Sunday, October 13, 2013

Immigration Stories at Angel Island

Ayala Cove
After 24 years of living in the San Francisco Bay area, I finally visited Angel Island last week.  I have been wanting to go for several years but somehow never managed to schedule it.  Luckily for me, the California Genealogical Society (CGS) coordinated a family history event this year for Family History Month — plus asked me to help find someone to speak about Jewish immigration through the island — so circumstances worked in my favor.  It was also a "chamber of commerce day" — gorgeous weather, clear blue sky, the kind of day convention and visitors bureaus send out their photographers to take promotional shots.  The ferry ride from Oakland to the island (with a change of boats at the Ferry Building in San Francisco) was very enjoyable, and there was even a great view of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge on the return trip.

Barracks (front) and Hospital (rear)
The station has several points of interest.  CGS posted a helpful map of the station online.  There are informative signs throughout the area, describing not only the buildings (and former buildings) but also activities of people who were held on the island.  Just inside the gated entrance are what remains of employee cottages that were designed by the famed architect Julia Morgan.  It's a shame they didn't survive.

China Cove and the Immigration Station
Down by the water at China Cove was the dock where immigrants arrived (it was torn down years ago).  An administrative building used to be there also, but all that's left now is part of the foundation, showing the footprint of where the building was.  A fire in 1940 destroyed the building and caused the closure of the station.  A small plaza and an Immigrant Heritage Wall have been built at the cove as part of the renovation of the park.  Nearby is the hospital, which is not open to the general public yet but is under renovation and scheduled to open in 2016.  While we were there a group of nurses was given a private tour of the hospital.

Immigration Barracks
The two buildings that are currently open are the main immigration barracks and a World War II mess hall.  Several interesting displays, mostly about Chinese immigration, were set up in the immigration barracks for the family history event.  One of the docents had brought a lot of his own materials to share with attendees, and one of the speakers brought her research documents.  There were also tables with informational material from CGS and the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.

Mess Hall
The mess hall is where the presentations took place.  Grant Din (staff at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation) and Kay Speaks (genealogist) spoke about their Chinese ancestors who were processed at Angel Island.  Roslyn Tonai (executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society) talked about her mother's family, Japanese immigrants who came through here.  And Maria Sakovich (independent researcher) described the paths across Europe and Asia that Jewish immigrants took during World War I and II that led them to Angel Island.  All of the speakers had interesting stories, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to learn from them.

In a nice bit of serendipity a woman who works at the Tenement Museum in New York City happened to be on the island as part of her vacation in California.  She is very interested in genealogy outside of her job, and she was thrilled to find out that there was a family history event going on.  We had trouble deciding who the biggest genealogy geek was.

I am happy I had the opportunity to visit Angel Island because my stepsons' grandfather, who was from Punjab, India, came through the island when he arrived in the United States in the 1920's.  Through research I have learned he was not detained, even though Indians were classifed similarly to Chinese (as "Asians" under the Chinese Exclusion Act), because he came as a student, not an immigrant.  But just knowing that he went through there made the visit special.

CGS has posted several excellent photographs of the day taken by Judy Bodycote on its blog.

The one flaw in my day was the climb from the ferry dock at Ayala Cove to the immigration station.  I swear I was told it was about a mile, but it's actually closer to a mile and a half, and most of it is uphill.  My poor little old knees were not happy.  The next time I go to Angel Island, I think I'll take the tram to the immigration station instead.


  1. Fasinating!
    I would love to find out about my grandfather Paul Robert Colman who was stationed at Angel Island fort Mc Dowell in 1919 and married my grandmother Marion Blanche Noble, one of the first little girls to enter the Mary R. Smith cottages in 1901 at age 3, and passed away in 1924. My Father was relinquished with his sister and adopted in 1925.
    I know almost nothing else except that my father worked at Mt. Wilson observatory 1960-70.

    Elly Utter Rosanova ��

    1. I would start researching your grandfather by reading the page about military research at the National Archives:

      You did not say, but if your grandfather was enlisted, his period of service falls into that which suffered an 80% loss of records due to the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire:

      You should start by requesting his personnel records, but there's a good possibility little or nothing will be available, so plan on also researching the fort itself to learn more about his time there. Also consider contacting the National Archives to ask about other records that could be helpful.

  2. Seems like an awesome place, I also would like to visit this place after hearing your story.

    1. Thanks very much for the feedback. It is well worth a visit. I hope you are able to go in the near future.


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