Today, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island, which we included on our annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places back in 1999, will re-open after more than three years of restoration and preservation work. During that time, many improvements have been made to stabilize this National Historic Landmark, set within a California State Park, and the interpretation of the Immigration Station’s story has been enhanced.
Nowadays, when it’s difficult for us to imagine things other than as they are, places such as Angel Island Immigration Station serve as potent connectors to the past. How different our contemporary experience of travel is from that of the average immigrant arriving at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. Like Ellis Island, the Immigration Station on Angel Island was a major gateway to America. Established in 1910 and in operation until 1940, the Immigration Station is often referred to as the "Ellis Island of the West;" however, it was also known as "The Guardian of the Western Gate" because of its role in policing and enforcing restrictive immigration policies.
This small island (barely one square mile) near Tiburon provided the setting for immigration processing for hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving from Pacific routes. Imagine, after a sea voyage of a week or more, venturing down a gangplank and along a pier to face interrogations, physical examinations, and even detention in a cluster of institutional buildings on a small island surrounded by the glories of San Francisco Bay. In spite of the beauty of its setting, Angel Island Immigration Station evokes the hardships faced by generations of America’s Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese. Over the years the Immigration Station became such a well known bottleneck that immigrants developed strategies and crammed to ensure that they were able to parrot “right” answers during grueling interrogations.
Although all nationalities were received at the island, the Immigration Station is especially poignant for the Asian American community because of restrictions on immigration imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was amended, extended, and expanded several times between 1888 and its repeal in 1943. Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act was central to the Immigration Station’s function and transformed Angel Island from a reception and processing center into a residential detention facility for many Chinese nationals – as well as others. Over the years the victims of race-based exclusionary laws were detained at Angel Island for an average of three weeks, sometimes for months and even for years. The Immigration Station was the first, and sometimes only, foothold in a new and hostile country and its cramped barracks of tiered bunks provided an improvised home to detainees. The walls of the Immigration Station bear witness to the human traffic they sheltered: numerous inscriptions and an estimated 135 carved poems survive, tangible markers of loneliness, suffering, injustice, determination, and the lure of immigration.
Sometimes the scale of a specific historic resource and the vision for its revitalization demands a team effort, uniting staff and resources across offices, departments, and agencies. The results that will be unveiled today at Angel Island are the fruit of many years of effort and collaboration. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) is the nonprofit partner of California State Parks and the National Park Service in the effort to preserve, restore and interpret the historic immigration station. Save America's Treasures and American Express Partners in Preservation, two of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's valued partnerships, also contributed much-needed funding.
AIISF’s remarkable fundraising and planning achievements demonstrate the results of an undaunted and ambitious vision that started small and ended big and were only achieved through organizational persistence, creative collaboration, leveraged funding, and extensive public outreach. The refurbished site will offer visitors a taste of what immigrants must have felt as they first grappled with life in a new and foreign land.
For decades, the Immigration Station was a final gauntlet beyond which stretched family members, opportunities, freedoms, new horizons -- the golden west. Once symbolic of the intentional obstacles and systematic deterrents placed by governmental policies in the path of immigrants, Angel Island is now a monument to human resilience and endurance. Angel Island’s immigrants persevered and prospered and contributed to the growth of their adopted country, enduringly influencing its culture and democracy. Now is the moment for Angel Island Immigration Station to take its rightful place as a national symbol of Pacific immigration and for the lives and stories that still mark its walls to find a wider audience.
As AIISF’s website puts it: “Tell your friends to make the journey across the water, through time, and deep into the American soul.”
Public tours of the Immigration Station will resume April 1, 2009.
-- Hugh Rowland
Hugh Rowland is the program administrator and development associate for the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.