Syracuse man teaches the history of Ellis Island

Mar 15, 2012

On rainy days, Dennis Heaphy would take the 15 minute long ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for work.

 “The water is a little choppy right now.”

A fourth-generation tinsmith, Heaphy grew up working in his family’s shop on Geddes St., in Syracuse. You might remember the iconic tin man that stood outside the shop for 70 or so years.

“It could withstand someone running into it with a car.”

Heaphy started working in the shop at 11 years old, making chimney caps, roofing metal, even zinc casket liners used to seal coffins.

In 1999, Heaphy came down to New York City with his brother and visited the Statue of Liberty for the first time. 

“We were both raised in the tinsmithing business. And we’re inside the statue and we’re looking up at all the intricacies of her robe. And from a tinsmithing standpoint, it’s fascinating.”

Two months later, Heaphy had gotten a job through friends, turning a room at the Ellis Island museum into a theatre.

“The same people who oversee the Island, oversee the statue, and so one day I asked, ‘What do I have to do to become the resident tin smith for the statue?’ And I’m sure he’s going to laugh in my face. Two weeks later, he wants me to repair the windows in the crown.”

At that time, tourists were allowed up into the statue. So that made it nearly impossible for Heaphy to get any work done. His solution? Spend the night.

“I just worked till I couldn’t work anymore. Used my Carhart and you’re laying up there and the statue is moving back and forth and you really only notice it when you try to be still.”

Heaphy says he's the only person to have ever slept up there.

“There were points where I was so intent on the work, that I would forget where I was. It was almost like I was back in the shop. And then suddenly I looked up from the window and saw the tablet that she’s holding in her hand. And started to giggle, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the Statue of Liberty.’ It was wonderful.”

But Heaphy also described the whole experience as...kind of lonely.

“My uncle and I…we were very close. I was the tinsmith, he was the boss. But he died in ’97. And the work that I did on the statue was in ’99. So I really wish I could have shared it with him.  It would have been more of a feather in his cap than it would have been in mine.”

Today, Heaphy is still involved in the ongoing restoration of the Statue and Ellis Island facilities, he does some consulting and the occasional tinsmithing job.

Heaphy’s also maintaining his other passion – acting. He co-developed a theatre program at Ellis Island, where he would play the part of a Russian immigrant…and tourists would participate in a hearing, to decide whether Heaphy’s character was allowed to stay in America. 

You can’t see this program at Ellis Island anymore, but Heaphy is making it available to the rest of the country. 

“Not everybody has the opportunity to come to the Statue of Liberty or to Ellis Island. Most people don’t."

Over the last 11 years, Heaphy says he’s has performed his one-man reenactment show in about 60 schools.  And Heaphy says sometimes the reenactment is more than just a history lesson.  

“I did a program for an inner city school one time and there was 80 students, and at least a third of them couldn’t speak English. And they were being interpreted to by their fellow classmates. So a lot of these immigration issues are very close to their hearts. After the verdict was read, there was 80 students jumping up and screaming. And these kids were trying to high five me on my way out."

With Heaphy’s family having lived in Syracuse for the last 164 years, he says Syracuse is his heritage.  And he enjoys helping others connect …whether it be to their own past…or even to each other.   

“My family has a very long history in one city, so it’s easier for me to see that connection. But the students need to have the opportunity to connect to the past. And I feel that I’m giving them that opportunity.”

Heaphy will be speaking about the Irish history of Syracuse, especially in the Tipperary Hill area, Thursday evening at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.

For more information on Dennis Heaphy, visit his website.