OVERLOOKED PEOPLE WHO DESERVE TO BE REMEMBERED

Solving the Mystery of Arne Pettersen, the Last to Leave Ellis Island

Megan Smolenyak

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Annie Moore and Arne Pareli Pettersen, first and last through Ellis Island, seen together for the first time

Annie Moore and Arne Pettersen were Ellis Island’s bookends. An Irish teenager, Annie was the first to arrive when the immigration processing center opened its doors on January 1, 1892. 62 years later on November 12, 1954, Norwegian seaman Arne would be the last to depart. Both experienced a fleeting moment of fame before falling through the cracks of history for decades to come.

Annie Moore and her brothers at Ellis Island (colorized)

Annie re-emerged in the late-1980s in conjunction with the re-opening of Ellis Island as a museum site, but working on a PBS documentary in 2002, I discovered that the Annie being touted had been born in Illinois rather than Ireland. That was the easy part. Finding Ellis Island’s true Annie Moore would take me another four years.

Now that Annie’s story was known, it was only natural that I would turn my attention to Arne. Had he become an American citizen? Did he return to Norway? Maybe he settled elsewhere or died at sea. I had to know what happened to him.

But like Annie, he was evasive — at least in part for the same reason: his name was so common, especially when you considered all the potential spellings (Pettersen, Petersen, Petterson, Peterson, etc.). Time after time, I scoured both online and offline resources, but came up empty or uncertain. Until now. Years later, Ellis Island’s last has finally surrendered his secrets.

Arne’s Departure

Over time, Ellis Island’s raison d’être evolved from processing immigrants to detaining them. As a seaman, Arne had journeyed to and from America six or seven times by his own estimate, but in 1954 he overstayed his shore leave. Non-immigrant crewmen were allowed to remain in the U.S. for up to 29 days, but by the time a warrant for his arrest was signed, he had been here six months. Officers Trief and Harri arrested him in Brooklyn and sent him to Ellis Island. At his hearing, he applied for the privilege of voluntary departure, saying that this was the first time he had stayed longer than permitted and he would ship…

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Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)