America was long and hard. Despite the pre-checks, many people were ill when they reached New York.

View of the National Immigration Museum on Ellis Island from a boat

Once passengers arrived on Ellis Island, US doctors conducted health inspections. While 98% of arrivals were successfully processed, 2% were detained or sent home.

View of the Statue of Liberty from an Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour window

Depending on their condition, some patients were treated and allowed to stay in America. Others, however, were stabilized before their return journey.

Old hallway with chipped paint on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

The Immigrant Hospital

The hospital complex was built between 1900 and 1909. Access to this side of the island is restricted. Only guests on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour may visit it.

Outside view of red brick buildings at the Ellis Island Hospital

The immigrant hospital was a surprisingly cutting-edge medical facility. So new arrivals received good care. At its apex, the hospital had 750 beds.

Large room with chipped paint and tile floor on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour with windows on either side

Medical personnel understood the relationship between germs and health outcomes. So staff went to great lengths to prevent cross-contamination and stop the spread of germs.

Old rusted washing machine on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour
Washing Machine

The hospital employed stringent sterilization procedures. A state-of-the-art autoclave was used to sterilize mattresses.

Large autoclave in room with chipped paint on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour
Autoclave for Sterilizing Mattresses

The hospital consisted of separate structures for treating different medical conditions. Many buildings had large south-facing windows to provide good ventilation.

2 story red brick building with tree in the front at the Ellis Island hospital

The immigrant hospital treated a variety of diseases. Common illnesses included trachoma (eye condition), scarlet fever, favus (scalp condition), measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other tropical diseases from around the globe.

2 sinks one upper and one lower on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour
Double Sinks in the TB Ward – The top one is for spitting, and the bottom is for washing.

Many of the medical staff and their families actually lived on the island.

Old red brick fireplace with chipped paint surrounding the fireplace

Over the years, 275,000 people were treated, 355 babies were born, and 3500 died at the immigrant hospital. The quality of care was equal to or better than other hospitals at that time.

Sign that talks about the birth and death rates at the Ellis Island Hospital

The Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

The Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour offers guests a glimpse into this historic medical facility.

Guests walking down a hallway with hard hats on the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are both part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Statue City Cruises is the park service’s authorized concessionaire providing transport to and from these monuments. Here is where you purchase tickets for the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour.

Statue City Cruises boat parked at the dock

The ticket includes more than just the tour of the hospital. It provides boat transportation to the Statue of Liberty island, access to the Liberty Island and museum, boat transportation to Ellis Island, access to the National Immigration Museum, the Ellis Island Hard Hat tour of the hospital side of the island, and return transportation.

Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Boats leave from either New Jersey or Battery Park (lower Manhattan). When you buy your ticket, you’ll select your departure point.

Boat in front of the NYC skyline

The boats go on a designated route between the islands. Those leaving Battery Park (Manhattan) go to Liberty Island, then to Ellis Island, and return to Battery Park. Boats from New Jersey travel to Ellis Island first and then to Liberty Island.

View from the boat of Ellis Island and lower Manhattan

The only portion of the tour that is guided is the hospital tour. So while the tour of the hospital is only 90 minutes, that does not include the time you spend at Liberty Island and Statue Museum or the Immigration Museum exploring independently.

Statue of Liberty

Also, when planning your day, remember that guests must go through airport-style security check-in before getting on the boat.

The security area at Battery Park for Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island tours.
Battery Park Security Check-in

We booked the earliest Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour, which was at 11:30. However, our security check-in time at Battery Park was 9:00. We arrived at 8:30 to allow more time.

Star City Cruises Ferry Boat

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, guests enter the National Immigration Museum building. A representative at the information desk will provide directions on meeting up with your guide.

Ellis Island National Immigration Museum Sign

After our tour, we had lunch at the cafe and explored the National Immigration Museum.

We boarded our boat to return to Battery Park at 3 pm. I was not ready to leave, but we had dinner and a show. Even though we spent most of the day here, I still felt like I needed more time.

Boat in front of the Statue of Liberty

Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour Tips

Here are some tips to help you make the most of your day.

  • Wear appropriate footwear. Open-toed shoes, sandals, and flip-flops are not allowed.
  • The immigrant hospital is not climate controlled. We visited in March, and it was pretty chilly. Dress accordingly.
  • Be mindful of your hair-do. You do have to wear the hard hat while you’re on the hospital side of the island. 
  • Allow plenty of time outside of just the 90-minute hospital tour time. There is a lot to see!  
  • Make reservations ahead of time!
Hallway with red brick and windows

I loved the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour! It was fascinating. The National Immigrant Hospital was one of the first public hospitals in the nation. It was at the forefront of public health initiatives. A big shout-out to the Save Ellis Island Foundation for preserving this historic facility so visitors can learn more about what immigrants faced when they first set foot in America.

The Hospital Side of Ellis Island

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