SPOTSWOOD — It is difficult to imagine that the long-abandoned and run-down hospital buildings on Ellis Island once saved the lives of immigrants coming to the United States.
Their historic relevance was enough for one local woman to push for their preservation and maintenance.
Leslie Hansen, a resident of Spotswood who grew up in East Brunswick, recently spent a day working at the buildings that made up the Ellis Island hospital for newly arrived immigrants. Hansen, whose own family made the trip from Denmark to the island, volunteered to help stabilize the buildings in the hope that they will someday be fully restored. Ellis Island is famous as the entranceway used by millions of immigrants who came to the U.S. during the 1800s and early 1900s.
Hansen went as an employee of the J.M. Huber Corp., an Edison-based manufacturing company that donated one of its products to help stabilize the old hospital buildings. The company donated what Hansen described as an "engineered wood product" made of flakes of wood that are glued together with a resin in different patterns. The wood was used to cover broken windows so that rain cannot get into the buildings.
"I think it’s important that we retain these," she said of the buildings. "It’s part of our country’s history and part of my family’s history. So when the opportunity presented itself, I volunteered."
Hansen went there on June 13 along with several other J.M. Huber employees to work with about 300 people from the tourist industry. She said the work done by the volunteers will prevent the building from further deterioration.
"It was an organized volunteer day, and because Huber made the donation of oriented strand board product, we participated in that day," Hansen said. "The material is used as sheeting material in new construction. This product is designed to withstand weather conditions, and used as a sheeting material replacement for plywood.
"This was a temporary fix to help the buildings until they decide how to restore them," she said.
The hospital is made up of about 30 buildings, so just stabilizing them is "really a big task," she said, adding that the National Park Service is in charge of maintaining the buildings.
If an immigrant was examined and found to have a contagious disease, he or she would have to stay at the hospital until cured.
In 1920, Hansen’s mother, Ellen M. Buchanan, came through Ellis Island along with Leslie’s aunt and grandparents. Leslie’s grandfather was a carpenter, but economic conditions in Denmark forced the family to leave for America.
"There was no work, so he decided to join his sister here," Hansen said.
Her grandfather’s sister already lived in Perth Amboy, and Hansen’s family lived with her briefly when they arrived from Denmark.
Hansen did not know a lot of details about the trip over from Denmark but said her grandmother became seasick and her grandfather watched over her in addition to Hansen’s then 1-year-old aunt.
Hansen said the family spent its first night in America at Ellis Island. In fact, when her mother died many years later, she was cremated and her ashes were spread over the water because of the way she came to America.
Her mother’s name was also put on The American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island.
Hansen also said she has a copy of the original steamship manifest bearing her mother’s name from the SS United States.
Hansen was born in 1951 in Perth Amboy and grew up in East Brunswick. She now lives in Spotswood and works as a senior legal assistant in J.M. Huber’s legal department. Her brother still lives in East Brunswick.
The J.M. Huber Corp. recently donated 18,000 square feet of its specialty wood, the company said.
Upon completion of the stabilization project, the life of the buildings will be extended for 10 to 15 years, allowing the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island to implement a viable plan for the buildings’ restoration and beneficial reuse, according to a statement from the company.