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Welcoming Immigrants to America for More Than a Century

She’s one of the country’s most recognized women and she has aged gracefully since her arrival in 1886. Lighting the way for immigrants, visitors, and travelers, the Statue of Liberty was presented to the United States by France in commemoration of the country’s centennial and as a gesture of friendship from France. Student group travelers who make the journey to see her are rewarded with a new sense of citizenship and pride.

Standing at Liberty Island, the statue has served as the ultimate symbol of a new life, freedom, and opportunity for all who have gazed upon her. From 1886 until the early 1950’s, she was often one of the first glimpses of the United States for millions of immigrants when their voyage from Europe arrived in New York.

Sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, funds for the construction of the Statue of Liberty were raised through the sale of miniatures. Dressed in a robe and a halo of seven-point spiked rays, the statue is made of a sheeting of pure copper, hung on a framework of steel. The stone tablet she holds in her right hand bears the world “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), commemorating the date of the United States Declaration of Independence.

Located on a 12-acre island, the Statue of Liberty National Monument is operated by the National Park Service. Student group travelers reach the island by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Ferry system. A time pass reservation system allows a limited number of visitors a day to visit the monument. Visitors have access to the museum gallery and pedestal observation level. Since Sept. 11, 2001, full access to the monument has been restricted and there is no access beyond the pedestal level.

After visiting the statue, student group travelers will find a fascinating study of American history at Ellis Island, which served as the premier federal immigration station from 1892-1954. Ellis Island acquired its name from Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker, possibly from Wales.

The island has a rich history before it became the gateway to freedom. Initially, the local Indian tribes called it Gull Island. Later, it served as a harbor fort, a hanging site for pirates, and an ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson.

During its sixty-two years of operation, Ellis Island processed more than 12 million immigrant steamship passengers. The very first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old Irish girl, traveling with her two brothers. Coincidently, it was also Annie’s birthday and under the watchful eyes of immigration officials, Superintendent Colonel John Weber presented Annie with a $10 gold Liberty coin. Other notable immigrants processed through Ellis Island include Frank Capra, Irving Berlin, Max Factor, and Bob Hope.

Thirty years after its closing the main building was restored and reopened in 1990 as a museum. Designed as a self-guided museum, it has three floors of displays and exhibits detailing the history of the immigration process. For example, “Buttonhooks,” devices used by women to lace and button their shoes and boots, provides insights into public health service issues of the day. Doctors used the devices to check immigrants for a highly contagious, and difficult to cure, eye disease.
Student visitors also view the movie, Island of Hope, Island of Tears, an award-winning documentary. Ellis Island was known as “Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island” because two percent of the immigrants were not admitted into the United States after their long transatlantic voyage.

Each spring, visiting students can participate in a living history program of an actual immigrant hearing conducted at Ellis Island. Audience participation decides the fate of the immigrant standing before them. Viewing a theatrical production based on actual immigrant accounts is also presented during the spring and summer months.

Audio tours and special ranger-guided tours of the Ellis Island Museum can also be pre-scheduled. Free genealogy workshops can be scheduled in collaboration with the National Archives for those interested in researching their family immigration history.

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