The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are now closed for security reasons following the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, but the reach of America's immigrant experience extends beyond museums and monuments, and deep into the spirit of our nation.
"There's no place else like America," says 95-year-old Olaf Pedersen, while sitting in the living room of his Kenmore home. "It's a good country, it will always be in my heart."
Pedersen came to America 78 years ago from a small fishing village in Norway. He arrived on a ship that went to Ellis Island and the first thing he recognized was the Statue of Liberty.
"I knew it was big, but until I saw it, I never realized how big," he said. He was 17, had $20 in his pocket and spoke no English. What he did possess was the immigrant's dream: hope for a better future.
Memories of his Ellis Island experience faded over the years, at least until this summer, when his grandson, John Brennan, clicked onto the Web site, www.ellisislandrecords.org" target = "NEW"> www.ellisislandrecords.org operated by the American Family Immigration History Center, part of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc.
That's the organization that renovated Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty during the 1980s. It raised more than $500 million in private donations for that project and then spent millions more to develop the Internet project.
Brennan was fascinated by retracing the steps of his grandfather's journey to America.
"It made him come alive to me in a way like never before," said Brennan, who is in his late 30s. "It gave me a sense of what Ellis Island was all about, and what it meant to my grandfather.
"It's a great thing to be able to look back and see what he did. I found his name on a list of ship passengers on the Web site. I also found a picture of the ship he came on."
Millions of other people are sharing that experience every month. The Web site opened last April, and has had more than two billion hits, according to the foundation. So many hits in the beginning, in fact, that it became jammed and nearly inaccessible. Web traffic to the site dropped dramatically in the first few weeks after the attacks, but has resumed to about normal.
Another problem for early users of the site was knowing the correct spelling of the names of their ancestors and also the dates when they came to U.S. shores.
Steve Briganti, president of the foundation, who claims to be "computer illiterate," said that the foundation hired programmers to solve the problems. Now, the site is easier to navigate and also offers help in finding the correct spelling of names.
"It's easier now and it's faster but you have to have some information before coming to the site," said Briganti in a phone interview. "Try to find out the right spelling of the first and last names, and the dates.
" Generally, this is all about being a detective," Briganti said. "You have to be willing to spend some time and do some searching."
On the site, family "detectives" can set up "scrapbooks" for different family members. Also, they can purchase a photo copy of the original passenger list for their ancestors. That list, called a "ship manifest," includes the passenger's name, home country, date of departure, height, weight and other information.
"When you do one of these searches, there's just a special feeling that comes over you," Briganti said.
Most of those listed came to America during the peak immigration years between 1892 and 1924.
"A lot of those people went to Buffalo," Briganti said, noting that at the time, Buffalo was a leading manufacturing center and seaport.
"It's a very emotional thing when you find the name of a relative," Briganti said. "It's like discovering your own history."
That's what happened to Penny Klein.
Her great-grandfather, Giovanni Marranca, died in the mid-1960s, before she was born, and she was always interested in his life.
He was born in Sicily and came to America in 1912. A few years ago, Klein, 32, visited Ellis Island during a trip but was unable to locate her great-grandfather's name there.
After hearing about the Web site, she found his history on the computer page.
"When I saw his name, it brought tears to my eyes," said Klein, who lives in Buffalo. "I (felt) that after all these years I finally found him."
The discovery went beyond a long-lost relative and became a personal revelation.
"It's a real testimony to who I am," Klein said.
Using the Web site
Logging on to www.ellisislandrecords.org is easy. The only thing you have to do is type in the first and last name of your ancestor; then click the "search archives" button.
This takes you to another page that lists all immigrants with the same name, the country they came from, their age on arrival and the date they came to America.
You then click on the name for more information, but you must first go to a sign-in page. There you must register, if you are a first-time user.
The registration form asks for your name and address. You must also pick a user name and password for future access to the site.
The next page features an individual passenger record that includes the person's name, ethnic origin, place of residence, date of arrival, age, gender, marital status, the name of the ship and port of departure.
One last page offers an original copy of the same information on a "ship manifest," as it written by hand at Ellis Island.
Access to the Web site is free. There is a charge, ranging from $25 to $35, to buy a passenger list. Some of the information may also be printed out on a computer.