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Abandoned Ellis Island

A glimpse inside the unrestored gateway to the new world.

Ellis Island has served many roles over the years, but its most famous was as the gateway to America through which 12 million immigrants ventured on the last leg of their journey to citizenship between 1892 and 1954. For many, the journey through Ellis Island was uneventful and completed in about 5 hours as long as basic physicals, mental tests, and other assessments were passed without exception. However, for a small percentage of immigrants, Ellis Island was to become their new home for the indefinite future. The unrestored side of the island is what remains of the faculties used to care for those immigrants who came to America and required medical attention before completing the immigration process.

Main hospital building.

Main Hospital Building

The hospital complex on Ellis Island contains a multitude of buildings needed for the island to operate independently of the mainland. The first building, pictured above, is the main hospital building. Behind this structures are smaller wards which separated the mentally ill and those with dangerous diseases from other patients. With the capacity to house 200+ patients, it's the biggest structure on the unrestored section of the island. Unfortunately the tour didn't cover the interior of the building because it's structurally unsound and still contains large amounts of lead and asbestos.

Connecting walkway between main hospital, disease wards, ferry terminal, and administration building.

Main hospital building & infectious disease wards corridor

An interesting thing to note when you first enter this side of the island is the split in the passageway that connects the ferry terminal and administration side of the island with the hospital. The hallway splits because when the hospital was first built, it was a common belief that the spread of disease could be stopped by separating the infected from the healthy with a body of water. The majority of the island (which is part of NJ not NY) was built from reclaimed materials from the construction of the NYC subway system. A gap was left between the main hospital and the infectious diseases wards to "prevent" the spread of communicable diseases. When it was later discovered that this tactic was ineffective, the gap was filled in and the second hallway replaced the bridged that spanned the gap between the wards and the main hospital.

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Art on Ellis Island

As part of the "Unframed - Ellis Island" project, artist JR has installed life-sized enlargements of historic photographs across the south side of the island. More of his work can be seen in later photos. This photo shows the cage surrounding the porch of the psychopathic ward. Check out the Save Ellis Island page on the installation for more information.

Laundry & sanitation equipment

This equipment was used to wash and dry clothing for both the patients and the professionals who lived on the island. While nursing staff had to share quarters, the chief doctor and surgeon had private residences at the tip of the island. The chief surgeon's house burnt down and today only the doctor's remains standing. Regularly washing patients garments and bedsheets was revolutionary at the time, but perhaps more important was the installation of the autoclave near the linen and cloth storage room. This device was used to sanitize mattresses which could not be washed easily, and helped to cut down on the spread of disease in the hospital.

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Recreation pavilion

This pavilion was used to provide recreational activities to those living on the island and the patients they served. Lots of fresh air and rest were common prescriptions, and this pavilion helped promote treatment. Located directly behind this building is a larger structure that hosted dances, screened motion pictures, and provided other indoor recreational activities. Directly in front of this pavilion was once a body of water separating the general hospital from the outlying wards where employees would commonly swim, but that area was later filled in to create the field you can see here when it was discovered that bodies of water did not inherently prevent the spread of disease. 

Infectious Diseases Wards

Those with deadly diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, scarlet fever, measles, and cholera were sent to these wards to prevent them from spreading to other patients. Those with multiple diseases were confined to special wards and had a very slim chance of survival.

Bunk Room

Seen here are the remains of a bunk room on the first floor of the infectious diseases ward. This room could house many patients in bunk style accommodations much like the configuration of a WWII battle ship. If you ever visit Ellis Island, the main administration building has a great mock-up of what these bunks would look like on the second floor.  Given the large amount of immigrants passing though the island each day, the number of beds required varied greatly.

Operating Theater

The operating theater is located on the back corner of the island, far away from where patients would be staying. None of the seats from the theater remain, and even the original operating table is no longer in the building. The body cooler on the left contained space for 8 corpses, one per door. Through the back door sits the refrigeration equipment for the body cooler, and was most likely the prep area before operations. Note the ramp on the extreme left for rolling gurneys in and out of the theater. Though there were thousands of deaths on the island, no bodies was ever buried on the grounds. All deaths on the island were sent to the mainland for burial in unmarked graves. A lift would've been installed by the body cooler to assist in moving the corpses in and out of the higher slots. Note that this is not the mortuary. That function is served by a separate, smaller builiding nearby which branches off the main corridor.

linen & Cloth Room

Spare sheets for the 725 beds of the hospital were stored here in addition to extra mattresses for new patients. Just off to the left though the open door is the hospital's autoclave. Sterilizing the mattresses between patients was a revolutionary practice that helped keep down the spread of disease between patients. Mattresses would be sterilized next door in the autoclave before being stored in this room. Unfortunately, due to neglect, much of the original hospital equipment that once occupied the complex was looted over the past 60 years. Of the 725 beds that needed the mattresses stored in this room, only 3 remain on the island. Much of what's found in the administration building's museum was donated back to the island or purchased from private collectors.

Main corridor

The main corridor stretches from one side of the island to the other, connecting all the buildings on the south side of the island. On the end of the corridor nearest the camera is the morgue, operating theater, autoclave, and power plant. Farther down the hall is the majority of the infectious disease wards, the kitchen, the special "quarantine" wards, and the head doctor's house. The hallway actually becomes smaller the farther down the hall you walk; it isn't just an illusion created by the lens. This was a design feature which forces air down the corridor, keeping the complex air fresh. Currently shrouded in darkness, the massive windows that line the walls are boarded up and broken. Back when the hospital was in operation this hallway would be lit up brightly by the massive windows which would also bring fresh air to the patients. Towards the door at the end of the hallway, there were three wards specifically for patients with multiple infectious diseases. They had a very low chance of survival and were kept apart from other patients in isolated rooms. These buildings were closed off due to structural damage.


Feeding several thousand people per day, this kitchen was the main prep area on the island. Every ward had its own smaller kitchen and many of the island staff chose to eat their meals on the mainland. Typical menus served up white bread and butter or jam at all meals, oats for breakfast, and some kind of stew or meat for lunch and dinner with a dessert. Like most other parts of the complex most equipment is missing from this space save for a few prep tables on the back wall of the kitchen and the range hood. The refrigeration rooms remain just off the hallway, used for storing food brought by boat to the island.

Measles Ward A

This is an example of a typical open floor plan ward on the island. The windows that line both walls were left open almost year round to promote air flow through the building. Beds would've lined the walls of this room with a single nurse left to care for the ward. Her desk would've sat in the middle of the room but all that remains of it are the two pipes sticking out of the concrete floor. The space may be empty now, but at one time it was packed wall to wall with beds for the sick who arrived at the island.

Measles ward g

Looking down the hallway into the darkness, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. Oddly I didn't experience this feeling anywhere else in the complex but felt that I shouldn't hang around that hallway. Pictured above is the hallway next to the floorpan of the ward. Most of the wards were laid out in this same style or with an open floorpan, with minor exceptions. The psychopathic ward had cages and wire grates throughout the building, and wards specific to diseases like pneumonia had two sinks installed in every room: one for washing up, and another for spitting. This ward, like the open floorpan of Ward A, had a kitchen, bathing and sanitary faculties for patients, and a station for the charge nurse.

Help Save Ellis Island

Interested in taking the tour yourself or want to get involved. Save Ellis Island is a nonprofit who runs tours of the island every day of the year (besides Christmas) and they offer a few different ones. Having done Ellis Island and the statue of liberty before this was certainly a unique experience and worth the price of admission.