The Corridors of Ellis Island

The Corridors of Ellis Island

When we think of a hospital, we think of operating rooms and patient rooms, but often fail to recognize that some of the most important structures are things we simply pass through to get to those areas. While corridors may not seem interesting at first glance, here on Ellis Island they serve as the backbone of the hospital, quite literally.


The marine corridors, as they were called in 1907 to 1910 when they were originally built, connect almost every structure on the island, one building to the next, making everything easily accessible even in the most inclement weather. The most impressive of them is corridor #9, a 750-foot long stretch of concrete. Once a completely open breezeway, exposed to the elements, corridor #9 served as the connecting force between all of the hospital buildings on the south side of Ellis Island, otherwise known as island #3.

open corridor c1907

corridor1907Open corridor c1907
While having an open breezeway in the hospital with high ceilings, which benefitted the health of the patients and staff alike by allowing light and air to circulate freely, it was not very practical. Windows were added in 1914 and some corridors were completely enclosed by 1936. For the most part the corridors continued to function exactly as intended. Nurses, doctors, staff and patients could all navigate the spacious “hallways” with ease.

Corridor Island 3

Ellis Island Hall


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Regardless of their intended use, a less conventional use of the spine emerged over the years as retold by the shared memories of patients. It is through their memories that we can view the spine as not just a corridor, but also as a place of enjoyment for the children who lived on Ellis Island (doctors and staff sometimes lived on Ellis Island) and the young patients as they recovered. Multiple accounts mention children pushing carts up the length of the passageway and one boy even managed to ride a bike up and down the expanse. For kids and adults alike, the length of the connecting corridors was very impressive.
Similar to corridor #9 that connected the hospital buildings on island #3, is corridor #8. Corridor #8 runs through the Ferry Building and connects the buildings on the north side of the island, known as island #1 to the south side of the island, known as islands #2 and #3.

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The Ferry Building corridor was perhaps the most travelled corridor on Ellis Island and frequently saw thousands of people daily. Newly arriving immigrants, those who passed the inspection and medical examination, family members and visitors all departed from the Ferry Building. Because of this, a portion of corridor #8 is wider, in fact, the widest corridor on the island. Built this way to handle the large numbers of people congregating there waiting for ferries to New York. It was also used as the passageway to the hospital buildings on islands #2 and #3.

The wideness of the corridor was intended to allow for a sizable amount of people to flow freely through, while also allowing security and other staff members to get an adequate view of the people. Many ill-fated immigrants who were destined for the hospitals, afraid they’d never make it into America, saw this hallway as their last hope to make it into the city, even if illegally. A chalk mark was all that was used to identify them as hospital bound, so they could simply brush it off and attempt to jump into the line for the ferry on the opposite side of the corridor, hoping the security guard was not paying attention.


FerryCorridor SEIafter

On both islands #2 and #3, you will come across an odd type of corridor. Known as Y corridors, these corridors are named for their distinctive shape. They begin with one singular stretch of hallway, which eventually splits into a Y shape forming two separate hallways. The purpose of this type of corridor was to separate patients and staff for a variety of reasons, depending on the location of the corridor. The most prominent of the Y corridors is found at the beginning of the hospital complex on island #2, near the entrance to the General Hospital. This is the first Y corridor encountered by immigrants sent to the hospital for treatment.

The Y corridor, which is part of corridor #8, is where the hospitals quarantine process began. After initial examination, if a patient was deemed to have an infectious disease they were sent down the right corridor directly into the Contagious Disease Hospital, located a safe distance away from the General Hospital. If a patient was sent to the left, it meant they were not contagious and could be treated in the General Hospital on island #2. The same also applied for employees. This system was used to control the spread of disease, a major concern for officials on the island.

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On island #3 there are multiple Y corridors, all of which are located in the southeast corner of island #3 in the isolation wards. These isolation wards housed the sickest people on the island, people suffering from multiple and highly contagious diseases such as measles, trachoma, tuberculosis and more. Keeping patients separated was the top priority in this section of the hospital given the limited space on the island.

Because of limited space, these wards were built differently than the rest of the hospital, and were separated down the middle by a thick wall creating two separate wards in one building. The wards were built in this manner so that patients with two different diseases could be treated in the same building, maximizing space and efficiency.

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Immigrants treated in these wards had no access to each other, even though they were housed in the same building. For doctors, nurses, and staff working in these wards, this was an efficient way for them to disinfect and clean up before interacting with other patients or entering into the main section of the hospital.

Today, visitors to the park who purchase reserve tickets to the Save Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour use the corridors, as do students taking on-site programs developed and administered by Save Ellis Island. On our hospital tours, visitors learn about the immigrant hospitals and the people who were cared for there.

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When visiting the hospitals, the rooms and wards are almost secondary as your eyes are riveted down the long stretch of corridor #9. With scary anticipation and goose bumps on your arms, you’re hoping to see a doctor or nurse come out of a ward and walk across corridor #9.