Before there was an Ellis Island -- before the Statue of Liberty went up -- immigrants still came to America! They had to land somewhere, and in those far-away days, that place was Castle Garden.
You might know it today as Castle Clinton, the National Monument. It's located in the Battery Park section of Manhattan, and if your ancestors sailed into New York Harbor any time between 1855 and 1890, it's the first building they'd have visited on this side of the pond.
West Battery, an Island Fortress
Castle Clinton began its life as West Battery between 1808 and 1811 on an artificial island in New York Harbor. Designed as an island fortification for the War of 1812 and connected to Manhattan by nothing more than a causeway bridge, it complemented its sister battery, Castle Williams, built just across the harbor on Governors Island.
Dignitaries and Entertainers, Enter Here
After the war, West Battery underwent a major transformation. Renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 in honor of New York's then-governor, the name changed again to Castle Garden in 1824. Artisans upgraded its decor with flowers and fountains to match, and the place began serving as a reception hall for New York's more distinguished visitors. Among them could be found such major lights as President Andrew Jackson, Louis Kossuth, General Lafayette, and Prince Albert.
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 showcased the fireworks, concerts and talent of the day. In 1850, Swedish soprano Jenny Lind made her American debut at Castle Garden, promoted by none other than P. T. "There's-One-Born-Every-Minute" Barnum.
But What About the Immigrants?
Castle Garden's glitzy theatrical life lasted less than a decade. With the increasing influx of foreigners to New York City shores came the need for a place where officials could process them properly. Castle Garden, situated as it was in New York Harbor, rose to the challenge. Under New York State jurisdiction, the newly-designated Emigrant Landing Depot spent the next 45 years as the processing center for more than 7.7 million immigrants who had come to New York in search of a better life. Castle Garden's own once-glamorous existence soon faded from memory.
Castle Garden Scandal!
By the late 1860s, the management of Castle Garden had already fallen under suspicion. Many of the Castle Garden Commission members, all of whom had been appointed by "Boss" Tweed, had connections to Tammany Hall. Four were Tammany Sachems, and one was a Tammany Legislative Henchman. Corruption ran rampant, with bribery the order of the day. Defenseless immigrants made easy pickings.
A national push was begun to remove immigration from the auspices of state governments and place it under federal jurisdiction. In 1890, this finally came to pass, and for the next two years federal commissioners processed immigrants...