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Ellis Island: The Immigrants Return

September 9, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ The ″Isle of Tears″ cracked a smile Sunday as immigrants old and new celebrated the reopening of Ellis Island, gateway to the New World for the ancestors of two out of five Americans.

″There are thousands of different names, thousands of different stories, but you stitch all of them together and you have one huge saga, and it’s our saga,″ said Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who spearheaded the campaign that raised $156 million to restore the 90-year-old immigration station.

Before snipping a white ribbon, Vice President Dan Quayle linked the nation’s immigrant history to the crisis in the Persian Gulf. There, he said, ″children of Mexicans or Kenyans stand shoulder to shoulder with the grandchildren of Japanese or French, next to the great-grandchildren of Poles or Dutch - now Americans all.″

″What we celebrate in Ellis Island is nothing less than the triumph of the American spirit,″ Quayle said. ″We may all know in our minds that time and time again, it has been the immigrant who has renewed and rekindled the American spirit. But here in Ellis Island, we feel it in our hearts.″

About 2,500 guests gathered outside the huge, four-towered brick building that reopens to the public Monday as a museum and memorial following six years of work.

The restoration project, the most expensive of its kind in American history, was entirely financed by private contributions to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

Forty-nine new citizens, including three children, were sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and six people who entered the nation through Ellis in the first quarter of the century were singled out to represent the millions of immigrants who passed through the island.

They included Johanna Flaherty, 84, who said she left her native Ireland in 1923 because she ″didn’t want to wake up and stare a cow in the face every morning.″ Another was Clara Larsen, who came from Russia in 1913 because she wanted to get an education.

″In Russia, the Jewish kids didn’t stand a chance,″ she recalled. ″They didn’t accept them in the public schools.″ She went on to become an early leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Immigrants’ contributions were celebrated throughout the program, down to the music; the U.S. Army Band played selections by Irving Berlin, who came through Ellis as a child.

Iacocca dedicated the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, which bears the names of about 2,000 immigrants whose descendants donated $100 or more to the renovation effort. The names are inscribed on a long copper strip on the island’s seawall, about 400 yards from the Statue of Liberty.

One of the names was that of Antonio Macchiarola, 80, of Johnston, R.I., who arrived at age 11.

In retrospect, Macchiarola said, it all seems ″like a pilgrimage. ... I was just a little bit of a kid and I had to go through these lines to be examined. Everybody was afraid they wouldn’t make it.″

Macchiarola did, like 98 percent of those who landed at Ellis. But for those who were turned back - including a little girl who traveled with his family and was rejected because of eye disease - Ellis was called the Isle of Tears.

The federal government bought the 27.5-acre island in the late 1800s for about $10,000 from the descendants of a man named Samuel Ellis. It opened the first immigration station on the island in 1892, but the building burned down five years later.

Its replacement was finished in 1900, a building designed to impress immigrants with its ornate copper domes, vast windows and vaulted ceilings.

Between 1892 and 1924, when Ellis was the nation’s busiest port of entry, an average of 5,000 people a day passed through. On the busiest day - April 17, 1907 - 11,747 immigrants were processed.