Category: Ellis Island

Echoes of the Past


A view of the main hospital from the immigration building.

Two years ago when I was in the final stages of writing A Fall of Marigolds, I planned a trip to Ellis Island to see for myself the hospital buildings where I set the story and which have been unused for more than fifty years. They weren’t open to the public then and I was going to be given a private and guided close-up look for research purposes. I had my plane ticket, a hotel room booked, even a reservation on the ferry all set up, but Hurricane Sandy swept in a little less than a month before I was to arrive. Ellis was one of the places that the storm hit hard. The damage to the landing docks was extensive and Ellis would end up being closed for repairs for more than a year. I still went to Manhattan. I met with my editor, took photos of the Upper West side to find the best spot for my fictional Heirloom Yard fabric store, went to the 9-11 Memorial, touched the building that had been the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, looked out over the river toward the island and the hospital buildings, and hoped there would be another time, some day, when I could walk the halls that Clara walked.

This past week, I finally got my wish. On Friday I finally got to see and touch and feel the hospital buildings that served as the detail-rich setting for this book. This part of Ellis is open now to hard hat tours by reservation only. I highly recommend the tour if you are a history devotee, if you enjoyed A Fall of Marigolds, and especially if you wish to join in the effort to preserve the buildings. They are crumbling into ruin as old buildings do if they are left on their own to time and the elements. Proceeds from the tours go to the Save Ellis Island effort. It’s also easy to donate toward the preservation campaign on their website. I send a small portion of the royalties from A Fall of Marigolds to assist in this endeavor.

The primary photo you see above, is the reflected view of the Statue of Liberty, visible from a mirror above a sink in a room in an isolation ward. The terrible irony here is that the patient whose room this was, was likely a third-class TB patient who would never be allowed to immigrate while infected with tuberculosis. He or she would be stabilized until healthy enough to make the journey back to where they came from…


One of several curved hallways in the contagious ward. Curves, so it was believed, kept bad air from settling in the corners.


The caged area was where those with supposed mental illness could get some fresh air during their stay. The mentally ill – diagnosed back then as imbecile, idiot or moron – would sadly be sent back to where they came from as it was believed they would become a burden to society. Only those who could work and make their own way in life were allowed to emigrate.


During the hospital’s golden years in the early 1900s prior to 1930, the lawns and landscaping were professionally cared for. After the buildings were abandoned in the late 1950s, trees overtook the empty spaces and their limbs broke more windows than vandals and heavy storms.

A hallway in the contagious wards. Clara walked down it many times…


Many of the window openings have been covered to keep out the elements. But not this one.


Being a public hospital, it was also a teaching hospital. This was the autopsy theater.


Unfortunately not everyone admitted to the Ellis Island Hospital could be cured. Hence, the morgue. The top two shelves would be packed with ice.


A haunting artistic display is currently on exhibit at Ellis. A French photographer has placed many of these images in different places. You can see more of this exhibit on the website linked above.


This is Ward K, where I put fictional Andrew, who wore the scarf around his neck on the day Clara met him…


Me in my hard hat!

Me in my hard hat!

Signs of life at Ellis Island Hospital

When I first decided on Ellis Island Hospital back in 2011 as a setting for what would become A FALL OF MARGOLDS (the original title was THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD), I knew I wanted to visit its crumbling ruins despite its being closed to the public.  I began corresponding with Janis Calella (featured in the above video) and when I was able to make plans in late 2012 to come to Manhattan to meet my new editor at Penguin, Janis arranged a private, hard-hat tour of the hospital buildings for me.

I was grateful for and excited about that upcoming visit. But then Hurricane Sandy hit and the destruction to New York and New Jersey was so acute and Ellis Island so badly affected, the island was closed for a year while repairs were made. I still made the trip to NYC to meet with my editor and see the other locations that showed up in my novel – like the NYU biology building that is the site of the former Triangle Shirtwaist factory, and Washington Square, and the Upper West Side. But I could only look longingly at the East River’s edge to where Ellis sits- probably as longingly as those long-ago immigrants gazed at the place were I stood. They had wanted to be where I was and I wanted to be where they were!

I left New York without stepping foot on Ellis Island and had to rely on email exchanges with wonderful people like Janis Calella, Barry Moreno, Art Lawrence, and Lorie Conway (all experts on the hospital’s history) to help me get the story right.

But still. I’d see photos on Save Ellis Island’s Facebook page and I’d feel a twinge of melancholy that I had been so close to being where Clara, my main character, lived her fictional life. Where she met Andrew, where she met the good doctor, where she found the scarf, where she wrestled with her demons.

So I am both elated and envious that at last the buildings are being opened to the public – by reservation – starting next week. I still hope I can get there someday soon. I especially want to see the accompanying photographic exhibition called Unframed – you simply must click through and view the slide show. The photos, so compelling on their own, make the unrestored ruins come to life. And hopefully, the tours will do what I hope my book will do, and that is bring awareness to the effort to raise the funds to save the buildings from total ruin. You can give toward the end – a portion of my royalties go toward it – right here.

Have you ever been to Ellis? Would love to hear your reactions to being in that wholly remarkable place…


Ellis Island reviewed

At long last here is the promised review of the latest book I read for research slash pleasure. I have an idea in my head for a new novel and I am setting it on Ellis Island at the turn of the century. I don’t have any living relatives who can tell me what it was like when my German, Irish, and French ancestors came to America; I am not even sure if they came through Ellis, so I have a lot of research to do.

My first order of business is to read other books set in the same time period to get my story percolator percolating. I love love love the cover of Kate Kerrigan’s Ellis Island, and hey, with a title like Ellis Island, it was the perfect way to begin the arduous task of learning everything there is to know about Ellis, right? Here is the interesting thing about this nicely-written book. Interesting and strange. Interesting and strange and perplexing.

The main character telling the story? She spends maybe three or four hours total on Ellis. For the whole book. And the book encompasses years of her life.  And they are not even pivotal hours. I could see if the half-day she spent on Ellis made some kind of door-of-no-return impact on her life. But she has the easiest transitions from boat to land you can have as a third class immigrant. And I’ve done enough research already to know it wasn’t always that easy. If you had any kind of physical ailment, you were in for a rough ride, either back to where you came from or an extended stay at Ellis’s hospital. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the story, I did. In a nutshell, Elle Hogan and her childhood sweetheart husband, John, are happily honeymooning on their farm in Ireland—until John, a soldier for the Irish Republican Army, is shot and left disabled. With her husband needing an expensive operation to be able to work again, Ellie emigrates to New York City to work as a maid for a wealthy socialite to earn the money for the surgery. On the streets of New York, Ellie is introduced to glam and sophistication, and she is soon tempted by the allure of material charms and a dashing young suitor who can give her anything she wants. She comes to a point of decision as the many months go by and the surgery has long since been paid for: stay and live the charmed dream or go home to the man she is married to and once couldn’t imagine living without.

Great storyline, right? It was. How much Ellis Island was there?

What island?

Nice read. Pulls at the heart. Gorgeous cover. But the title baffles me. I am scratching my head looking for the metaphor here, thinking maybe there is one. So far, no revelations. Perhaps you have an idea out there?