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Castle Garden– Arrival of Immigrants to New York before Ellis Island.

Updated on April 15, 2015

Most people have heard of Ellis Island and the important part it played in the history of immigration in America. But what did Immigrants do before Ellis Island opened its doors in 1892?

Prior to 1855 passengers were allowed to disembark their ship directly onto the wharf at New York. This had negative consequences for both the citizens of New York and the passengers themselves. Unchecked, the passengers could bring sickness and disease to the city and immigrants were at the mercy of rouges and thieves who conned them out of their money by various means as they disembarked.

On August 1st 1855 Castle Garden became New York City’s immigrant receiving center. Castle Garden began life as a defensive fort for the US Army over fears of attack from the British forces. Initially named West Battery or Southwest Battery, the construction of the fort was completed in 1811 and though used by the US Army it did not see any action and was no longer used by 1821. It had been renamed Castle Clinton around 1815 in honor of the Mayor of New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton and when the Army left it was leased to New York City and used as a place for public entertainment in 1824. Its name was changed to Castle Garden and over its history it was a promenade, exhibition hall, theatre and famously an opera house amongst other forms of entertainment.

In 1847 the Commission of Emigration was formed to control the immigration system in New York. After various temporary quarters were used to hold their offices, Castle Garden became the immigrant landing station in August of 1855. It continued to be operated by the state until 1890.

Castle Garden was linked to the mainland of Battery Park by landfill and surrounded by a high fence. It is estimated that between 1855 and 1890 about eight million immigrants passed through Castle Garden.

Castle Garden New York

A markercastle clinton new york -
Castle Clinton National Monument, Battery Park, New York, NY 10004, USA
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Aerial view illustration of the tip of Manhattan in New York City, featuring Castle Garden in Battery Park and docks on the rivers.

Source public domain wiki commons
Source public domain wiki commons

What happened at Castle Garden?

The Immigration center was run as two departments, one being the hospital and refuge department on Ward’s Island and the other the Landing department at Castle Garden.

Most ships entering New York harbor anchored at a pier and waited for a Custom Houseboat to board them. After the ship was inspected, passengers spoken to and forms completed the passengers and their luggage were transported on barges and small steamers to Castle Garden.

Processing through the station included several departments for immigrants. On entering they were interviewed by medical examiners and after answering questions were sorted into those needed support and those who were able to support themselves. Those deemed needing support were placed under surveillance or transferred to Ward’s Island until arrangements were made to either treat or deport them. Immigrants considered in need of support would include those who were ill, had a fatal disease, were penniless either though robbery or circumstance and those with no destination plan.

Passing Through Castle Garden

After passing through the medical examiner immigrants entered a rotunda where a clerk took down legally required information. Those entitled to land gave their destination details, names of relatives they were joining as well as other information. The next desk being the transportation department, immigrants were helped to figure out the route, mode of transport and cost of the journey to their final destination. This was sometimes a challenging job due to language differences and limited information provided by the immigrant. For example if the individual had the name of a town or city but not a state there would be several possible destinations.

Once the decision had been made the immigrant moved to the cashier who issued the correct tickets and took payment. The immigrant and their baggage was then transported via a steamboat to the starting place of their journey.

Castle Garden also housed a brokerage office for exchanging currency, post office, fully stocked bathroom, employment bureau and reputable boarding house keepers for locating lodgings.

Castle Gardens

Castle Clinton in Battery Park, New York City Perspective view (Northwest) of main gate. Image courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey—HABS
Castle Clinton in Battery Park, New York City Perspective view (Northwest) of main gate. Image courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey—HABS | Source

Ward's Island

The majority of immigrants had plans for their future once arriving at New York and had money when they arrived to facilitate those plans. However there were some passengers who had either only had funds for their ticket or had been conned out of their money before arriving in New York. Seen as burdens on the city, were sent to the refuge or hospital. Wards Island was located in the Harlem River and consisted of hospital, nursery, and farm. Immigrants were housed here until they were well, gained employment, were financially supported by friends or sent to their chosen destination at cost to the commissioners. All medical assistance was free of charge for the immigrants.

Did Castle Garden Serve its Purpose?

The Commission put in place many safeguards to protect the new immigrants from exploitation. These efforts were hampered by some who wished to gain from defrauding the passengers. Runners in the employment of booking agents and board house keepers who were losing money from the safeguards made life difficult for the employees of the Castle. Large noisy crowds gathered around the gates, insulting the employees, sometimes threatening them with violence. They also boarded boats and got close to the ships, warning passengers against landing at the depot. These runners often abused police officers who were dispatched to disperse them. On the whole though, the commissioners efforts ensured immigrant found a fair price for their currency, boarding, tickets and were not cheated out of their fortunes.

One aspect of the immigrants journey the Commission in charge of Castle Garden could not control so effectively was the practice of exploitation at the points of emigration in Europe. Overcharging for inland transportation or even bogus tickets, was common place.

What Happened to Castle Garden After the Openning of Ellis Island?

Castle Garden closed as an immigration center and in 1896 became the New York City Aquarium. it was very popular with New Yorkers, having thousands of visitors every year. In 1941 it closed and plans were made to demolish the building but due to public pressure this did not happen. In August of 1946 Castle Garden was designated a national monument which came int effect in 1950. Major repairs were done in the 1970s and the building now contains a museum and a ticket office and departure point for visitors to Ellis Island and the Statue of liberty. It has reverted to it name of Castle Clinton.

© 2014 Ruthbro

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  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish 9 months ago from North America

    I agree this is very interesting. The second wave of my ancestors landed at the NY pier as you say, before 1855 - during the Potato Famines around UK.

    The first wave landed who-knows-where in the mid-to-late 1600s and ended up in Virginia with and around Richmond Terell/Tyrell. The Native American ancestors were around NY/Ontario, PA, VA, Ohio longer ago than that.

  • Ruthbro profile image
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    Ruthbro 2 years ago from USA

    Thank you, it is not as well known in the US either.

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    Lynnefry 2 years ago

    Really interesting as being from the UK have only heard of and visited Ellis Island

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