America is a very diverse country and California is probably its most diverse state. Everyone knows about Ellis Island in New York City where migrants from Europe once came by ship in the late 19th century or 20th century to live in America and possibly to fulfill the American dream. But what about those migrant coming from the Far East who wanted to live in America finding good paying jobs and raise a family. The first place they will go through when entering the West Coast of the United States was Angel Island inside the San Francisco Bay.
I believe Angel Island is nothing like Ellis Island, its east coast counterpart. If you use Google Earth to find Ellis Island in the map, you will soon discover that the entire island is occupied primarily of the buildings once used to administer immigration, a hospital to treat the sick and ill (the hospital is now abandoned), and other administrative buildings. But Angel Island is nothing like this. It is an actual island and the natural topography of Angel Island is kept as is. This primarily because of the uneven terrain and hills the island has. Ellis Island is flat because it was once landfill filled in with tons of dirt in order to build onto it. Angel Island is a natural small island with wildlife to boot to this day. Park guides will tell you about finding animals such as deer and raccoons. Today, more than 90% of its natural topography and ecology of Angel Island is preserved thanks to the California State Park system now managing its tourism and preservation.
Before Angel Island became what it is now, it has a long history starting with the Miwok Native American tribe that once occupied the island. It was 1775 when the Spaniards first came here led by Juan de Ayala. When California was part of Mexico, Spanish settlers came to this island not to live but to raise cattle and other livestock. But it was not until 1830’s that the Mexicans gave the island its name “Islas de los Angeles” which later evolved to its English translation of Angel Island.
It was during the civil war when Angel Island became a military port. The army established a camp on the island now called Camp Reynolds or the West Garrison. In the later 19th century, the army built Fort McDowell or East Garrison. During the Spanish-American War it became a depot for returning troops who once served the war in the Philippines.
It became an Immigration Station in 1910 and served as such until 1940. Here about one million Asians came through here to enter the US making it known as the Ellis Island of the West. It was also here where the US government quarantined immigrants sometimes for years waiting for entry. For the Chinese who stayed here for a number of years, some of them had carved Chinese writings on the wood walls of the former barracks which later turned out to be Chinese poetry. It was said that this was the beginning of Chinese-American Literature in America. I was hoping to visit this part of the island however, during my visit it was closed to the public. I was hoping to see these Chinese poetry carved in the walls.
It became a military depot again during World War II. In 1964, the Chinese-American community lobbied that Angel Island should become a state landmark. In 1955, the California State Park purchased the entire island little by little until 1959. By 1962, the last of the military personnel had left the island.
I was at Angel Island almost twenty years ago and was not able to see much. I was only there for no more than one hour and did not see much except for Ayala Cove which is where the main dock is. I’m glad that many years later I’ve decided to visit it again and got to see a lot of it this time. It was more than I expected.