William Williams was a New York lawyer and the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island for two terms, 1902-1905 and 1909-1913, and the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity from 1914 to 1917. His papers contain correspondence, reports, notices, photographs, scrapbooks, and other items from his terms at Ellis Island and at the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity. Ellis Island materials include photographic portraits of immigrants in native dress by Augustus F. Sherman and interior and exterior views of the immigration station by Edwin Levick and others.
Biographical/historical: William Williams was a New York lawyer and the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island for two terms, 1902-1905 and 1909-1913, and the Commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity from 1914 to 1917.
Williams was selected by Theodore Roosevelt to be the Commissioner of Immigration in 1902. When he arrived at Ellis Island, the conditions on the island and the treatment of immigrants were shocking. The dining room was rarely cleaned, many people ate from the same bowl before it was washed, no utensils were given to the immigrants, and the grounds were full of rubbish. The immigrants were treated roughly by the inspectors, often robbed, were charged exorbitant prices for food boxes for train travel, and some were forced to work in the kitchens without pay.
Williams instituted changes immediately. He posted notices stating that all immigrants were to be treated equally and with "kindness and decency." Smoking was banned in all buildings on the island. He changed service contractors and created standards for the food, money exchange, and baggage services, and he investigated all missionaries and immigrant aid organizations that came to the island. He made the island welcoming by planting grass, shrubs, and trees, and erecting awnings. Shelters were also erected on the barges and ferries that brought the immigrants to the island.
While Williams was a decent and honest Commissioner concerned with the welfare of the immigrants in his charge, he favored strict immigration restrictions. He felt that the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were of a lower quality than the previous groups from the west and north of Europe. He felt that this new wave of immigrants contained Europe's castoffs, who were unintelligent and undesirable, and that the United States was not required to provide for them. He strongly enforced the few laws that governed immigration (mostly pertaining to criminals, diseased individuals, and those likely to become public charges) and came under intense scrutiny by the foreign language papers in New York. The criticism in the press led to official inquiries into Williams' work on Ellis Island, and in 1905 he resigned his post.
After his resignation, Williams returned to his law practice, but was requested to return to his post at Ellis Island in 1909. The Commissioner between Williams' terms was Robert Watchorn. Watchorn maintained Williams' changes to the conditions at Ellis Island, but he did not believe in restricting immigration. He was asked to step down because of his open-door policies and Williams agreed to return to the island.
Williams continued to address corruption on the island and enforce restrictive policies during his second term. He attacked the steamship companies for creating false manifests and attempting to land sick or indigent immigrants. He instituted fines for those that did not adhere to his policies. Possibly his most controversial policy was instituted in 1909. He required that every person landing on Ellis Island have $25 and a train ticket to his/her final destination. This regulation and his views on Southern and Eastern Europeans led to more scrutiny and criticism from the press. Williams resigned in June 1913.
Williams was nominated for the position of Commissioner of the New York City Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity in December 1913 and he took office in 1914. His work at this department was not as controversial as that as Ellis Island. He worked to reduce the cost to the citizens of New York City of gas, water, and electricity. He was successful in abolishing a number of unnecessary offices within the department, but his suggestions to replace gas lights with electricity was met with hostility and eventually dismissed. He also fought to keep New York City's water supply clean and free of pollution.
Williams resigned his office in December 1917 and received a commission as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ordnance Department's Procurement Division in Washington in 1918. In 1919 he returned once again to his law practice. He died in 1947.
Content: The William Williams Papers contain correspondence, reports, notices, photographs, scrapbooks, and other items from Williams' terms as Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island and correspondence, reports, minutes, and additional items from his tenure as Commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity. Williams' Ellis Island papers include correspondence with presidents, mayors, and other officials, clippings and notes on Williams' administration, correspondence and reports on incidents during his administration. His scrapbooks contain 44 interior and exterior views of the immigration station by Edwin Levick and others. In addition, his papers contain a set of 39 portraits of immigrants in native dress taken by photographer Augustus F. Sherman.
Williams' papers as Commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity contain correspondence, memoranda, and reports on his work to reduce the cost of providing New York City with water, gas, and electricity, protecting the city's water sources from pollution, and providing alternate sources of water for the city.
The Bering Sea Arbitration series contains thank you letters to Williams for writing an article for the American Journal of International Law on his role as associate counsel to the United States government in the Bering Sea Arbitration with Great Britain in 1892.
Acquisition: Donated by the Estate of William Williams, September 1947
Creation/production credits: Processing information: Revised by Megan O'Shea.
Extent: 6.81 linear feet (11 boxes, 1 oversized folder)