So what makes for a good ghost town? Tumbleweeds and shanty buildings? Dusty and deserted roads?
A ghost town is the remnants of a place that is a shadow of its former vibrant self. A place that once gleamed with the sparkle of humanity only to find itself deserted and isolated. If we follow this definition, there are three really captivating ghost towns smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, New York City! Join us as we explore these modern day ghost towns.
1. Ellis Island
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”-Emma Lazarus
Perhaps one of the most recognized statues in the world, Lady Liberty stands with her lamp extended, welcoming the world. At her foot rests our first stop in our quest to find the ghost towns of New York.
Ellis Island was a sight to behold in its hay-day. The Island housed the largest and most prolific immigration station in the world from 1892 till 1954. The Island has had a number of nicknames in its storied history: “Heartbreak Island” and “the Island of Tears.” Heart break references the fact that a small number of immigrants were not allowed entry into the US after their treacherous ocean voyage.
A number of interesting characters graced the halls of Ellis Island including: Composer Irving Berlin, Make up guru Max Factor, Comedian Bob Hope, Coach Knute Rockne, and Actress Claudette Colbert to name a few.
Visiting the island is truly an experience not to be missed. Take in the Statue of Liberty of course, but more importantly wander the Ellis Island Museum. Contemplate what it would have been like to enter these halls, the air filled with dozens of different languages. Take in the dreams and hopes of immigrants seeking a better life. Then wander outside to the “Kissing Post” where families long separated were once again united. Powerful! Don’t miss the holding cells. A somber remembrance of what must have been a terrifying experience for the small number of people that were detained here for a number of different reasons.
2. Hart Island
One of the most interesting and disturbing places in all of New York City is Hart Island. Modern history of the island begins in 1869 when the city of New York purchased the island for $75K. The Island has served as a Civil War Prison camp, a boy’s workcamp, a Nike Missile bunker, and currently serves as a potter’s field for the entire city. If you are looking for a spooky place, look no further.
At the midpoint of the Civil War, the Island was built up as a union prison for captured confederate soldiers. Over 3,400 Rebel soldiers where confined here. In the 1870s the Island was used as a place to quarantine people with Yellow Fever. The Island subsequently was used as a women’s insane asylum.
Today the Island is a cemetery. According to Hart Island Project, a group that is working to document the internments: The City Cemetery occupies 101 acres in the Long Island Sound on the eastern edge of New York City. It is the largest tax funded cemetery in the world. Prison labor is used to perform the daily mass burials that number over 850,000. Citizens must contact the prison system to visit Hart Island. There is no map of the burials and no one is permitted to visit a specific grave. The Department of Correction restricts visitation to those who can document the burial of a family member buried on Hart Island. Records at this location consist of intact mass graves since 1980.
“Prison labor from Rikers Island is used for burial details, paid at 50 cents an hour. Inmates stack the pine coffins in two rows, three high and 25 across, and each plot is marked with a single concrete marker. The first pediatric AIDS victim to die in New York City is buried in the only single grave on Hart Island with a concrete marker that reads SP (special child) B1 (Baby 1) 1985.” Wikipedia.
The New York City Department of Transportation runs a single ferry to the island from the Fordham Street Pier on City Island. The only people allowed to visit the Island are those who have family members buried there, or get a permit for educational or research purposes.
3. The Tenement Museum
One of the most moving and interesting museums in NYC is the Tenement Museum. It is located at 108 Orchard on the Lower East Side. The museum is a window of what life was like for NYC immigrants from 1850’s through the Depression Era. NYC, during the hay day of the tenements, could truly be called a melting pot. Immigrants from all across the globe, were living in close quarters.,
An estimated 7,000 people lived in 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. Working with genealogists and volunteers, the Museum has identified 1,300 people who owned, lived, or worked in 97 Orchard Street. As you walk solemnly between rooms in the building you read of the desperate plight of its one time residents. Stories of single mothers that raised a dozen children. You learn of entire families that lived and worked in one tiny room. During our recent visit, we walkedthrough the narrow hallways and rooms walking through the experience of a German family whose husband left his wife to fend for herself and an Italian immigrant family.
One cannot help but be moved by the humble circumstances that those who occupied the tenements faced. The building lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. Electric light was not installed in 97 Orchard until 1924. Crime and poverty ran rampant. A host of different illnesses ravaged the tenements on several occasions. If you want to get a good idea of what immigrants faced in NYC, see the movie, “The Gangs of New York.”
Visiting the museum will take you at least two hours. You must take a guided tour. Sign up ahead of time. You can pick between three tours and then walk back in time into the living rooms and kitchens of the past. Once your complete the tour, cross the street and take in the visitor’s center. There are some great books and memorabilia.