The iconic image of immigrants arriving to this country: They stand on the deck of a ship as it approaches Ellis Island and stare intently ahead, waiting to catch 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 did not 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.
In through the out doors
Castle Garden didn’t begin its life as an entryway. The building’s original purpose was to keep people out. Construction began on the fort that would eventually become Castle Garden in 1808 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 War of 1812, 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 Aug. 3 of that year. Previously the bulk of U.S. immigrant ships arrived at any number of scattered New York docks, where the newcomers often received their only welcome from thieves and opportunists waiting to take advantage of the often bewildered arrivals. The Board of Emigration Commissioners for New York decided that a centralized landing depot would provide a better solution.
The new landing depot provided a variety of services to the new arrivals. Officials 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 increasingly important as the United States’ open-door policy came under scrutiny later in the century.
The garden withers
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, and two out of three of those landed at Castle Garden. New laws and restrictions made processing immigrants more time consuming and costly. The growing number of reports of abuse fueled the problems.
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. It was 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 Jan. 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.
A whole new bloom
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 1994, 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 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.
Leslie Albrecht Huber is a freelance writer from Belchertown, Mass.