When you think of Castle Garden, immigration is the first reference that comes to mind. This historic New York spot, however, served a variety of purposes over time. Today, it is most commonly known as the predecessor of Ellis Island.
History of Castle Garden
This location on the southern tip of Manhattan was originally a fort constructed in 1808. Completed in 1811, it was called the West Battery. The fort was constructed for defense for the War of 1812, but never saw any action during that conflict.
In 1815 the name was changed to Castle Clinton, named for New York Mayor DeWitt Clinton. Mayor Clinton later became governor of New York and a United States Senator. He also oversaw the building of the Erie Canal.
As Castle Clinton, the area was administered by the U.S. Army until 1821. It was then leased to the City of New York as an open air entertainment facility. The name was changed to Castle Garden in 1825. A roof was added in 1840. It was a popular venue, serving as a:
- Beer garden
- Exhibit hall
- Opera house
Famous personalities, such as Jenny Lind, performed at the facility.
It was in 1855 that Castle Garden became the immigration facility for the Port of New York. While immigration laws in the United States were just beginning to take shape, individual states and cities enacted their own laws. This immigration depot was the first of its kind in the nation. It was the primary point of entry into the United States until the opening of Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. An estimated 8 to 12 million immigrants are believed to have passed through Castle Garden between 1855 and 1892.
In 1896 the facility became the New York City Aquarium. It served in this capacity until 1941, when the aquarium was closed. Despite attempts to tear the structure down, it became a national monument in 1946. Political delays stalled the opening of Castle Garden as a historical landmark until 1950.
Currently, the facility is maintained by the National Park Service. Its name has been changed once again, this time it is known once again as Castle Clinton.
Castle Garden Immigration Center
This principle processing center was the first stop for many famous immigrants. Noteworthy arrivals include:
- Oscar Hammerstein
- Mother Cabrini
- Harry Houdini
- Joseph Pulitzer
- Sophie Tucker
For genealogists, it is the ancestor of Ellis Island. If an ancestor arrived in the Port of New York between 1855 and 1892, the ancestor was processed through Castle Garden. Unfortunately, there is a challenge with the records from that time span. First, records on immigrant arrivals were not as detailed as they were in the Ellis Island time period. Second, and tragically, some of the Castle Garden records were destroyed by fire in 1897 during the transfer of duties to Ellis Island.
There are, however, still many records available. CastleGarden.org is a project of the Battery Conservancy. It hosts a free, searchable database of millions of records of immigrants who arrived at the facility. Information available in the database includes:
- Literacy level
- Arrival date
- Point of origin
- Port of departure
CastleGarden.org is endeavoring to digitize the original ship manifests to be placed online. Once completed, this project will add a new dimension to Castle Garden immigration records.