How Poetry Saved a Building: The Re-Opening of Angel Island Immigration Station

Posted on: February 17th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

A packed tent at the re-opening ceremony.

It was an inspiring moment. Despite pouring Pacific rains and high wind warnings, I joined an enthusiastic group of more than 500 on the ferry at San Francisco’s Pier 41 on Sunday morning to witness history. We were headed for the grand re-opening of the Angel Island Immigration Station, this time, thankfully, not as a detention facility, but a newly restored interpretive site.

Often described as the “Ellis Island of the West,” more than 350,000 immigrants were processed, and sometimes detained at Angel Island before they were allowed entry to San Francisco and could call America home. The arrivals not only braved an uncertain future, far from the world they knew, but entered a hostile world where racism was written expressly into law. Starting in 1882 the Chinese, who made up the majority of the immigrants processed at Angel Island, were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a race-based law that persevered for an astonishing 61 years. The Immigration Act of 1924 made that law even more severe and established strict quotas on immigration with a particular focus on Asian countries.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The newly restored detention barracks.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s ceremony was the completed restoration of the building that served as detention barracks for immigrants from 80 countries. In 1970 the building was in serious disrepair and slated for demolition. It was then that Alexander Weiss, a ranger with the National Park Service, made an astonishing discovery. Inventorying the building by flashlight, Weiss stumbled upon Chinese characters carved into the wooden walls where the detainees were housed. Experts soon revealed that the characters formed poems, many fully intact. These written memories have helped us understand the emotional experiences of newcomers to the West in the early 20th Century. On Sunday I heard the children of detainees, most of whom have now passed away, express gratitude for the restoration. The stories of crossing the ocean, they explained, were often too emotionally difficult for their parents to tell.

The translation for this carved poem is at left.

Translation at left, in italics.

“Detained in this wooden house
for several tens of days,
it is all because of the Mexican exclusion law, which implicates me.
It’s a pity heroes have no way
of exercising their prowess.
I can only await the word so I can snap Zu’s whip.

From now on,
I am departing far from this building.
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don’t say that everything within
is Western styled.
Even if it is built of jade, it has
turned into a cage."

... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Newly-Restored Angel Island Immigration Station Re-Opening Today

Posted on: February 15th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments


The Immigration Station on Angel Island.

The Immigration Station on Angel Island.

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.

Poems carved into the barracks wall.

Chinese poems carved into the barracks wall.

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Restoring the Readyville Mill

Posted on: February 13th, 2009 by David J. Brown


"All politics is local" the saying goes, and the same is often true for preservation. Though as executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I spend my days looking at preservation writ large, local triumphs still grab my attention, especially when they touch a spot as close to home as this one does.

The Readyville Mill sits on the Rutherford/Cannon County line near the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where I spent my childhood years. At that time it was one of two mills remaining in the vicinity and was still in operation as a working mill for area farmers. Some time in the early 1970s I played some bluegrass at the mill as part of a heritage days festival. It was always a community center in this still-rural area of Middle Tennessee.

However, in the 1980s the mill was abandoned, a four lane highway opened up Cannon County to rapid development, and the mill seemed destined to either fall into the river from neglect or to be torn down for someone’s vision of a better community. Luckily Tom Brady (not the Patriots quarterback) stepped into the breech.

A local website describes the mill’s background:

The Readyville Mill is the sole vestige of what was once a flourishing industry on the Stones River in Middle Tennessee. Dating from the 1870s, the current Readyville Mill is a three-story building with an open fourth-story attic. In the early 1900s, the mill supplied the area with electricity, making Readyville one of the first rural villages in Tennessee to possess electric lights. Other products included ice, corn meal, refined flour, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, and lumber. The mill was in continuous operation until the early 1980s.

When I was in Tennessee a year or so ago, my brother Joe (an ornamental blacksmith and a great craftsman) took the children and me out to meet Tom and see the progress he was making in restoring the mill. It was a great treat to see this place coming back to life. And just yesterday, Joe sent me links to two You Tube videos that show Tom’s progress.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Teaching Preservation: Looking Back at Lincoln

Posted on: February 12th, 2009 by Guest Writer



Notes from the Teacher's Desk

Today is a big deal for history buffs like me.

It is, after all, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.

As you know from my previous posts here, I teach a senior-level class at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio called Research History. Basically, my goal is to get students out from under the florescent lights (they generally don't object) and into the field for history and preservation-focused service learning projects. And, well, it's always on days like today that I simply can't resist a stroll down Memory Lane to reminisce about their contributions over the years to telling history, including Mr. Lincoln's amazing legacy.

Between 2004 and 2006, my students and I partnered with President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust historic site located in Washington, D.C. We were tasked by the site's curator and administrator to explore the Civil War era-burials at the United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery. In doing their research, my kids matched burial data with data provided by the U.S. Quartermaster's Roll of Honor, which included regiment, company and rank information on original burials (approximately 5,200) between 1861 and the opening of Arlington National Cemetery.

To this day, it warms my heart knowing that the final data we provided to President Lincoln's Cottage was fundamental in their interpretation of the most significant historic site associated with Lincoln's presidency aside from the White House itself.

But this wasn't my course's first database project, and it certainly wouldn't be the last.

During the 2001-2002 school year, my students researched Ohio grave registration cards, which were complied by the state to document all veteran burials. They mulled over the 100,000-card database looking specifically for African-American Civil War veterans, referred to back in the day as United States Colored Troops (USCT). Through our research, we identified approximately 3,050 USCT veterans buried in 86 of Ohio's 88 counties. From there, my students created a website documenting each listing, where to this day you can find veterans by county and then by cemetery.

Moving forward a few years on Memory Lane, my class partnered with the Gist Settlement Cemetery Project during the 2006-2007 school year. The Highland Gist Settlement was established in 1835 by the emancipated slaves of Samuel Gist. This unique community is located roughly 25 miles south of Washington Court House. During our project there, my students not only read and photographed all of the headstones, but also measured distances between the headstones to create a scale map of the cemetery. The final data was presented to the Penn Township Trustees and can still be viewed online.

Now, all of this looking back really gives me hope for what my students will accomplish this semester in our new partnership with the Wayne Township Trustees and Good Hope Cemetery. Thanks to the hard work of Alyssa and Lynne, we are already off to a running start with our 2,100-name database, which will (among many other things) document the military service of those buried in the cemetery.

I invite you all to stay tuned to and our blog over the coming weeks and months as our project continues to unfold. With any luck, the winter weather here in Ohio will get better, and you'll see more and more blog posts, photo essays, and maybe even a video or two of my students doing what they do best: preserving history and having a blast doing it.

- Paul LaRue

Paul LaRue teaches Research History at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio. The ultimate “hands-on” classroom experience, his course takes students into the field to learn about preservation and community service. Stay tuned this semester as Paul and his students document their project at Good Hope Cemetery here on our blog and on their Flickr photostream. Also, keep an eye out for future “Notes from the Teacher’s Desk” columns from Paul himself.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at

Christened with Watermelon Juice, Lincoln, Illinois Continues to Celebrate its Most Famous Resident

Posted on: February 12th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Lincoln christening his namesake town with watermelon juice. (Image:

Lincoln christening his namesake town with watermelon juice. (Image:

Does America take Lincoln’s birthday for granted? Not in Lincoln, Illinois, the only town in the country named for Abe Lincoln before he became famous—while he was still a young attorney on horseback serving Illinois’ 8th judicial circuit.

I can speak from experience, having lived in Lincoln for 26 years before relocating to Washington in 2002. But we Lincolnites never take even the smallest factoid of Lincoln lore for granted. For example, everyone who has lived in Lincoln, Illinois, knows that:

  • Lincoln christened his namesake town with watermelon juice, long before he became famous—at the Lincoln depot where a statue depicting the momentous event still stands.
  • On his judicial circuit rides, Lincoln would plead his cases at the Postville Court House. A replica of the court house is a popular tourism attraction on Fifth Street near the edge of town. When the State of Illinois had to close a number of state-owned historic sites several years ago due to lack of funds, long-time community activist and volunteer Shirley Bartelmay stepped forward to organize a group to staff the site and keep it open for visitors.
  • The signature Abe Lincoln Heritage Event still takes place every fall—the National Railsplitting Festival, when teams from all over the country gather at the Logan County Fairgrounds to test their mettle at splitting logs in record time.
  • The only real property that Lincoln ever owned other than his home in Springfield, was the lot at 523 Pulaski Street, next door to my husband’s office on the downtown Lincoln square. Today the lot is the site of Sherwin Williams, commemorated only by a plaque on the building.
  • Just about every town in Illinois has its Lincoln impersonator, and so did we. At any public event, you could see Charlie Ott walking around in his frock coat and top hat, shaking hands—his bearded face always solemn. He showed us very little of Lincoln’s humorous side. Most fascinating was the strong rivalry between Ott and his chief competition, Harry Hahn, from neighboring Mt. Pulaski—and there were many arguments over whose Lincoln was the “real one.”
  • The high school sports teams, of course, are the Railsplitters—or Railers. Famous Railers include Brian Cook, formerly a forward with the Lakers, now the Orlando Magic, and Tony Semple, who was offensive guard for the Detroit Lions. The school’s fight song concludes with:
    “ . . . if dear old Abe were here, I know what he would do,
    He’d say ‘Lincoln, I’m proud of you—oo—oo!’”

Come to think of it, I guess I’m pretty proud, too.

-- Valecia Crisafulli

Valecia Crisafulli is the director of the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.