Angel Island, California

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Shav LaVigne

Angel Island, California

The history of Angel Island, the largest of several islands within San Francisco Bay is extensive.  Among its many uses over the years is its service as the west coast equivalent to the immigration station at Ellis Island.
Angel Island handled the immigration of thousands of people who chose to come to the United States from their native countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Russia, and Asia. From 1910 to 1940 an estimated 500,000 people were processed through the immigration station here including 175,000 Chinese immigrants. With all the people who entered the United States from this facility the Chinese immigration connection is best known as the main story of Angel Island. In the middle of the 19th century immigrants from Guangdong Province in south China began arriving. They were fleeing their homeland that was stricken by both natural and manmade disasters and a rapidly declining rural economy. At first, these immigrants were welcomed as workers to help with the construction of and serve the people working on building the transcontinental railroad system as it began its eastward journey over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As time passed, work was completed and the economy began to slow in 1870, the financial problems of people in the area seemed to be placed at the feet of these highly visible immigrants. Through constant complaints by organized labor, newspapers and politicians, many local and state laws were passed targeting the Chinese. Soon these laws and western state concerns began to be talked about in Washington, DC. Eventually several acts targeting the immigration of people from Asia in general and China in particular, were passed by Congress. The passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act that was signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882, limited immigration based on nationality or race for the first and only time in our country’s history. Despite this and other federal laws that restricted the immigration of Asians, Chinese people continued to seek steerage passage on ships and undertook the long Pacific Ocean crossing of about three weeks including stops in Honolulu, Manila, Yokohama, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Immigrants from China bought their passage with the help of relatives and neighbors and were convinced that they could pay the money back quickly once they were allowed to enter the United States and begin working which was much easier said than done. The ongoing immigration of Chinese immigrants coming here to replace their former countrymen were added to by others coming from Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia during the 1930s. Many were fleeing Nazi rule in Germany and had long difficult journeys through Russia, China, and Japan to board ships bound for the United States. European immigrants usually were able to have their paperwork done aboard the ships and would usually be allowed to disembark while Asians and other immigrants along with people needing quarantine because of medical conditions were ferried immediately to Angel Island.
S.S. Angel Island
Some Chinese immigrants spent months or more held captive within the old wooden buildings of Angel Island before being released to become naturalized citizens or being deported back to China. Some carved their wishes for citizenship and future dreams into the old wooden walls of the immigration station. With China being an ally of the US against Japan during World War II, Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Even with this only 105 Chinese people were allowed to apply for citizenship per year through 1965.
In 1940 the old wooden administration building on Angel Island burnt to the ground. All detainees were moved to a mainland facility until final paperwork was completed. Fortunately, many of their carved messages were saved and can be seen today by visitors to the island. Along with its long history as an immigration station, Angel Island was also the home of the Army’s Fort McDowell and several light stations which helped the use and growth of San Francisco Bay through the years.

Dowell card captions above, top left: Headquarters, Ft. McDowell, Cal. top right: Lighthouse, West Garrison, Ft. McDowell, Cal. bottom left: Officer’s Quarters, East Garrison, Ft. McDowell, Cal. bottom right: Casual Barracks, Fort McDowell, Cal.

View of the West Garrison, Fort McDowell, Cal.
The island is now a California State Park, open for visitors to explore and see the various locations and read many of the messages left by the Chinese during their long and frustrating wait to become citizens.
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In past times there was an annual footrace. Breezy ferry ride to the island, the distance measured just over five miles. Was a participant several times. Being curious to the sites military history it was enhanced by the postcards found of the immigration station.
They still hold fort in my album 45 years later. Thanks for this trip down memory lane.

Thanks for your reply.
With your information I have learned more about the history of the island.

I knew nothing about Angel Island’s history as an immigration station. Wonderful article!

I knew of Angel Island’s being the point of entry for Chinese immigrants, but didn’t realize native Europeans had used it during the Nazi era after journeying overland to Asia and then sailing the Pacific to North America.

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