Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, November 5, 1996


Ellis Island is
too magnificently restored

ELLIS Island is in New York harbor, the funnel through which millions of immigrants poured into the U.S. It now is magnificently restored - too magnificently in my book.

Like Iolani Palace here in Honolulu, now sealed and air-conditioned, the restorers have taken some of the humanness out of it.

At Colonial Williamsburg you'll find structures tracing back to pre-revolutionary America quite open and accessible to steady flows of visitors. It's rather easy to imagine one's self trodding the old pathways, even though they aren't rutted and muddy anymore. There's even a Jack Lord film to help if it hasn't been edited down to nothingness since I was last there 10 years ago.

Iolani Palace is so sealed and protected it seems to be almost under glass. Shoe covers are required. It receives only about 75,000 visitors a year, tourists included. Many Hawaii residents may never go inside.

I contrast Ellis Island with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Inside that museum's dark, prison-like concrete walls you feel enough of that terrible mass murderous horror to come away feeling wrung out.

Ellis Island pre-restoration was at once a wonderful and terrible place, the gateway to freedom and dreams of opportunity for millions of poor people from Europe. They had crossed the Atlantic crowded into steerage bunks. Unlike first- and second-class passengers, they were not cleared on shipboard by immigration officials. Instead they were ferried to Ellis Island, as many as 5,000 a day in the 1900-1924 peak period.

With all their worldly possessions, they sat in a crowded great hall waiting for their numbers to be called as listed on their ship's manifest. A language barrier didn't help. Sometimes names got garbled and officially changed.

Most got through in a single day. But quite a few were detained for health checks or because their papers weren't in order. A big hospital was added to the island where detention could be long. Some were sent back at the expense of the shippers who brought them.

Exhibits, words, charts and pictures tell this story. But the buildings are so spic and span and the surrounding lawns so green that visitors don't really feel the past. They just learn about it.

There must be good and sufficient reasons for the sanitization of both Ellis Island and Iolani Palace. Yet they can't match places that let us experience the past viscerally as well as with eyes and ears.

My wife and I recently joined the flood of visitors who daily chug out to Ellis Island every half hour in ferries that also stop at the Statue of Liberty. With all my qualifications, it's well worth the trip. Allow at least half a day.

Ellis Island was used from 1892 to 1954, then mouldered until President Lyndon Johnson put it under care of the National Park Service in 1965. The restored facility opened six years ago as a museum testimonial to the power of the American dream.

TODAY immigration to the U.S. remains restricted but much simpler. The repeal of early 20th century rules excluding most Asians has shifted the weight of emigration from Europe to Asia/Pacific.

Applicants must get entry papers from U.S. diplomatic offices in their countries of origin. With these and medical reports in hand they meet immigration officers who check their IDs and the validity of their papers. They can clear Honolulu International Airport in less than 45 minutes unless too many planes arrive at once.

Persons detained for further checks will be escorted to the U.S. Immigration Station on Ala Moana Boulevard. A very few may be sent back home. Between 6,500 and 8,500 arrive at Honolulu annually.

When the Ellis Island museum opened in 1990, National Geographic magazine hailed the quality and craftsmanship of the restoration and the dedication of researchers who captured poignancy from the past. Don't let my grumbles keep you away from either Ellis or Iolani Palace.



A.A. Smyser is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.




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