Castle Garden Immigrant Depot History

New York State Emigrant Landing Depot, Castle Garden circa 1855.

New York State Emigrant Landing Depot, Castle Garden circa 1855. INS Reporter, Fall 1976. GGA Image ID # 14b2119850

Castle Garden, originally known as Castle Clinton, was a circular fort built on an artificial island some 200 feet off the Battery in lower Manhattan. It was connected to the Battery by a bridge. Before it became an immigrant depot in 1855, Castle Garden was a center of the social, cultural, and political activities of the city.

The Marquis de Lafayette was welcomed at Castle Garden by some 6,000 New Yorkers in 1824. In 1842, Samuel B. Morse demonstrated his telegraphic system there. Presidents Tyler and Polk later were honored guests. And in September 1850, Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale," made her American debut there.

During most of the 19th century, the control and processing of arriving immigrants and any assistance given them was chiefly a matter of State rather than Federal concern. In New York, immigrant responsibility rested with the State Board of Emigration Commissioners, founded on May 5, 1847.

Board members soon viewed with increasing concern the fact that there was no single, permanent immigrant landing depot, leaving arriving immigrants as easy victims of "runners" and "sharks" ready to fleece the newcomers of funds and goods.

At the same time, many others fell into the hands of dishonest labor recruiters, money changers, and transportation agents seeking them out for exploitation.

Shortly after the creation of the Board, the Commissioners set about establishing facilities for care and hospitalization of immigrants who were sick or destitute.

By a legislative act in December 1847, the Commissioners acquired control of the Marine Hospital at Staten Island for confinement and treatment of immigrants arriving with contagious or infectious disease.

That same year, the Commissioners established the Emigrant Hospital and Refuge at Ward's Island in the East River for the care and treatment of immigrants with non-contagious ailments.

While setting up the medical care facilities, the Commissioners had also started a long uphill struggle for an immigrant depot. It was not to be an easy accomplishment.

After eight years of fighting obstacles set up by runners as well as by certain New York City residents fearful of lowered property values, the New York Legislature finally on April 13, 1855, invested the Commissioners of Emigration with the right to select a single landing place for immigrants in New York City.

Interior View of Castle Garden Immigrant Depot circa 1855.

Interior View of Castle Garden Immigrant Depot circa 1855. INS Reporter, Fall 1976. GGA Image ID # 14b22f82b7

The choice of the Commissioners, after much deliberation, was Castle Garden. Although the Commissioners, through negotiation, secured transfer of an existing lease on May 5, 1855, extensive necessary repairs combined with litigation filed by opponents delayed the opening of Castle Garden as an immigrant depot until August 1, 1855.

The Castle Garden proposal had the backing of New York Harbor Master Owen W. Brannan and others who thought the idea would be beneficial to the city. In answer to opponents, the Commissioners of Emigration denied that the Battery would become a lounging place for immigrants to the detriment of other usages.

They agreed to erect a 12-foot, closed fence, and to allow no communication with the Battery except by water. The Commissioners denied that Castle Garden was part of the Battery since it was separated from it by a bridge.

On June 8, 1855, Superior Court Judge Hoffman declared for the conversion of Castle Garden to an immigrant depot — a necessary move to facilitate operations. Expenses for Castle Garden and funds for the care of destitute immigrants were to be covered by an immigrant head tax of $2.50.

Repairs and renovation were completed, and 'the first immigrants landed at Castle Garden Friday, August 3, 1855, marking the opening of the first official immigrant receiving center in the United States. Immigrants arriving on that day were the first of 136,233 to land at Castle Garden in 1855.

It was immediately evident that the establishment of a center receiving depot for immigrants held great benefits for the newcomers. At Castle Garden, an immigrant, after a long and tedious journey in steerage (cabin passengers were not required to land there), was received, sheltered, and given reliable information for his trip to his final destination.

Further, in his first moments in the United States, when often unable to speak or understand English, he was protected from runners and other opportunists eager to victimize him. New York Governor Myron H. Clark, in January 1856, and Governor John A. King, a year later, took notice of the protection afforded immigrants at Castle Garden. While state officials offered enthusiastic support, New York City officials remained opposed.

The New York Board of Councilman issued a report on March 17, 1856, attacking the lease held by the Commissioners of Emigration, claiming a violation because carts were permitted to go to Castle Garden via the Battery, which was forbidden by the lease except with the permission of the mayor, which was never given.

The report also condemned the presence of immigrants at the Battery as having destroyed use of the area for promenades and other recreation. The report also claimed a decline in nearby property values. It charged that immigrants at Castle Garden were subjected to inhuman treatment and robbed of personal funds and belongings.

Another charge held that the Commissioners had unjustly compelled immigrants to purchase railroad tickets in Castle Garden at higher rates than they would have paid elsewhere. The report also claimed immigrants were charged inflated prices for baggage shipment.

A Castle Garden cashier testified that 20 percent of the monies received from the sale of railroad tickets went for defrayal of Castle Garden expenditures, and the council committee concluded that the Emigration Commissioners were responsible for the excessive ticket rates and recommended that the Castle Garden premises "be re-entered at once by the city."

However, despite that attack and frequent charges drummed up by runners employed by booking agents, boardinghouse keepers, and others whose easy money had been cut off by establishment of Castle Garden, the Commissioners of Emigration managed to carry out their policies.

In 1856 the number of immigrants landed at Castle Garden rose slightly to 142,352, and in 1857 there was a sharp upturn to 183,773, including 80,976 Germans, 57,119 Irish, and 28,622 English. However, in 1858, the number declined to a total of 78,589.

In September 1856, a Grand Jury investigation of the Commissioners ended by giving them a clean bill and praising them for challenging the vicious runners, who in earlier times had systematically robbed and cheated the immigrants.

Not willing to give up their easy "take" from the immigrants, some ticket brokers sent agents to Europe to instruct their ticket sellers there to warn immigrants to avoid Castle Garden.

And, when the prospective immigrants fell into their clutches, they found upon their arrival at other neighboring ports that they had been robbed of whatever little they had.

Such abuse brought action from the New York legislature, which on April 15, 1857, passed an act under which the sale of tickets was limited only to authorized persons in the State of New York.

Another act passed the following day by the legislature, authorized the Commissioners of Emigration to grant and issue licenses to lighterage companies to regulate emigrant runners who were to be of respectable character and wear badges showing that they were properly licensed.

The Commissioners, always subject to criticism, were made the subject of a legislative investigation by the New York House of Assembly in early 1858. On March 31, the Commissioners issued an account of the organizational structure of Castle Garden.

By stipulation of the lease, under which Castle Garden was operated by the Commissioners, there were two distinct organizations at the Garden. One group was the railroads, for the sale of tickets and contracts for the transportation of luggage.

This included landing by steamboat and barge, handling of baggage and transportation to railroad depots and steamboat landings. Expenses for operations of that organization, along with $10,000 instead of rent, were paid by the steamship and railroad companies operating in Castle Garden.

The other organization was the Commissioners of Emigration. The railroad group was responsible in many ways to the Commissioners, who had the additional responsibilities for medical examinations, registrations, and arrangements for the welfare of immigrants, food and comfort supplies, sleeping accommodations, and protective measures.

Costs of those operations were paid out of funds controlled by the Commissioners. In 1859, a total of 79,322 immigrants were processed through Castle Garden, and in 1860 the total jumped to 105,162, declining to 65,539 in 1861 coincidental with the outbreak of the Civil War.

More than 500,000 immigrants took part in that war, and their participation countered the loud voices of "nativists" and others opposed to immigration.

While immigrant arrivals at Castle Garden declined with the outbreak of the conflict, arrivals picked up slightly in 1862, totaling 76,603, jumped to 156,844 in 1863, and climbed to 180,296 in 1864.

In 1866, the year after the war ended, the figure was a record of 233,418. With the conflict nearing an end, came a general manpower shortage, and President Lincoln looked to immigration to increase the labor supply.

The shortage was not only felt by labor but was also felt by the Army, and a recruitment center was set up on the Battery offering immigrants $300 county bounty and $300 Federal bounty upon enlistment.

At first, the immigrants did not hasten to enlist with the alacrity expected, even with the lure of $600 in bounty money. However, the recruitment rate soon improved.

The Congress, by the Act of July 4, 1864, set up a Bureau of Immigration within the Department of State "to encourage immigration." While a Federal Superintendent of Immigration was named and set up shop in New York, his work remained largely that of reporting on immigration to this country. In contrast, physical control and protection and processing of the immigrants remained a function of the State of New York.

During the postwar period, immigrants had no trouble finding jobs. In fact, labor recruiters on the Battery and agents sent abroad for recruitment insured that no immigrant should lack for work.

In 1866, abuses suffered by immigrants at the hands of dishonest labor recruiters, and the continuing need for manpower, resulted in the establishment of a labor exchange at Castle Garden. A building was erected for this purpose, together with an information office and waiting room for the friends of arriving immigrants.

Referral to jobs was without charge to the immigrants, and the service was provided to some 200 newcomers each clay. The German and Irish Emigrant Societies were principals in the labor exchange. They provided the clerical workforce, while the Commissioners furnished space, heat, and lighting.

By 1867, operational procedures at Castle Garden included 12 departments:

  1. The Boarding Department: A boarding officer was sent aboard each ship at the Quarantine Station below the city. He ascertained the number of passengers, deaths during the voyage and observed the cleanliness of the vessel. He received complaints and prepared a report for Castle Garden authorities. The boarding officer remained aboard until the ship was anchored at the landing depot, and was then relieved by a New York City police officer.
  2. The Landing Department: The Landing Agent and a Customs Inspector boarded arriving vessels from tugs. At that point, immigrant luggage was checked, and the immigrants and their luggage taken by barge and tugs to Castle Garden pier. 0n landing, the immigrants underwent health examinations, and where necessary, were hospitalized. They were also checked for possible liability for public charge bonds. From there, they were taken to the rotunda, a large roofed circular space with separate compartments for the English-speaking immigrants and immigrants of other nationalities, where they registered.
  3. Registering Department: Here all necessary information was recorded, such as name, nationality, former residence, and- Intended destination.
  4. Railroad Company Agents: After registration, immigrants were directed to the railroad ticket agents, where they could purchase tickets to their destinations without danger of being defrauded.
  5. City Baggage Delivery: Immigrants deciding to remain in the New York area arranged with this department for delivery of their baggage to their desired destination at a moderate cost.
  6. Exchange Brokers: Immigrants possessing gold or silver could have it exchanged here for United States currency by any of three exchange brokers supervised closely by the Commission.
  7. The Information Department: After the preceding operations, the immigrants assembled in the rotunda, where an officer called out the names of those with friends or relatives waiting for them in the waiting room and those for whom letters and funds were waiting.
  8. Letter-Writing Department: Immigrants who wished to write friends or relatives were helped here by clerks versed in foreign languages.
  9. Boarding House Keepers: Boarding house keepers, closely supervised and subject to regulations, were permitted to solicit immigrants in the rotunda after other processing had been completed.
  10. The Forwarding Department: Received and held for immigrants letters and remittances sent before their arrival at Castle Garden.
  11. Ward's Island Department: This department handled applications of sick and destitute immigrants for admission to Ward's Island, keeping daily records of admissions and examining records related to claims payable to New York counties for the assistance given immigrants. Two physicians were attached to this department.
  12. The Labor Exchange: The Exchange was established in 1867, replacing an earlier labor office. It was set up to secure employment for immigrants without charge. Each immigrant entering the exchange was requested to list his name, residence, references, recommendations, and the kind of labor desired.

In addition to those facilities and services, in 1867, Western Union Telegraph established a branch office at Castle Garden, so newly arrived immigrants could contact relatives or friends.

By 1868 the Castle Garden complex consisted of the rotunda, the labor exchange, the baggage and express offices, sheds and stables, and the medical, Ward's Island, and information and forwarding offices.

The complex was administered by 10 members of the Board of Commissioners, including six appointed by the Governor. The remaining four were ex-officio members, including the presidents of the German and Irish Emigrant Societies and the mayors of New York and Brooklyn.

Actual supervision was carried out by a General Agent and Superintendent, responsible for operating the depot. As the operation of Castle Garden continued, opposition and support for the immigrant depot ebbed and flowed, and the public will be expressed in a series of Federal and State acts affecting immigration matters.

Court decisions questioning the collection of specific fees, etc., at Castle Garden caused financial difficulties for the operation from time to time. Added to the financial problems was the disaster which occurred on Sunday, July 9, 1876, when a fire broke out and destroyed Castle Garden—only the old fort walls were left standing.

Although a controversy developed over the future of Castle Garden, nothing actually happened, and reconstruction of the old landmark commenced on September 11, 1876. And, by late Nov ember 1876, Castle Garden was operational once again.

Some of the past financial difficulties were partially resolved by the Congressional Act of August 3, 1882, which among other things, empowered the Secretary of the Treasury to enter into contracts with State commissions concerning the inspection and processing of immigrants.

From 1882 on, the operation of Castle Garden was conducted under a divided jurisdiction. Under the 1882 Act, agents appointed by the United States Treasury Department enforced provisions relating to contract labor, while the Emigration Commissioners at Castle Garden enforced those provisions excluding immigrants on the grounds of immorality or pauperism.

However, the Federal-State system of cooperation in immigration failed to work smoothly, and by 1889 the Treasury Department reported: "grave difficulties in the execution of the law through State agencies because of great differences in settlement of the accounts of certain State commissions."

That report touched off a series of inquiries and other events. These difficulties resulted in the Secretary of the Treasury sending the Solicitor of the Treasury to New York to investigate the differences.

The Solicitor's report recommended that the Secretary of the Treasury should give 60 days' notice to the Commissioners of Emigration revoking the contract. On February 15, 1890, notification was sent rescinding the contract, effective April 18, 1890.

The Emigration Commissioners deemed this action as "unconstitutional." While this dispute was going on, an effort was being made to select a site for a Federal immigration depot. Governor's Island, Bedloe's (now Liberty) Island, and Ellis Island were proposed.

The "New York World" newspaper bitterly opposed the use of Bedloe's Island for that purpose. Within a week, Congress went into action on the matter. A resolution, introduced in the Senate by Senator McPherson of New Jersey, called for removal of the Naval powder plant from Ellis Island, and a special clause in the resolution added: "And the further sum of $75,000 or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby appropriated to enable the Secretary of the Treasury to improve said Ellis Island for immigration purposes".

A Joint Committee on Immigration was sent to New York to study various sites for a new immigration depot. They recommended Ellis Island. This proposal was opposed by Manhattan First District Merchants and by New York Congressman James W. Covert, supported by Congressman William Oates of Alabama, who advocated the retention of Castle Garden.

However, the resolution passed on March 26, 1890. It was soon passed by the House of Representatives and signed by President Benjamin Harrison on April 11, 1890. On Friday, April 18, 1890, Castle Garden received immigrants for the last time.

Two steamers, the BOHEMIA and the STATE OF INDIANA, bringing in 465 immigrants were the last to land at the Castle Garden depot. With the closing of Castle Garden as an immigrant reception depot, the examination of immigrants was transferred temporarily to the Barge office, where the Federal control of immigration was inaugurated on April 19, 1890, under the authority contained in the Act of August 3, 1882 (22 Stat. 214).

Eighteen hundred immigrants arrived at the Barge Office on that day. While the Barge Office bustled with activity, Castle Garden was a place of gloom and desolation. An era had ended.

State control of immigration became history in New York, and a year later, the Immigration Act of March 3, 1891, made the enforcement and administration of immigration laws strictly a Federal responsibility. But the deserted confines of Castle Garden left an indelible imprint on the record of United States immigration history.

During its lifetime as an immigrant depot (1855-1890), Castle Garden had welcomed 8,280,917 of the total 10,956,910 aliens to arrive in this country during that period.

"Castle Garden Immigrant Depot" in Immigration and Naturalization Service Reporter, Fall 1976, pp. 28-31. This article is based on a study by Dr. George J. Svejda, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, National Park Service. U. S. Department of Interior, dated December 2. 1968. entitled "Castle Garden as An Immigrant Depot. 1855-1890."

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