A navigation hazard in New York Harbor became the gateway to America for millions of immigrants.
Damon Stuebner knows the story of Ellis Island, the humble sandbar that became America's busiest immigration center until it was abandoned in 1954. He knows about the weapons stockpile and the fire, the broken glass and plaster and the Contagious Disease Corridor.
Stuebner is presenting an exhibit of photographs of Ellis Island this month at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council gallery. The show, "Ellis Island Unrestored," opens with a reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at the gallery.
Stuebner, 32, is a videographer for Alaska's SuperStation, broadcast locally on KJUD-TV. Five years ago he was a photographer looking to build his portfolio with a project. A family visit to Ellis Island inspired him to document the famed immigration facility.
"Some rooms are completely cleaned out and empty," Stuebner said. "Others are virtually untouched since the day it closed. I have both in my show."
Stuebner said one of his favorite photos is of a long glass hallway stretching from one end of the island to the other.
"It connects all the hospital buildings together," he said. "The staff gave it this horrible and interesting name, the Contagious Disease Corridor."
Stuebner has 19 large color photographs in the exhibit, as well as some smaller photos of the restored areas and history of the center. The show lasts until Jan. 29.
Ellis Island served as an immigration center from 1892 to 1954. Its service peaked in 1927, the year 165,000 people immigrated to America through the facility - about 5,000 each day. Just a few hundred yards from the Statue of Liberty, the island was the first American soil these immigrants set foot on.
Ironically, that soil was dredged from the bottom of New York Harbor.
"It's essentially a man-made island, only a tiny part was original," Stuebner said.
Stuebner said developing Ellis Island as an immigration center solved a host of problems facing the country in the late 1800s.
Ellis Island was a lowly sandbar and navigation hazard 150 years ago. Stuebner said the Navy stockpiled munitions on the island, which some in the area objected to. New York Harbor needed dredging to accommodate the larger ships coming to port. The government needed to address immigration issues and Ellis was the solution.
"Prior to the 1890s, immigration was handled largely by the cities themselves and the laws varied greatly. There was corruption," Stuebner said. "The U.S. wanted to get a handle on immigration and wanted to isolate the immigrant population. They were afraid of contagious diseases and wanted to protect the immigrants fresh off the boats from con artists and thieves."
The first facility there burned to the ground. A new center was built and as needs grew, so did the island.
"It went from the original wooden structure to something almost palatial, with sandstone buildings, dormitories, cafeterias and large hospital wings," Stuebner said. "It was state of the art for its time. There are lots of skylights and big windows to let in available light."
The center was closed in 1954 and immigration services were decentralized. The island was left in disrepair. The Immigration and Naturalization Service turned the property over to the National Park Service in 1965, but not much changed. In the early 1990s, when money was allocated for restoration of the Statue of Liberty, some funds came through to restore part of the island and open the American Immigration Museum on the site.
In 1995, a park ranger walked Stuebner out of the museum into the unrestored and off-limits areas.
"I went from polished and restored, through one gate, into broken glass and broken plaster and covered with ivy and weeds," he said. "It was an eerie sensation. You could feel something there and let your imagination run wild. It literally has a sense of history."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org