In New York Harbor lies Ellis Island, which was once an immigration center so prominent that it was known as the Gateway to America. At the height of its activity between 1901 and 1924, inspectors on Ellis Island processed 12 million newcomers to the United States. One in four Americans today can identify at least one ancestor who entered the country there.

But when the immigration station closed for good in 1954, the buildings stood empty, slowly rotting in the sea air. Then in 1976 when the nearby Statue of Liberty was restored following a fund drive tied to the U.S. Bicentennial, Ellis Island's main building was also fixed up and opened to visitors. Now it's the nation's immigrant museum, loaded with artifacts like photographs, clothing, religious icons, and household goods, which often amounted to all of an immigrant's worldly possessions.

Now a nonprofit organization has enlisted the help of prominent Americans to raise funds so that the rest of the Ellis Island immigration complex can be rehabilitated.

Ordinary Americans are telling the stories of their relatives' sometimes-terrifying experiences there. When steamships from Europe entered New York Harbor, inspectors would sail out to briefly check the paperwork of first- and second-class passengers. But third-class and steerage passengers got quite a different welcome. They were off-loaded and ferried over to Ellis Island for intense scrutiny.

Up to 5,000 immigrants a day were required to walk, one by one, up a flight of stairs to waiting physicians, who administered what became known as the 30-second medical: a physical and mental exam that could spell a quick end to these newcomers' stay in America.

The island's hospital, where some of the unfortunate were quarantined before being deported, is one of the crumbling buildings that will soon be restored.

Among the men and women who made it through the ordeal were actress Claudette Colbert, aviation pioneer Igor Sikorksy, and composer Irving Berlin. It was Berlin who took poet Emma Lazarus's words, which are engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and turned them into a song:

Give me your tired, your poor.
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.