While New York City ushered in the arrival of 1892 with the peals of church bells and the screeching of horns, American dreams danced in the head of a 17-year-old Irish girl anchored off the southern tip of Manhattan. Along with her two younger brothers, the teenager had departed Queenstown, Ireland, on December 20, 1891, aboard the steamship Nevada to start a new life in a new land. After spending 12 days, including Christmas, at sea, the girl from Ireland’s County Cork was just hours away from reuniting with her parents and two older siblings after spending the past four years apart.
Nevada had arrived too late on New Year’s Eve to be processed, which meant its third-class passengers would be the first to pass through the newly built federal immigration station on Ellis Island, which had previously been used as a gunpowder storage facility for the U.S. Navy.
At 10:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, a flag on Ellis Island was dipped three times as a signal to transport the first boatload of immigrants. A chorus of foghorns, clanging bells, steam whistles and cheers serenaded a barge adorned with red, white and blue bunting as it ferried Nevada’s steerage passengers to the dock at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The brown-haired Irish teenager was the first to bound down the gangplank with her brothers in tow. She entered through the enormous double doors of the cavernous three-story wooden building, described as “little more than a big business shed” by the New York Tribune, and skipped two steps at a time up the main staircase. Turning to her left, the girl was ushered into one of 10 aisles and up to a tall lectern-like registry desk.
“What is your name, my girl?” asked Charles Hendley, a former Treasury Department official who had requested the honor of registering the new station’s first immigrant.
By Christopher Klein for HISTORY.COM
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