Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty
In this edition of Roadtripping, we went off-road for an unexpected and meaningful adventure. Our original destination was Jersey City, an up-and-coming mini-metropolis called the sixth borough of New York. But I never saw the city proper, because other attractions beckoned.
I rendezvoused with a friend at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. And less than 2,000 feet from shore, there she was: Miss America. It was such a kick to see the Statue of Liberty up close, but I had never visited, even as a schoolkid, and I wanted to get closer. This road trip was my chance, and I took it.
Both Liberty Island and Ellis Island are an easy trip by ferry from the park. A single fare takes you to both landmarks; once aboard the ferry Miss Freedom, we were at Ellis Island in less than 10 minutes. It seemed fitting to me that different languages filled the air; we were surrounded by people speaking Hindi, Russian, Arabic, Swedish, German, and Italian, and wearing the traditional garb of their countries. It heightened the sense that we were reenacting history; perhaps it was a hint of what millions of men, women, and children may have felt on their arrival here in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The main inspection station, now the National Museum of Immigration, is a regal French Renaissance structure with domed towers and Parthenon-like arches. Every day for almost a half-century, scores of travel-weary, working-class immigrants embarked from ships’ steerage compartments to be “processed.” All told, up to 17 million people passed through these portals between 1892 and 1954. Once cleared for entry to the United States, they headed to the former New Jersey Central Railroad terminal, at the north end of Liberty Park, to be dispatched to new homes all across the promised land.
Inside the Immigration Museum, I saw a cluster of students—respectful, enthusiastic—poring over the passenger manifests of steamships. Others stood in silence at photo galleries, filled with sepia-toned images of people who may have been their forebears. At one exhibit, a young man with a Scandinavian accent read the text aloud to his companions, in halting English. It was wonderful to see and hear.
Dining is part of any road trip, and while there are several upscale restaurants at Liberty State Park (including Liberty House and Maritime Parc), our appetites overtook us on Ellis Island. We stopped at the Ellis Café for a perfectly good grab-and-go meal: a mozzarella panini for me, with basil pesto, roasted sweet peppers, and tomato on ciabatta bread, and the California chicken sandwich for my friend, topped with guacamole, cilantro, melted Swiss cheese and grilled veggies on a brioche roll. I paired my meal with a smashing strawberry banana smoothie. It was exceptional fast food, made better still by the setting: an outdoor dining area overlooking the river, which was dotted with sailboats, a cruising four-masted schooner, and the distinctively orange Staten Island Ferry.
After lunch, it was back on our own ferry, Miss Freedom, for a ride to the Statue of Liberty. Wow! I was bowled over by the 300-foot copper sculpture, holding her gilded torch above New York Harbor. Families of every nationality clustered at the base, posing for group photos; others made the ascent to the statue’s pedestal or crown. My traveling companion has a touch of vertigo, so we didn’t climb. Maybe next time.
At the end of the day, it was back to Liberty State Park, where we paused at the poignant Empty Sky Memorial, honoring 750 New Jerseyans who lost their lives on September 11. Each of their names is engraved on one of two stainless steel walls built directly opposite the fallen World Trade Center tower. Near the memorial, you’ll see a tangle of charred, riveted beams from the original World Trade Center towers. It is incredibly somber and moving.
So, New Jerseyans, you don’t have to trek into New York City to visit these landmarks, and all this glory is super-affordable. It’s free to visit both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and ferry tickets are inexpensive too: $24 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $12 for children four to 12. Audio tours are included with every ferry ticket, with content in 12 languages as well as American Sign Language.
As usual, we couldn’t see it all in a day: we missed the park’s Liberty Science Center, which houses the largest planetarium in the western hemisphere. We missed its Interpretive Nature Center, which offers self-guided tours of the freshwater ponds, salt marshes, woodlands, and gardens of the Hudson River estuary. We missed all of Jersey City. But our day was full and significant.
Perhaps more than any monument, Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World embodies the American dream. For me, this road trip was a dream in itself. Visiting the historic trilogy—Miss Liberty, Ellis Island, and the historic immigrants’ rail line—is a must for all Americans, and an easy trip for people who live in New Jersey. Make a day of it and be sure to take the whole family. ■