July 19, 2000 : Column on Treasures Visit to Ellis Island

Talking It Over

Hillary Rodham Clinton

July 19, 2000

On Jan. 1, 1892, a 15-year-old from Ireland arrived in the United States with her two brothers. When she stepped off the boat onto dry land, Annie Moore became the first immigrant to pass through the new federal processing facility at Ellis Island. This week, as I toured the island, I thought about Annie and tried to imagine what it must have been like for her and the millions of others who followed -- many of whom arrived in America speaking no English and carrying no more than the clothes on their backs, their hearts filled with hope.

In the 62 years between the day Annie walked through the Main Hall and 1954, when the federal government closed its most famous port of entry, over 12 million immigrants passed through those gates, profoundly affecting the country that they came to call home. Today, nearly 100 million -- or 40 percent -- of all Americans trace their ancestry back to relatives whose first taste of America came at Ellis Island.

What a sad distinction then, when in 1997, Ellis Island topped the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States. Although the Main Building had been restored to house the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the remaining buildings were in a state of decay, fenced off from visitors.

In explaining the designation, the Trust warned, "If (these) buildings are allowed to crumble, the dramatic story of this powerful symbol of the American Dream will remain only half told." This week, thanks to the Save America's Treasures program, a unique public-private partnership of the White House Millennium Council, the National Trust and the National Park Service, I was able to announce a new Save America's Treasures grant and generous private donations that will ensure the entire story of Ellis Island, and the families who passed through its gates, is told.

As part of the White House Millennium Council's celebration of the new millennium, over 550 historic sites, collections, objects and documents have been designated as official projects of the Save America's Treasures program. Over the course of the past two years, we have received nearly $50 million in private donations, supplementing the $60 million in federal grants that have been awarded to help communities around the country save their precious sites and objects.

In an effort to increase public awareness of the urgent need to protect and preserve these projects -- each of which is threatened in some way -- I have visited 41 of them, from Louis Armstrong's Archives in New York, and the pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico, to the Breed Street Shul in California. Earlier this month, it was my husband's turn when he traveled to a site just 3 miles -- and 150 years -- from the White House. Anderson Cottage, which headed this year's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, is where Abraham Lincoln and his family retreated in the summers to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the White House.

Located on the grounds of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, the cottage where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most significant Lincoln sites in the country. There, for a time, our 16th president found escape from the pressures of war as he sat beneath the canopy of a still-standing copper beech tree, reading the poetry he loved, or following his son Tad up into the tree's great limbs.

The war was never far from Lincoln's mind, even at Anderson Cottage. It was there that he mustered the strength and resolve to lead the country during its darkest hours. Yet, though Americans know Mount Vernon, Monticello and Hyde Park, few have ever heard of Anderson Cottage. And though those other historic sites have been meticulously restored and maintained, Lincoln's getaway -- which also served as a summer retreat for Presidents Buchanan, Hayes and Arthur -- suffers today from more than 150 years of heavy use. On his recent visit, the President made two announcements that will help save Anderson Cottage -- and its wealth of history -- from disappearing forever. First, the President designated the cottage and the surrounding 2.3 acres, including the copper beech, a national monument. And secondly, he awarded a matching Save America's Treasures grant to help restore the site to its mid-19th-century appearance.

In making these announcements, the President captured precisely what the Save America's Treasures program is all about when he said, "Our compact with the past must always be part of our commitment to the future." When we save Ellis Island and Anderson Cottage, we save more than a historic site. We save the powerful ideas and values that define us as a nation. We save the notion that in our diversity, and in our commitment to freedom and equality, we find our strength -- not just for now, but for many generations to come.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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