The historic ferryboat Ellis Island was retired in 1954 and sank at its berth in 1968. Now a difficult salvage operation has retrieved the historic ship‘s rusted remains.
The 57th U.S. Congress (March 1901 – March 1903) authorized $110,000 for the construction of a steel hulled ferryboat to be owned by the Immigration Service and used by the Ellis Island Immigration Station. The ship’s main function would be to transport newly-admitted immigrants to Manhattan, and to shuttle Immigration and Marine Services employees to and from the island.
The Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, was awarded the contract in July 1903, got the work underway the next month, and delivered the 160 foot-long, 660 ton displacement vessel to Ellis Island in May 1904. By the first week of June the new ferryboat, which had been christened Ellis Island, was placed in service.
The Ellis Island performed its duties satisfactorily (though at increased maintenance cost) for half a century, eventually racking up over a million miles before making its final run on November 29, 1954. By that time the immigration center (reduced to housing detainees) had been closed and Ellis Island was almost deserted.
The venerable ship sat idle at its berth in the Ellis Island slip, rusting and largely forgotten except for periodic bilge pumping. Then it sank – probably due to hull deterioration -- during a storm the weekend of August 10-11, 1968. The Park Service, which assumed responsibility for the vessel in 1965, had intended to preserve it.
Exposed to the elements and awash at high tide, the sunken ship’s wooden superstructure did not last very long. By late 1969, an estimated 90 percent of it was already beyond salvage. The steel hull and its contents remained below water, but still suffered the ravages of decay and corrosion.
It was deemed too expensive to raise and rehabilitate the Ellis Island. In fact, it would be much cheaper to build a replica instead. The sunken ship stayed right where it was
Fast forward to 2009. The Park Service wants to reopen the slip for future boat traffic, but the Ellis Island’s hulk poses an obstacle to dredging and a potential hazard to vessels using the slip. It is decided that the ship must be salvaged to get it out of the way.
Subsequent inspections showed that four decades underwater had left the Ellis Island so badly deteriorated that it could no longer be raised in one piece. This left the Park Service and U.S. Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two the task of removing the remains piece by rusty piece.
During the removal operations, which began in late October and lasted approximately two months, underwater archeologists, a maritime historian, and other cultural resource experts monitored the pieces that were raised and set aside some for further documentation. These pieces are currently stored in a safe location within the park, awaiting additional study.
When the process began there was some question as to whether all of the metal parts of the ferry would be so corroded that they would fall apart during the removal process. However, unlike the hull which came up in ragged, rusting chunks, the boiler, two propellers and two rudders came up largely intact.
The sight of these pieces being raised out of the water by the barge-mounted crane drew the attention of anyone fortunate to be within view. Yet the process was not without it moments of tension according to John Hnedak, deputy superintendent for Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, who noted that several cables snapped along the way from the weight of some of the materials.
After crews removed the remains of the ferry, as well as the old dock to which it had once been moored, the entire slip was dredged.
Postscript: Two of the author’s grandparents were passengers on the Ellis Island, one in 1907 and the other in 1912