Castle Garden: The Forgotten Gateway
Pre-dating the immigrant landing station of Ellis Island by nearly forty years is the almost-forgotten Castle Garden of the “Old Immigration.”
Today, Castle Garden swarms with tourists who come to buy ferry tickets for an excursion to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. Only a few observe the stone walls that surround them; almost none go inside the modest exhibit gallery at the entrance to the castle. But those who pause within that quiet space will learn a startling fact: they are standing in a citadel that in bygone years was the great threshold to America for millions of migrants, a place where such travellers paused before journeying onward to new homes and livelihoods. Castle Garden is the true golden door to which poetess Emma Lazarus refers in her 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus:” “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door!”
Castle Garden was established at a time when immigration affairs were left to the control of the states; the federal government concerned itself only with narrow questions of immigration as they arose, such as naturalization, sanitary conditions aboard ships, and the tabulation of foreign passengers entering American seaports.
The state most affected by immigration throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century was New York. This phenomenon was due to New York’s position as North America’s busiest seaport during the heyday of European-American transatlantic shipping. Immigrants and goods bound for most American points passed through this hub of commerce and trade.
During Castle Garden’s years as an immigrant landing depot, 1855—1890, 8.2 million immigrants were received there. Contact the National Archives, which holds the ships’ passenger lists for the period, 1855—1890, to find information on ancestors who entered the country through Castle Garden. Research, however, can be difficult, as the records are still being indexed.
Castle Garden, located at the tip of lower Manhattan in Battery Park, was constructed between the years 1807 and 1811 as part of a chain of harbor forts that could defend New York City against a naval attack. It was first known as the West Battery, but was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815 after George Clinton, the first governor of the state of New York.
In 1823, the U.S. Army withdrew from the fortress, leaving it to New York City authorities, which in turn, permitted private investors to take it over. These investors reopened it several months later as a center for social events with a new name: Castle Garden. But in 1855, the state of New York’s Board of Emigration Commissioners took the building over for immigration purposes and, in spite of a public outcry against concentrating immigrants in the city’s First Ward, opened the Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot on 3 August 1855.
Old and New Immigration
Ellis Island and Castle Garden, the most prominent immigration stations in the history of the United States, present both differences and similarities. Representing two distinct periods in migration history, the two were central locations where immigrants could be brought directly from ships entering the port of New York.
Before August 1855, immigrants had been released at piers in different sections of the city. The State Board of Emigration Commissioners regarded this scattered landing of immigrants as a serious flaw in immigration policy, as it left the new arrivals vulnerable to criminals and crooked boardinghouse keepers.
In some ways, the immigrants themselves–and America’s response to them–define the two stations. Scholars have sought to define those who passed th rough Castle Garden as the “Old Immigration,” and those who passed through Ellis Island (1892—1954) as the “New Immigration.” These terms stem from the social and ethnic characteristics of the two groups. The Old Immigration was primarily composed of western and northern Europeans, a migration primarily of many Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics. The New Immigration was seen as a phenomenon largely emanating from eastern and southern Europe, and predominantly Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox. The first year in which the New Immigration exceeded the Old Immigration at U.S. ports was 1896.
Another feature that distinguished the two stations is that Castle Garden was administered by state authorities primarily to land foreigners safely, providing protection and assistance, including a labour exchange bureau, and to relieve the city and state from the expense of landing large numbers of immigrants; there was an element of charity in its philosophy. Ellis Island was administered by the federal government primarily to weed out undesirable or inadmissible aliens and return them to their countries of origin.
There are also important similarities between the two depots. Officials from both stations boarded ships entering the harbor and transported steerage passengers to their respective facilities; both provided medical inspections and registered aliens; both had procedures for uniting relatives and friends; both possessed ample facilities for detaining aliens; and both allowed missionaries and ethnic societies to aid immigrants.
In 1848, the State Board of Emigration Commissioners, created by the New York legislature in 1847, established a hospital and other buildings on Ward’s Island, a 255-acre island in the East River. The most important of these buildings were the Verplanck State Emigrant hospital, capable of holding 350 patients; the Refuge building for destitute women and children; and the New Barracks building for destitute male aliens.
The Ward’s Island Refuge and Hospital provided the Commissioners with necessary detention facilities; the opening of Castle Garden in 1855 concluded its goal of protecting all arriving immigrants and relieving New Yorkers of caring for destitute or sick foreigners. In addition, the Commissioners operated a smallpox hospital on Blackwell’s Island.
A Receiving Station
Castle Garden was a fascinating place with a staff of about one hundred people, and run by a superintendent. Various departments carried out the daily grind.
The Boarding Department’s task was to send officers to board ships in New York bay, after they had passed quarantine inspection. Its clerks ascertained information, such as how many passengers were aboard the vessel, and how clean it was. When the ship docked, a New York City constable on “Castle Garden duty” and agents from the Landing Department transported the immigrants to the depot’s pier via tugboats and barges. Immigrants were then marched into the castle for medical examinations. Anyone found sick was put on a steamboat bound for Ward’s Island or Blackwell’s Island. Cripples, lunatics, the blind, and others who might become a public charge were only admissible under a bond.
Next, the immigrants were directed into the rotunda of Castle Garden, which was furnished with wooden benches. At any one time as many as 3,000 immigrants might be crowded in this area. Here the Registering Department clerks, divided into english and foreign language desks, interviewed the newcomers, recording their names, nationalities, old residences, and destinations.
After this was completed, the people were directed either to the railroad agents to purchase tickets to their destinations in the United States or Canada. Those temporarily or permanently settling in New York City or its environs were directed to the City Baggage Delivery, which forwarded their luggage to a loca l address.
Many immigrants had relatives and friends who had come to meet them at Castle Garden. The Information Department handled such reunions. Its staff was composed of qualified interpreters for German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Swiss-German, Russian, and Latin.
The Forwarding Department, also in the rotunda, forwarded letters, remittances, and telegrams waiting for immigrants. The Letter-Writing Department included clerks versed in the various languages of continental Europe. Here, they wrote letters for immigrants who were often illiterate.
Another important service, the Exchange Brokers, changed all foreign money into American currency. An Employment Office, replaced by the Labour Exchange in 1867, helped immigrants find work upon their arrival to America. In 1871, for instance, work was found for 31,384 immigrants. The leading occupations for men and boys were cabinetmaking, shoemaking, baking, weaving, and gardening.
Another important service was that of the Boarding-House Keepers, who were strictly regulated. In 1867, there were seventy-six emigrant boardinghouse keepers allowed into Castle Garden. Each posted a full list of prices for room and board in English, German, French, Italian, and the Nordic languages.
Also within Castle Garden was a well-provisioned restaurant, as well as several bread stands and washrooms. In 1867, communication was improved when the Western Union Telegraph Company opened a branch office at the depot; a similar service was established at Ward’s Island in 1870.
The Ward’s Island Department handled applications for admission to Castle Garden’s institutions for the care and assistance of destitute and sick immigrants. The island’s main hospital was the Verplanck State Emigrant Hospital, supervised by a surgeon-in-chief. It provided treatment and care for those suffering from such sicknesses as apoplexy, asthma, bronchitis, typhu s, meningitis, and hepatitis. In addition, there was an Insane Asylum on the island, whose physicians treated those suffering from dementia, melancholia, epilepsy, chronic alcoholism, and mental retardation.
Decline of Castle Garden
After more than twenty years of operation, Castle Garden suffered a major disaster. On Sunday afternoon on 9 July 1876, a fire destroyed the building within the walls of the old stone fortress. Only buildings outside of Castle Garden’s walls survived. These were the Labour Exchange, a small hospital, and the intelligence office. The damaged was estimated at $40,000. In September, October, and November, the depot was reconstructed and the Commissioners were able to reopen it on 27 November 1876.
In the 1880s, the United States experienced an overwhelming wave of immigration; 1.4 million immigrants came from Germany alone. The pressure at Castle Garden was intense as the small station tried to cope with the added stress. Meanwhile, the federal government grew more and more concerned about the question of immigration. After the U.S. Supreme Court expressed the opinion that Congress should control immigration, Congress began taking steps that culminated with the closing of Castle Garden 18 April 1890. In spite of this abrupt finale, Castle Garden remained a legendary threshold to a whole generation of immigrants.
George J. Svejda, Castle Garden as an Immigrant Depot, 1855-1890 (National Park Service, 1968).
State of New York, Annual Report of the Commissioners of Emigration (New York, 1871).
Ann Novotny, Strangers at the Door: Ellis Island, Castle Garden and the Great Migration to America. (Chatham Press, 1971).
Friedrich Kapp, Immigration and the Emigration Commissioners of the State of New York (New York, 1870).
Thomas M. Pitkin, Keepers of the Gate: A History of Ellis Island (New York : New York University Press, 1975).
Barry Moreno, “United States Immigration Laws and Policies of the Nineteenth Century and their Enforcement at the Port of New York,” in Schoene Neue Welt: Rheinlander erobern Amerika, Kornelia Panek, editor (Kommern: Rheinische Freilichtmuseum, 2001).
Barry Moreno works in the reference library at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. He is a freelance writer, and is the author of two books, The Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia, and The Italian Americans. He is currently writing his third book, The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island, which is scheduled for publication next year.