NEW YORK - Ominous gray skies greeted us as we stepped off the ferry at Liberty Island.
My husband, stepdaughter and I walked up the dock and got our first up-close glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. She towered before us, magnificent in weathered blue-green copper.
The sight rendered me speechless. My chest tightened. I fought to hold the camera steady. And I wondered if this was how my great-grandfather felt the first time he saw the Statue of Liberty.
I never met Peter William Tatko. He died before my birth. I knew him only as the tall, balding, bug-eyed man I'd seen in a handful of pictures and the hard-
drinking, boisterous quarry owner I'd heard about from my grandfather. But he was the reason I was here.
More than a decade ago, I began tracing my family roots, a pastime that has grown so popular in the United States that the country now has more than a quarter of a million genealogical societies. Eight years ago, while tracing the life of my great-grandfather, I hit a wall. I knew he had left Poland at age 18, arriving at Ellis Island in April 1901. Tatko wasn't a common name. Yet a search of passenger records turned up only a Jan Tatko.
Stymied, I went to my great-aunt Aggie.
"I forgot all about that," she said with a laugh. "You see, my father stole a cow ..."
The son of a butcher who had fallen on hard times, my great-grandfather had stolen a cow to help feed his 11 siblings.
A hanging offense, it forced him to flee Poland. Because an arrest warrant was issued, he couldn't leave under his own name.
So, he used his father's travel documents, which is how Peter became Jan.
Hearing that story unearthed a hundred questions: Was he scared? How did he fare on the sea voyage to America? Was he on deck when they sailed into New York Harbor? Did he worry about being denied entry at Ellis Island?
Although those questions will always remain unanswered, the trip to Liberty and Ellis islands in October at least gave me a chance to learn about the crucial turning point in his life.
From pedestal to torch, the Statue of Liberty stands 305 feet and 1 inch high. It's striking to realize that something this colossal could have been designed and built in the 1880s and remain standing 125 years later.
Lady Liberty is fitting as a symbol of immigration, considering she herself arrived from foreign shores. Political repression in France led Edouard de
Laboulaye to commission sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi to create a gift that would honor the American ideals of freedom and liberty.
Two decades later, Bartholdi's statue was assembled on a small island in New York Harbor and then dedicated Oct. 28, 1886.
That sliver of history barely grazes the surface of the Statue of Liberty's backstory. A museum inside the pedestal chronicles her rise and importance with artifacts, drawings and revelations that make the sometimes 90-minute wait to enter well worthwhile.
(Consider purchasing the audio tour, new this year; listening to observations from immigrants - including one who thought the Statue of Liberty was modeled after Christopher Columbus - is a fascinating way to pass the time.)
Inside, we first saw the original torch, sitting upright in the center of a two-story room. A rusted internal structure forced the replacement of this torch in 1984.
A light shone from beneath a few dozen panes of glass, designed to look like a wavering flame. At its base, interwoven corncobs and tobacco leaves made from copper formed what looked like a turret.
"Wouldn't it be cool if you could walk on the torch?" my stepdaughter, Dana, said. A moment later, we discovered a picture showing men doing just that. The torch was open to visitors until a 1916 explosion by a saboteur.
We learned enough fascinating facts to fill two books as we explored the museum: how the crown has seven rays to represent each continent, how the face was modeled after Bartholdi's mother, and how the statue might have resembled a man wearing just a fig leaf had one of Bartholdi's early drawings been accepted.
Most surprising to me, a small scale model of the statue, sliced open at the back, revealed what looked like a miniature Eiffel Tower - with good reason. Turns out Alexandre Gustave Eiffel had used his famous tower design to provide the internal support for the statue.
Better still, you can peek at those internal fixings through a lit window at the top of the pedestal.
The statue also offers some breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, if you don't mind climbing. The pedestal's observation deck requires a hike up 168 steps. (An elevator to this deck was out of service during our visit.) With no elevator access, the crown is an even greater haul at 354 steps. Tickets to the crown are available in limited numbers and sell out months in advance.
We got our first taste of immigrant life as we prepared to leave for Ellis Island. The line for the ferry snaked several hundred people deep. One ferry came and went before we found room on board.
Yet, our hour-long wait paled by comparison to the five hours most immigrants endured while being processed at Ellis Island.
The ferry deposited us at the same entrance where immigrants arrived via ferries and barges from 1900 to 1924. Walking through the main doors, I felt a tremor of awareness that this, too, was the path my great-grandfather likely took in 1901.
But that in no way prepared me for the first sight of the Great Hall, once the Registry Room where more than 22 million people were inspected. A few benches line the perimeter of a cavernous room that once held rows and rows of benches and pedestals. From these pedestals, inspectors would decide if immigrants were fit to enter the country or required further review. Two U.S. flags hang from the ceiling. From the windows, the Statue of Liberty can be seen in the distance.
A black-and-white photo of the room in its heyday shows a scene reminiscent of a human cattle call. Immigrants arriving here were third-class and steerage passengers. (The more affluent first- and second-class immigrants were inspected onboard the ships.) Inspectors questioned them about everything from their occupation and destination to the amount of money they carried.
During this questioning, my great-grandfather continued his ruse as Jan but slyly noted that family members always called him Piotr. "Here in America," the inspector told him, "you would be Peter."
And so, he was able to reclaim an Americanized version of his name.
Ellis Island became known as either the Isle of Opportunity or Isle of Tears, depending on decisions made in the Registry Room, but in reality only 2 percent of immigrants were denied entry.
That didn't necessarily make it easy for those being processed.
An exhibit focusing on medical inspections contained photographs, inspection cards and instruments - including a cringe-worthy buttonhook used to peel back eyelids and check for any contagious disease that could deny an immigrant entry.
Portions of actual graffiti-laden walls remain. The "Treasures from Home" display contains more than 2,000 possessions, ranging from clothes to toys, that immigrants left behind.
A 30-minute film gives a vivid account about what brought the immigrants to America and what they experienced at Ellis Island.
The American Family Immigration History Center allows visitors to search the 22 million-plus passenger records.
One of the most striking features at Ellis Island lies outside, behind the main building. A Wall of Honor circles in toward the harbor, the city skyline beyond it, and contains the names of about 600,000 immigrants whose descendants contributed donations to have their names inscribed there.
We walked along the wall: So many people, so many stories. No doubt they all had a compelling reason for coming to America.
As the ferry departed Ellis Island, I stood on the deck and watched as the city came closer and closer. This, too, was a path my great-grandfather would have taken, the final path to a new life in a new country.
And to think he was on it because of a cow.