Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

Looking out a broken window – Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour

I’m obsessed with the decay and restoration of Ellis Island. It started with picture books of the island’s history and was augmented when I discovered ruin porn of the unrenovated hospital buildings on flickr. Because I’m old and tired, I waited until I could take a tour of the unrenovated building instead of visiting illegally. I am also bad at kayaking. But more importantly, the tours help fund the restoration and stabilization on Ellis Island which is a good thing.

The Hard Hat Tour

I bought my ticket online and the price included transport to the island. Ferries leave from New York and New Jersey. Once on the island, I checked in at the Save Ellis Island kiosk and waited for my guide. I recommend coming early so you can explore the main building and skip the crowds. Nobody likes crowds. Dress warmly because the buildings are cold.

The tour started with a visit to the original ferry building where I put on my elegant hard hat before we headed to the unrenovated parts of the tour. Mixed in with the decay is artist JR’s installation Unframed which consists of archival Ellis Island photos recontextualized in the ruins.

JR Photo

The ruins are cool on their own but I like how JR’s installation add a little extra to the experience. I even bought the book. My most recent trip was during a snowstorm and the snow blowing in through the holes in the building was an added bonus. I could tell that everyone on the tour with me (including the guide) was dying of cold but I’m from New Hampshire so I didn’t care.


The buildings are pretty clean but our guide warned us that parts of the building are not as stable as they may appear. I believe it. The buildings were flooded by Superstorm Sandy and Save Ellis Island is still working on repairing the damage.

Infectious disease ward

Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour Tips

  • The ferry to Ellis Island leaves from New York and Jersey. Take an early ferry to beat the crowds and when you leave make sure you get on the right one. Nobody wants accidental Jersey.
  • If coming from New York, everyone will get off at the Statue of Liberty and that is a great time to go to the top of the boat and get a good view.
  • The ferries to the island have snack bars and bathrooms. There are no bathrooms in the abandoned parts of the island.
  • The security staff at the ferry boarding site will hand check your film but only if you throw a huge fit and make it seem like you will ruin their day. This behavior works in other contexts too.
  • The cafeteria serves an affordable lunch with great views of the ocean.
  • Watch the short film Ellis staring Robert DiNero to get a good feel of the abandoned parts.
  • Dress more warmly than you would expect. The buildings on the Hard Hat Tour are cold even in April.

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