Though the stakes were far lower than for those twelve million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island before it closed in 1954, Courtney Messer nonetheless experienced a side of the island few can claim. The winner of our Night at America’s Gateway – Ellis Island, Courtney and her mother, Robin, recaptured each breathtaking moment of the immigrant experience: from the first exhilarating glimpse of Lady Liberty’s welcoming torch to the feel of land as they took those initial steps off the boat.
In her winning contest entry, Courtney wrote, “One of my happiest childhood memories involves taking the ferry to Ellis Island and rubbing tracing paper over the names of my mother’s parents inscribed on the Wall of Honor.”
We were quite excited to add to those happy memories on the island. No pressure, right?
Even though Courtney, a media planner for an advertising agency, lives in New York City, we booked her an Airbnb home in Chelsea to share with her mother, Robin, who flew in from Florida after encountering a few weather delays. The next day, the mother and daughter duo were driven to the dock, where they were met by the Arabella, their 160-foot floating home for the night. Courtney joked that the main cabin was big enough to house her apartment several times over.
The first stop? A visit to Liberty Island for a champagne toast and private tour with guide, Matthew, who wowed the pair with entertaining facts about Lady Liberty. Courtney proved to be quite the history buff, too, as she bantered with Matthew throughout the tour.
After a short ride to Ellis Island, Courtney and Robin walked to the Museum’s Grand Hall, where millions of immigrants once lined up in hopes of capturing their piece of the American Dream. Here they met their host, Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden, whose own family immigrated through the island. “We have Irish potato thieves on one side and land thieves on the other,” Harden said in an interview with Yahoo Travel. “I’m trying to discover my family history, and it’s a long process.”
There, in the center of the large hall, was a single round table, each place setting arranged with a postcard with the name of a famous immigrant who passed through the island–Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, even Einstein. A string trio played in the background, setting the mood for the evening. Guests included Courtney, Robin, Marcia, Matthew, Rich Flood of the Ellis Island Foundation, and Jo Piazza from Yahoo Travel. After spending some time getting to know one another, each guest shared a story of their own family history. Marcia talked about how, when each of her nieces and nephews turned 8, she invited them to New York City for a visit to Ellis Island, encouraging them to use different accents while pretending to be young immigrants. Dinner was then served family style, each dish culturally relevant to the history of Ellis Island–from an international collection of breads to a Moroccan stew, Paprikash to Kulebiaka.
“To sit in a room where most of my ancestors walked, frightened of whether they would be allowed into the U.S., was an amazing experience,” Courtney said later during an interview with Jo Piazza of Yahoo Travel. “Being in the room at all is already meaningful, but being there after the island closed and without the crowds of people made it so much easier to grasp the enormity and importance of the room.”
After goodbyes, Matthew and Rich led Courtney and Robin on an after-hours tour of the Grounds and Museum, sharing interesting stories about the island’s rich history, before leading them to one of the Museum’s genealogists. Though they already knew quite a bit about Robin’s side of the family, Courtney did learn some enlightening facts about her Dad’s side.
“Both of my mom’s parents came through Ellis Island as children, and I was really close to them. To bring my mom, who has such a personal connection to Ellis Island, was a wonderful way to honor them,” Courtney said.
After leaving the island, the Arabella took the mother and daugther for a late-night cruise around New York Bay before docking for the evening, offering breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline. In the morning, Lady Liberty stood watch over a final breakfast before this epic journey culminated back in Manhattan.
“To share this experience will help get my future children excited about their family history,” Courtney said.
In partnership with the New York Times, we’ve created a full multimedia experience covering our “Night At” event, including an in-depth look at the history of Ellis Island. For more, visit us here.