Crippled by Sandy, Ellis Island Sends Archives Packing

National Park Service staff pass boxes of artifacts down the stairs near the Great Hall. Kevin Daley, National Park Service

Tens of thousands of archival papers. Nineteen thousand artifacts. The thousands of donated items, carefully chosen by immigrants to bring to America—from Bibles to pasta makers to musical instruments.

In all, one big packing job for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

The magnificently restored 113-year-old building, where the story of America’s great immigration is told, is now largely empty, its walls stripped of exhibits of passports, steamship posters, immigrant manifests and much more.

Cases once filled with religious items, the dreaded button hook used by doctors to check for trachoma, children’s shoes and dozens of other exhibits are all empty, too.

Hurricane Sandy struck Ellis Island hard—submerging nearly the entire island. Hitting from the south and west, the flood waters easily scaled the low seawall, sped across the parking lot and rushed down the museum building’s ramp leading to the basement. The doors were no match for the force of the water, which soon filled the lower level. Some five feet of water spread through the entire network of underground passageways that linked the island’s buildings. But worse, it flooded the powerhouse that supplied the island with electricity.

Diana Pardue, who is chief of the museum services division and a designer of the museum, was at her apartment in Greenwich Village, also without electricity.

Only sporadic text messages told her what was going on.

“I had heard there was water in the basement,” Pardue recalled as she led a Trib reporter and photographer on a tour of the museum, “and I was concerned if water got to the first floor.”

The water did not reach the first floor,  leaving untouched almost all the museum’s treasures, most of which are on the third floor or in storage. (A small exhibit in the ferry building about the island’s former hospital was destroyed).
But nature began to wreak havoc on the museum in other ways.

“The building has been climate controlled for about 20 years and it kind of went through a shock,” said Pardue.

Mold started forming on the museum’s collection almost immediately, she said, especially the wooden artifacts.

“We have lots and lots of textiles, and they would have been the next thing to go. Things were starting to grow on anything that didn’t have a finish.”

The walls were also covered with condensation; even the wooden railings were wet.

A smaller matter, but one that affected the staff nonetheless, was the odor. “There was that horrible moldy smell,” Pardue recalled. “And there was all the rotting food stored in the basement. It smelled like a fish hatchery for weeks.”
After the storm, the National Park Service, which was also coping with assessing damage to dozens of other federally run parks, had to act quickly.
Pardue said there was never a question that the museum would have to be closed. “We knew that things weren’t going to be fine in a week, that we would have to dismantle this whole place—and then bring it back.”

In the beginning, it was hard just to locate employees. Specialists who were called in to help could not find hotel rooms; many slept on the living room floors of other staff members. There were conference calls and numerous discussions about what to do. Storing the artifacts somewhere else on the island was even considered. It was finally decided that the safest place for the collection was a federal storage center in Landover, Md.

Nearly seven weeks after Sandy struck, 14 National Park Service curators from all over the northeast, assisted by advisors from states as far away as California and Washington, began the demanding packing job. Twelve tables were set up along the second floor hallway and balconies. Surrounded by five-foot-high rolls of foam padding and acid-free tissue, the curators carefully wrapped each item, working every day until 4 p.m., when the light became too dim. As they packed, they continued to clean mold off artifacts.

After each box was sealed, Park Rangers, standing along the two flights of stairs, passed it down. On the first floor workers put the boxes on pallets and shrink-wrapped them.

The packing took six weeks, and by the end, the staff had filled six tractor trailers, each loaded with 23 pallets.

Today, the museum, which had hosted 4 million visitors a year, is eerily quiet. (The staff has returned to their offices, thanks to engineers who were able to connect 30-year-old steam boilers to the building’s turn-of-the-century radiators.) As at so many other places at water’s edge, museum officials are now trying to figure out how to best protect the building from a future Sandy. There are no easy answers.

But there is little doubt that the museum will remain the country’s repository for immigration history.

“Even while we were packing,” Pardue recalled, “we were still being contacted by people who had things they wanted to give us.” And the staff continued to consider each donation. 

“We don’t know when,” Pardue said, “but we will definitely reopen.”

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