The Campaign to Save Ellis Island

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War hero Scott O'Grady, who survived his plane being shot down while patrolling in Bosnia in 1995, has teamed up with a group of people to help save Ellis Island.

Much of the island has fallen into disrepair in recent years. But O'Grady and other celebrities are lending their voices to help save this national treasure for future generations.

"Ellis Island was it's own self-contained city -- 750 bed hospital that we have over here… people were born here, people died here, it is the hallmark of our American heritage of immigration," said O'Grady.

Tale of a War Hero

From 1892 until 1954 - more than half a century - Ellis Island was the gateway into the U.S. for more than 12 million people from all over the world. Today, nearly 40 percent of all Americans can trace their roots back here to Ellis Island - including war hero O'Grady.

In June of 1995, O'Grady's F-16 was shot down over Bosnia. He ejected and landed safely in the mountainous terrain, but endured six days of hunger and hypothermia before being rescued by the marines.

He says that ordeal made him even more grateful to be an American, and that it made him an ideal spokesperson for the We Are Ellis Island campaign, sponsored by Arrow Apparel and the National Park Service.

O'Grady's Irish ancestors actually came over before Ellis Island was open.

"My great grandmother Ameila Scarpoti… came from Naples, at the age of 17, in 1898, and went through the facility here at Ellis Island."

A Gateway for Immigrants

Just like O'Grady's great-grandmother, the majority of immigrants who came ashore here, were Italian. Between 1880 and 1920 more than 4-million Italians were recorded entering the United States -- most of them escaping severe poverty and hoping for a better life in the land of liberty.

"Many of the Irish and Scots came earlier in the 19th century as a result of the potato famine," Judy McAlpin, president of Save Ellis Island, Inc explained. "People also came in response to neighbors and family members who had come before them.

She said, "So often you'll see on a ship many, many, many names -- all coming from the same village, all heading toward the same American town or city and in some cases, almost an entire village would be transplanted.hence, Little Italy."

Many such stories are displayed on the We Are Ellis Island Web site including celebrities and everyday folks like New York carpenter Steven Anello - who had two great-grandfathers and a grand-father come through Ellis Island.

"My father's grand-father made the trip nine times.really? Yeah, bringing family over and building up enough money, he was working on the Panama Canal," Anello said.

Once immigrants landed they went through an extensive screening process: Their legal papers were checked and their health status was checked.

Last Stop? The Ferry Building

Their last stop before they left the island was the recently restored Ferry Building.

"This was probably the happiest building on the island because the people who came through this building - had successfully finished the screening process and they were as the government said, free to land and free to start fulfilling all their hopes and dreams," McAlpin said.

Of the 12 million immigrants that came ashore, 250,000 - about 2 percent- were turned away.

"They were turned away in some instances for legal reasons - their papers were not in order, they might have some kind of a record. There were questions asked when you got on board the ships: Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Do you have a job?" she said.

Ellis Island officially closed its doors in 1954 and actually sat for sale for about 10 years with no takers.

"The number of immigrants coming into the country had certainly slowed dramatically -- and that really began back in the 1920s" McAlpin explained. "People were screened in their countries of origin and now, they weren't coming by ship so often, they were coming by air.and they were coming through airports,"

Ellis Rises Again

Today Ellis Island is stirring with new life. The buildings, some of which were nearly in rubble, are being refurbished and restored. Some of the buildings include the three main hospital buildings which, at that time, were the most modern of their kind.

"One of the things they were really learning is that fresh air and sunlight were very helpful - so lots of attempts to provide fresh lighting through skylights and large windows," McAlpin said.

In one of the buildings was a laundry - or linen press.

"One of the things that Ellis Island's hospitals were learning was how to manage contagion and the spread of disease, and so it was important that all bedding be washed in very hot water. It was then spun dry." McAlpin said. "This building would have been filled with steam; it would have been very noisy -- people would have been working very hard in here."

Now Ellis Island is home to a world-class museum that sees about 2-million visitors each year. But what O'Grady and others hope is that Ellis Island will be here for centuries to come to remind the world of our humble "melting pot" beginnings - and that being an American means being free.

The campaign is hoping to raise about $300 million over time to restore Ellis Island. If you would like more information on the Save Ellis Island campaign, visit We Are Ellis Island.  

*Original broadcast March 18, 2008.

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