In the mid-1980s, with Lady Liberty’s centennial restoration completed, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation turned its focus to restoring Ellis Island – our nation’s first federal immigration station.
The facility was active for more than 60 years, but on November 12, 1954, Ellis Island shut its doors. For three decades, the structures on Ellis Island stood abandoned, including the 100,000 square-foot main building where more than 12 million immigrants first stepped foot into America to begin a new life in a new country.
The Ellis Island restoration project, which included creating an immigration museum in the main building, was a massive, multi-year endeavor. Working closely with its National Park Service partners and preservation experts, the Foundation was well-equipped to complete the restoration and museum construction. But another critical and equally daunting piece of the project was needed: fundraising.
When the Foundation was established, President Ronald Reagan tasked founding chairman Lee A. Iacocca with restoring the two monuments without the use of government funding. Corporations, philanthropists, and even school children with their penny campaigns contributed to the statue’s restoration effort. After all, Bartholdi’s masterpiece is known all over the world and stands as one of the country’s most cherished monuments.
Would Americans feel the same connection to Ellis Island? The answer was a resounding yes! In fact, the public looked to support the project beyond simply writing a check – they wanted to be part of the experience itself.
In response, the Foundation created The American Immigrant Wall of Honor. Located alongside the Ellis Island Museum and overlooking lower Manhattan, this permanent tribute to family heritage is now home to more than 800,000 names – each representing an immigrant who had a dream.
Over the years, inscriptions expanded beyond just Ellis immigrants. Thousands of names etched on the Wall of Honor also recognize people who arrived in the U.S. before the Ellis immigration station opened in 1892. Individuals who came through other ports of entry, such as Boston and New Orleans, as well as recent immigrants who’ve become the newest threads in America’s unique tapestry, are all represented.
The Wall of Honor was unveiled in 1990 in concert with the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Interest in adding family names never waned and The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was able to expand the structure. But now all existing panels are full – a notable milestone in the Foundation’s history.
Providing a space to commemorate our nation’s immigration history is one of the Foundation’s greatest honors. Hearing family stories and watching visitors find an ancestor’s name on the Wall of Honor is a true privilege. The Foundation thanks each and every contributor who has joined us to celebrate our immigration history and supported our mission to restore and preserve these beloved monuments.