Angel Island Immigration Station Stabilized with Help from a Save America’s Treasures Grant

Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
San Francisco Bay, Tiburon, California
Year of Award: 2000
National Park Service SAT Grant: $500,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $507,249

“the Ellis Island of the west”
Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island Immigration Station was the western gateway to the United States for immigrants entering the United States from the Pacific Rim countries. Although it is often referred to as “the Ellis Island of the west,” Angel Island’s story is not nearly as well known.

Angel Island is located in San Francisco Bay, one mile south of the town of Tiburon. The island was considered an ideal site to establish an immigration station because of its isolation. By 1905, work on the Angel Island Immigration Station had begun in order to control, manage, and/or detain Asian immigrants. The facility opened on January 21, 1910 and closed in 1940, and over that 30 year period, approximately 175,000 Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese, were detained at Angel Island for as little as two weeks or as long as two years while seeking permission for entry to the U.S.

Over time, many military activities, organizations, and facilities were established at Angel Island. These activities date from the late 1760’s, when the Miwok Indians used the island for hunting and fishing, until 1962, when a Nike missile base located on the island was closed. At that time, the entire island, with the exception of Point Blunt’s Coast Guard facility, was given to the state of California to be developed as a state park. However, it is the period beginning in 1848, with the Gold Rush and an influx of Asian immigrants to America that followed, that the story of the Angel Island Immigration Station begins.

An Immigration Story
The many thousands of Asian immigrants that arrived seeking work and a better life created an unexpected labor issue in the U.S. These immigrants, particularly the Chinese, provided cheap labor for mining, farming, and other industries, including the construction of the first transcontinental railroad that connected the Pacific Coast with the Eastern United States for the first time during the 1860s.

By the 1870’s, competition for jobs, cultural differences, wage issues, and an economic recession, created a steady increase in anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. resulting in the passing of the 1875 Asian Exclusion Act, followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Originally intended to last only 10 years, this law and other similar, subsequent laws created a difficult, challenging, and obstructive process for all Chinese immigrants who had to prove that they were children of American citizens or meet other exceptions to these exclusionary laws and was not repealed until 1943.

This stringent immigration process, specifically for the Chinese, caused many of these immigrants to be held for varying lengths of time at the Angel Island Immigration Station. While immigrants waited to learn the result of their claims for entry, many composed poems about their experiences on the barracks building walls. Poems were sometimes written with ink and brush, but more often were created by carving characters into the wooden walls.

Angel Island Poems

The immigrants’ poignant and thoughtful writings expressed their fear, sadness, and loneliness. Early in the 20th century it was widely believed that the writings were simply graffiti, and therefore, carved characters were filled with putty and walls were painted repeatedly, rendering the writings nearly invisible.

In 1940, the Administration Building on Angel Island burned down and the U.S. Government abandoned the site. Years of neglect caused deterioration of all the buildings, which were constantly exposed to bad weather, humidity and salt air.

An Accidental Discovery
It was not until 1970, when California State Park ranger Alexander Weiss accidently rediscovered the writings with a flashlight while walking through the barracks building, scheduled for demolition. Historians and scholars realized the treasure trove of historical data concealed and nearly obscured by the many layers of paint covering the poems and walls of the barracks building. As a result of this important discovery, the Angel Island Immigration Station Advisory Committee (AIISAC) was formed to begin to explore options for saving the site. In 1976, the AIISAC became the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) and funding to support the project began.

Although the barracks building was opened to the public in 1983, the size and scope of the project dictated continual long-term fundraising efforts to ensure careful restoration and interpretation of the site. The station was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and as study and evaluation continued, a 2000 Save America’s Treasures grant was awarded to the AIISF, matched by funds from the State of California to begin the arduous restoration/conservation process. These monies were used to stabilize the barracks building, translate the poems, and map out the locations of the poems.

Angel Island Today
Today, Angel Island State Park is owned and managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks). The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation works in partnership with the California State Parks to educate the public about Pacific Coast immigration, and to raise funds for the on-going restoration of the Angel Island Immigration Station. In 2008, the barracks building reopened to the public as a museum after completion of a phase I restoration process costing $15,000,000. These funds were raised by AIISF in partnership with the California State Parks. This restoration resulted in visitor access to all floors and rooms where the nearly 200 poems are located. The Save America’s Treasures grant, awarded eight years earlier, assisted with the earliest restoration efforts and stabilization of a building that is historically significant for its role in Asian immigration to the U.S. from the Pacific Rim countries.

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans.  Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architecture Foundation.

Featured photos courtesy of Save America’s Treasures, National Park Service. 



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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Print, Save America's Treasures
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