WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.


Travels With the WPA State Guides: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. I will continue posting a series of articles based upon tours recommended in the guides. See my past travel series essays here.


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The New York City Guide has lots to say about New York’s impressive harbor. Foremost among the sites that it describes are the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. One is little changed, the other almost totally transformed.

It is hard to describe the feeling of awe mixed with patriotic uplift that one gets when approaching that Statue by boat. The Guide does not do it justice:

“New York’s harbor is one of the finest in the world: a magnificent water gate that is well protected, open the year round, deep enough for the largest vessels, and spacious enough to hold the entire United States Navy without obstructing normal traffic …The Upper Bay [is] at once the front door of a nation and the service entrance. Long piers reach out from every shore. Chuffing tugs wrestle determinedly with car floats and clumsy barges, single-minded ferries cut one another’s wakes, tankers with their snake-nests of deck hose veer westward to the Bayonne refineries, and occasionally a deep-chested liner rears through the thin haze, easing her way to a Hudson River berth ….  Well over on the New Jersey side, the Statue of Liberty salutes New York from Bedloe Island.”

In fact, the approach by ferry from Battery Park to the Statue is thrilling. I visited the Statue of Liberty as a child in the early 1950’s and the 65 intervening years have neither dimmed that experience nor diminished any of my subsequent ones. It is grand in every sense. The Guide tells its history:   

“Perhaps the best-known piece of sculpture in America, Bartholdi’s huge female figure of Liberty Enlightening the World, commands [New York Harbor.] The 151-foot figure, atop a 142-foot granite and concrete pedestal, portrays Liberty as a woman stepping from broken shackles. The uplifted right hand holds a burning torch, while the left hand grasps a tablet representing the Declaration of Independence, inscribed “July 4, 1776.” The statue, of hand-hammered copper plates supported by an inner iron frame-work, [has weathered,] covering it with a soft verdigris. A circular [interior] stairway leads from the top of the pedestal to the spiked crown. From sunset to sunrise, ninety-two 1000-watt bulbs floodlight the structure and fifteen more illuminate the torch.

The statue is a gift of the French people to commemorate “the alliance of the two nations in achieving the independence of the United States of America, and attests their abiding friendship.” … Bartholdi chose the site, modeled the statue [and] worked indefatigably to raise funds on both sides of the Atlantic to bring the plan to completion. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer, built the supporting framework. By 1879, one billion francs had been raised by popular subscription.

The statue was formally presented to the United States in Paris on July 4, 1884 [and] shipped in 214 cases, arriving here in May,1885. President Cleveland dedicated the monument on October 28, 1886.”

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Since 1939, the admission fee has increased from 10¢ to $12 but the experience is worth every penny. Approaching on a boat, it is easy to relive  the emotional reactions of the millions of immigrants who first glimpsed it as they sailed into New York Harbor. 

Ellis Island was the entry point for those twelve million immigrants between 1892 and 1951. lt lies just beyond the Statue of Liberty.  In 1939,  you needed special permission and private transportation to visit the island but now there is regular ferry service.  In fact, the ferries are identical to the ones that were used to transfer immigrants from the transatlantic oceanliners’ piers of Manhattan to the island.

In 1939, Ellis Island was still operating as the headquarters of the New York Immigration and Naturalization District. Then (and now) the etxerior  looked much as it did the the 19th century:

“The bulbous towers of some of the island’s buildings give it a faintly Byzantine appearance. The buildings on the east side house administrative offices, a dormitory with space for one thousand beds, a dining hall that can seat a thousand people, rooms for hearings, a recreation room, a room for social welfare workers, a library, and a kindergarten. On the north wall of the dining hall, a mural done by the Federal Art Project depicts the contributions of immigrants to the building of America. The most modern building is a ferry house, near the center of the island, built with PWA funds in 1935.”

Now, however, the interior is a very different. Totally renovated to its original condition, the main buildings are now the National Museum of Immigration. The arrival hall is spectacular. It houses a multi-media museum including dozens of exhibits, registry records of ships and their immigrant passengers, stunning phoographs by Lewis Hine, informative and compelling transcripts of interviews and galleries depicting the immigrant experience in work, education, housing, etc. You could easily spend days there trying to absorb it all. 

The grounds have been replanted and a low granite wall of immigrants’ names was constructed around the perimeter inscribed with many thousands names of immigrants who landed here. The wall was paid for by contributions from their descendants.

 Still to be renovated are the hospital buildings and gymnasium. It is possible to visit them on a “Hardhat Tour” (which I did.) In unrenovated condition, these buildings tell the story of immigration in an equally affecting way.

Although the Guide does not dwell upon it, Ellis Island saw many fewer immigrants after World War I due to nativist, anti-immigration legislation that repealed open immigration and established quotas dependent upon nation of origin. The results were drastic:

“Long the wide-open door to the New World, Ellis Island is now barely ajar. In 1907, the station’s peak year, 1,285,349 immigrants were admitted.The total fell sharply to 326,700 in 1915 and to 23,068 in1933. Strict adherence to quota limits checked the influx.”

                                    NYC Guide   p. 416

Although the writers of the Guide in 1939 did not anticipate the Holocaust, their statistics alone tell the story of the tragedy and US complicity in it in just one sentence:

“Early in 1939 the quotas of Central European countries were filled.” (p. 417 emphasis added)

                                     Fern L. Nesson

                                                                          



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New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.