Before Ellis Island: The Immigrant Entryway at Castle Garden
This article appeared in a slightly altered format in the January 2008 Issue of The History Channel Magazine as Portal of Freedom
Books and television have long provided us with images of immigrants arriving to this country. They stand on the decks of their ships as they approach Ellis Island, staring ahead intently, waiting to catching a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty – the symbol of the new life that has filled their dreams.
Yet in reality, millions of immigrants who came in the 1800s never saw the Statue of Liberty and never set foot on Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty didn’t arrive in New York until 1885, and Ellis Island didn’t become the point of arrival until seven years later. Before that, these immigrants looked for another landmark – Castle Garden.
Opening its Doors
Castle Garden didn’t begin its life as an entryway. Instead, the building’s original purpose was to keep people out. Construction began on the fort that would eventually become Castle Garden in 1807 as war brewed with Britain. Its location in lower Manhattan by the water’s edge proved ideal for more than military fortifications though. After the threat of war died away, the remodeled fort functioned as an entertainment center for three decades. Not until 1855 did Castle Garden take on its most important role in history – that of America’s first receiving station for immigrants.
Castle Garden opened its doors as the Emigrant Landing Depot on August 3 of that year. Previously in New York, where the bulk of U.S. immigrants landed, ships arrived in any number of scattered docks. Here, the immigrants often received their only welcome from thieves and opportunists waiting to take advantage of the often bewildered arrivals. Harper’s Weekly described the conditions facing an immigrant by stating, “It was well for him if, after having been robbed of all he had, he was not beaten to death…” The Board of Emigration Commissioners for New York decided that a centralized landing depot would provide the best solution. In their 1855 report, the Board declared the benefits of Castle Garden: “First. – To the emigrants…In the greater safety of their effects.”
The new landing depot also provided other services to the new arrivals. Officials there registered the immigrants, exchanged money at a fair price, sold train tickets, assisted them in finding a place to stay, and even helped them locate jobs. But Castle Garden’s benefits weren’t limited to immigrants. Doctors examined the passengers, reducing the amount of contagious diseases spread to the community. And, officials kept more complete statistics– something that would become more important as the U.S.’s open-door policy came under scrutiny later in the century.
But for the people entering its doors, Castle Garden’s significance extended beyond railroad tickets and medical exams. While most immigrants only stayed briefly in Castle Garden, they often remembered it throughout their lives. One woman later described her feelings, “Farewell Castle Garden! I have met with nothing on the continent of Europe that can at all compare with the spectacle thou presenteth, and the benevolence and benefits that thou bestoweth – sacred asylum of the emigrant…”
Castle Garden offered drastic improvements to immigrants compared to those who had arrived before them. Yet, problems existed from the beginning. And as the years passed, these problems grew.
While nearly 2.6 million immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1850s when Castle Garden opened, by the 1880s the number had doubled to 5.2 million. Two out of three of those landed at Castle Garden. New laws and restrictions made processing the immigrants more time consuming and costly. The growing number of reports of abuse added to the problems. In 1883, the New York governor announced, “the present management of this very important department is a scandal and a reproach to civilization.”
An investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department followed. The results confirmed what everyone already knew. Castle Garden could no longer effectively handle the immigrants pouring through its doors. The federal government decided that the matter could no longer be left in the hands of the states. They were going to take over processing immigrants – and find a new place to do it. The last immigrants to enter the New World through Castle Garden did so on April 18, 1890.
When Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, more than the landing point had changed. The dominant ethnic backgrounds of the immigrants had gradually shifted – and with it the approach to immigration. While Castle Garden had declared its first benefit to the immigrants, the federal agents at Ellis Island made sifting out and returning home unwanted entrants one of their top priorities.
It didn’t take long for Castle Garden to find another role in New York City. For nearly half a century, the building housed a popular aquarium. But, when the aquarium closed in 1941, Castle Garden appeared fated for destruction. In fact, the site suffered near total devastation before Congress declared it a National Monument in 1946.
Yet, restoration has come slowly to Castle Garden. For decades, the area languished, neglected and forgotten. Sporadic efforts brought about limited progress, including restoring the building to its fortification appearance in 1975. Finally in the past few years, new hope has appeared for Castle Garden. The Battery Conservancy, formed in 1995, has joined together with public partners to raise the money to revitalize Castle Garden and the area around it. Some projects have already been completed.
But Castle Garden largely remains a project for the future. The building now functions as little more than a ticket booth for Ellis Island – its role in history unknown to most of the people who stream through its doors. A long road lies ahead before Castle Garden can reclaim its place in history.