Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My head is full of history

It's been a busy ten days or so, between two days at Ellis Island, the night tour of the Fort Hancock garrison, and my dad being in the hospital for a knee replacement. Dad's doing fine, now in rehab, and apparently doing much better than the docs and therapists expected. The other day he was marveling at the negative attitudes of the 'old people' there, most of whom are probably younger than he. Thankfully, he's never been a complainer. He'll speak up when something's wrong, but he won't make a mountain out of a molehill.

So... Ellis Island. There's nothing quite like reporting to work at a national monument, especially after driving over the bridge from Liberty State Park. I park in a lot behind the Ferry Building and walk a covered passageway to the Registry Building, and past the National Park Service offices to a smaller office for Save Ellis Island. There's plenty to do before the first visitor ferry arrives: sign in, photocopy handouts, get a walkie-talkie from the NPS interpretation office, and then walk out to the empty first floor of the museum to put out signage and arrange the information desk just so. And then when the visitors arrive, there's generally a stream of people with questions that may or may not be related to the Ferry Building:
  • When's the next ferry to New York? (We have a handy sign to show them.)
  • Where do I find my grandfather's name on the wall? (Outside, behind this building, take those doors over there.)
  • Where's the restroom? (Doors right behind us, to the right.)
  • Where can I look at immigration records? (What years? Between 1892 and 1924, go to the history center through the doors behind us. Before 1892, check After 1924, there's microfilm at the National Archives.)
  • Is there someplace to eat? (Cafe is on the opposite side of the building, but no, you can't bring beverages back into the museum.)
  • The Ellis Island movie in Theater 1 -- what's that about? (Uh, Picasso?)
So far I've met two of the more experienced volunteers, and by the time our day ends at around 4 p.m., we've become fast friends. The mornings tend to be slower than the afternoons, so we've had a good chance to get acquainted before the 11:30 tour. So far I've met two retired grade school principals and a marketing professional who's pretty much in the same boat as I am, career wise. Tremendously helpful and bright, all seem to share a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor; I'll get along fine.

We also work with the rangers to a lesser degree -- there's always at least one behind the larger information desk next to us, available to answer any questions we can't address. Some of them are a real hoot; one the other day was regaling us with stories of her days at Gateway National Recreation Area and strange things that wash ashore at the park's beaches. Another one of the rangers was actually a Save Ellis Island volunteer before getting his job; a veteran of a New York law firm, he said he loves his ranger job (but for the salary) and would never go back.

Already, I can sense that I'm picking up factoids pretty quickly, though I'll need to do some studying. I also need to take a closer look at the Registry Building exhibits; I think I'll be with a ranger for orientation the next time I'm out there, so that should help. One of my cohorts tells me that January will be very quiet (who wants to take a boat through New York Harbor in the dead of winter?), so it will be the perfect time to start doing actual tours. I'll just need to figure a good way to morph the outside part of the discussion to the interior.

So far so good -- I can see I'm really going to like this. At least till the novelty wears off.

And then there was the Garrison tour at Fort Hancock last Friday. As expected, we were part of a small group -- four adults and two kids, plus the Park Historian and a young ranger. Starting at the base theater, we walked along Officers' Row and then back along the enlisted mens' barracks and mess halls, finally looping back to History House for hot cider and cookies. Since it was a small group, it was more of a discussion, including ample editorializing about the state of decay rampant around the fort. Notably, the young ranger was animated about the condition of the officers' houses and the work he and another ranger do to 'keep the floors from turning to pudding from leaks during rain storms.' In its infinite wisdom, the Army had torn off the slate rooves and replaced them with tarpaper shingles two years before handing over the property to the Park Service; those rooves are now beyond their useful lives, with predictable results. Ugh.

I learned a heck of a lot more about the fort, including the location of some long-gone buildings and lighthouses, as well as the background of a huge battery that was in the midst of being built in the 1850s-60s before being deemed obsolete and torn down. While there aren't a lot of prominent "firsts" or "bests" that would distinguish Fort Hancock in the mind of the common person, it's a great representation of coastal defense and served as a fine deterrent to an attack on New York Harbor.

As the rangers noted the lack of recognition and funding for the Fort's restoration, it occurred to me that it might make for a great documentary. New Jersey Network recently ran a fantastic piece on Morristown National Historic Park; I'd heard about it from one of the rangers up there, who was also bemoaning the lack of visitors to that site. Coincidentally, I did some work with the documentary's producer about 10 years ago, and I know he not only feels strongly about New Jersey history, he's fantastic about drawing the best out of a story.

Of course, as government employees, rangers can't go lobbying for funds or contributions for restoration work, so they probably can't be too pushy about public relations projects either. However, that doesn't mean that an interested citizen can't put two and two together and, perhaps, suggest that a documentary filmmaker capture the history inherent in the place, stressing the Jersey angle. If he happens to see the decay, well, let him come to his own conclusions. In any case, if people see the piece, more people get curious and visit and, hopefully, call for change.

So, after a long chat with the historian and the other rangers (including another one who recognized me from our visit last weekend...), the historian gave me his card in case I could get in touch with the producer. I'm working on a pitch right now, and hoping he'll remember working with me so he'll take the idea seriously. (One would hope he'd recall a woman who convinced a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company to stand in the middle of a swamp, but that's another story.).

The big thing for me here is the excitement I felt about the possibilities -- and seeing where my skills and experience can do some good. All of that corporate promotional stuff I suffered through has to have some sort of meaning and positive outcome. In my corporate career, I often wondered if I could ever be an effective advocate for a client without feeling like a total flack -- whether I'd ever be able to be less than cynical about what I was representing. Could I be passionate about advocating for the construction of a new office building, or what a great employer a given company is? It all seemed really fake, and it's hard for me to be sincere about stuff that won't make a positive and lasting impact. This kind of stuff -- preserving history, telling the stories of seemingly small but meaningful people and places -- can have impact.

There's a germ of a full-time job in all of it. Again, though: the challenge comes in finding a way to make a living while doing it.


  1. I think my Great Grandmother Jennie McGoran came over in 1880 or so. I need to do some research. Think they didn't come through Ellis. My Grandfather Charles Festa did, but I have no idea what year...

    You must get goosebumps everytime you go there.

  2. There's a decent chance that your great grandmother would have come through Castle Garden in Manhattan. You can check at , where they have more info on people who immigrated before Ellis Island opened in the early 1890's.

    And go to and click on "passenger search" to look for your grandfather. Keep in mind that he might have anglicized his first name on entry, so you might need to look for Carlo or something like that.

    And yeah, it's a special feeling going there. The route I take into the building is actually the reverse path that the immigrants took (I'm going UP a corridor they would have walked DOWN), but it's easy to imagine the mixture of relief/confusion/exhaustion/anticipation they must have been feeling as they moved along with the crowd.