The crumbling old sick ward opens off a long hallway, separate from the rest of the Ellis Island hospital complex. Plaster peels off the walls. Broken porcelain light fixtures hang haphazardly above where beds once stood. The low clanging of boats and the splash of waves on the breakwater drift in through cracked windowpanes that showcase a resplendent view of the Statue of Liberty. This is where the sickest immigrants came on their final days.
“If you found yourself in this room, you were either too sick to survive or too sick to stay,” tour guide Jessica Cameron-Bush said. “And this was your last view — the Statue of Liberty.”
The historic complex, where 1.2 million immigrants received medical care between 1901 and 1954, is opening to the public on Wednesday for the first time in 60 years. The complex of 29 unrestored buildings is located across the ferry slip from the fully-restored immigration museum.
As part of the tour opening, an exhibit uses life-size historic photographs of immigrants superimposed on walls and other parts of the buildings. Round a corner, and come face-to-face with the eyes of children staring out from broken windows. Enter a sterilization room and see the doctors who, back then, washed up before surgery. The photos are designed to fade away with time.
The 90-minute tours will take place four times a day and will be limited to 10 people per tour, ages 13 and older. The tickets are offered on a reserved basis by Save Ellis Island and cost $25.
In its day, the complex was the largest U.S. Public Health Service institution. Sick immigrants were treated before they were allowed to enter the country — or were sent back to their native lands. The facility included wards for contagious diseases, mental health and obstetrics. The laundry facility housed giant washers; a massive autoclave sterilized beds.
“It’s gloomy now and has a romantic feeling, but this was not the way it was when it was opened,” historian Barry Moreno said. “It was very clean, hygienic and state-of-the art.”
Visitors will wear hardhats as they wander through broken glass, into rooms without electricity and across overgrown grass strewn with refuse. The areas have been tested and cleaned, but nothing was restored.