Ellis IslandLots of caring about family history defines the National Park Service Museum during an Ellis Island tour in New York – and will again now recovered from Hurricane Sandy. My National Park Service tour guide, Andrea Boney, in 2012 has ties; her relatives arrived through Ellis Island from the West Indies. And it turns out 33 percent of the staff have Ellis Island-arriving relatives. Authentic voices and heartfelt connections don’t show up in that abundance everywhere I travel.

I have ties too–grandparents arriving from Germany and Hungary via Ellis Island. Their names are inscribed on the Wall of Honor connecting me emotionally to Ellis Island and Lady Liberty.

NATJA AwardThis is one of three stories adapted from an award-winning newspaper feature by TMOM Christine Tibbetts experienced and published before Hurricane Sandy caused massive damage. The others are: Contemplating Ancestors at Statue of Liberty and Finding Grandmother at Ellis Island.

Touring Ellis Island

Three hours felt skimpy for an Ellis Island tour because this is a big place, inside and out, with lots of engaging displays, and more in the works to explore once the island reopens after repairing the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Most recent estimates say that may not happen until 2014.

Start off with the half-hour documentary of real news footage to feel the emotions of arriving men, women and children. That makes the exhibits personal.

The newest opportunity pre-hurricane was three months old when I visited — “The Peopling of America” before the 1892 opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Station.

In the works? The plan when I was there included thoughtful-sounding exhibits about immigration from 1945 to the present.

Ellis IslandChina, the Philippines and Latin America, Park Service guide Boney told me, are the countries of most origin now. She’s enthusiastic, and a supervisor in the Division of Interpretation and visitor services. Hope she’s still sharing the history when the attraction reopens.

Italy was the number one country of origin in the 1890s, with the second largest number coming from Russia.

Real voices tell the stories through 1,500 oral history recordings about arriving in this country.

Thoughtful in Manhattan

Holding open a heavy door for a family with a toddler in a stroller is good anywhere, but for me at Ellis Island with the family appearing to have traveled from the Middle East, I was touched.

Travel’s good for that, and this family in the Ellis Island entry reminded me of a profound moment years ago at the USS Arizona in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor when a Japanese woman silently shared her lei with me to commemorate another moment in time.

Engage with the Flag of Faces at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum by e-mailing a photo, and making a contribution, before you go. Huge wall of digitized photographs in the massive lobby, colored to look like the American flag.

Call up the names you submitted with computers in that lobby, and see them on the massive flag. That’ll start your tour feeling connected.

Wish I’d known to do so before I left home. Mailing photos works too.

Track Down Your Ancestors

Here’s something else that’s do-able at home: tracking down your ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island. Seems that 100 million Americans have such roots.

Ellis IslandThe website EllisIsland.org is the place to start and it’s free if you search from home. You can launch the same search from the museum, but there it will cost $5 for 30 minutes.

Find your family and their ship and for $25 each, you can get a two-page laminated printout of the ship’s manifest with their names. The years to search: 1892 – 1924.

I say go into the history center to feel the joy of families finding ancestors at any of the 41 computer stations. Trained staff help searchers, and they seemed to really care too.

They’re bubbling about the 107-year-old woman who found her own name. She had arrived at age 7.

Christine Tibbetts is a New Jersey native living now in Georgia. Her 2012 newspaper feature on experiencing New York through immigrant eyes received a Silver travel writing award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.