Before the existence of Ellis Island — before Lady Liberty lit her lamp — immigrants still came to America! They had to land somewhere, and in those lomg-ago days, that place was Castle Garden. You might know it today as Castle Clinton, the National Monument. You’ll find it in Manhattan’s Battery Park, and if your ancestors sailed into New York Harbor any time between 1855 and 1890, they’d have entered no building before it, this side of the pond.
West Battery, an Island Fortress
Castle Clinton began life as West Battery between 1808 and 1811 on an artificial island in New York Harbor. Designed as a fortification for the War of 1812 and connected to Manhattan by a causeway bridge, it complemented its sister battery, Castle Williams, just across the harbor on Governors Island.
Dignitaries, Enter Here
After the war, West Battery underwent a major transformation. Renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 in honor of the governor, its name soon changed again, in 1824, to Castle Garden. Artisans upgraded its decor to match, and the place began service as a reception hall for New York’s more distinguished visitors. Such major lights as President Andrew Jackson, Louis Kossuth, General Lafayette, and England’s Prince Albert walked inside its substantial sandstone walls.
Castle Garden: Theatre and Opera House
These glorious visits continued until the late 1840s, when Castle Garden morphed into a concert hall. For a few glorious years, it served as a showcase for the fireworks, inventions and talent of the day. In 1850, Swedish soprano Jenny Lind made her American début at Castle Garden, promoted by none other than P. T. “There’s-One-Born-Every-Minute” Barnum.
But What Do We Do with the Immigrants?
Castle Garden’s glitzy theatrical life lasted less than a decade. When the escalating influx of immigrants to New York Harbor created the need for a processing center, Castle Garden, with its convenient location, rose to the challenge.
Between 1855 and 1890 Castle Garden, under New York State jurisdiction, served as the designated “Emigrant Landing Depot” for more than 7.7 million immigrants entering New York Harbor. Its glamorous earlier life had ended.
Castle Garden Scandal!
By the late 1860s, Castle Garden’s management had already come under a cloud. Many of its commission members, all of whom had been appointed by “Boss” Tweed, had connections to Tammany Hall, four as Sachems, and one as a Legislative Henchman. Corruption ran amok, with bribery the order of the day.
Defenseless immigrants made easy pickings. Those sufficiently outraged by what they saw began a national push to place immigration under federal regulation. In 1890, this finally came to pass, and for the next two years, commissioners at the federal level processed New York Harbor immigrants at the Barge Office. In 1892, Ellis Island opened for business under the jurisdiction of the federal government.
Castle Garden Swims with the Fishes — and Lives
Scandalous history or not, anyone could see that this impressive fortress had not outlived its usefulness, and thanks to the prior century’s successful landfill efforts, it now stood on the easily-accessible mainland. And so, following an extensive remodel by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, Castle Garden received its first shipment of marine life in 1892. It also received yet another name to match, and for nearly five decades between 1892 and 1941, Castle Garden floated right along in its new incarnation as the New York Aquarium. Then, suddenly, came danger.
The Castle Nearly Meets its Maker
In 1941, at the instigation of Robert Moses and his visions for a better New York, death took aim at the castle. The plan? Tear down the structure entirely to make way for the newest urban renewal plan: a harbor bridge from Brooklyn to Battery Park. The public, however, had grown extremely fond of the old castle, and didn’t want to lose it. They fought the good fight, and while the battles raged, Castle Clinton sat silent, partially demolished inside a cheap construction fence.
Saved by the People — and a Roosevelt
Public opinion fortunatelyy prevailed, and the people, aided by the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, succeeded in saving the mighty fortress. On August 12,1946, the government officially renamed it “Castle Clinton,” and declared it a national historic monument.
The wrecking ball had already claimed the domed roof and second story which had been added (perhaps ill-advisedly) back in the 19th century. But gradually, under the care of preservationists, the building again came to resemble the strong and mighty fortress it once had been. The planned bridge to Brooklyn? Forgotten. It became the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel instead, running under, not over, the East River.
Castle Clinton Becomes a National Landmark
On October 15, 1966, the government listed Castle Clinton on the National Register of Historic Places, and in the summer of 1975, the renovated structure again opened its doors for the first time in 34 years. Eleven years after that, the National Park Service began using it as a ticket office, selling harbor trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The practice, although somewhat beneath the castle’s dignity, continues to this day.
Still at the Same Old Stand
Castle Clinton today stands proudly at its grand old spot in Battery Park, sturdily waiting to greet you. Walk inside its thick stone walls, and feel what life was like in the good old days, when fortresses were fortresses and men were glad of it. Read the historical markers attached to its walls, and thank the civic groups of the 1940s who fought to make this possible.
And if you’re so inclined, you might decide to hop a ferry and view the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, up close and personal. If so, you now know where to go to buy your ticket. Enjoy your tour!
“Castle Clinton National Monument,” New York City Architecture.com
“Castle Clinton National Monument,” NYC Arts: The Complete Guide
“About Castle Clinton,” The Battery Conservancy
“America’s First Immigration Center,” CastleGarden.org