Castle Garden

Castle Garden, also known as Castle Clinton, opened on August 3,1855, under lease to the State of New York, as an immigrant landing depot on an island off the southwest tip of Manhattan.  It was fenced off from the rest of the buildings so that the protected area could provide some amount of safety for the bewildered immigrants from the unsavory characters who might take advantage of gullible newcomers. At Castle Garden, generally reliable information about boarding houses, travel routes, and fares could be obtained. The immigrants could receive needed medical attention and an honest currency exchange as well as a chance for employment. In 1882, Congress passed the Immigration Act that authorized the Treasury Secretary to enforce the Congressional control over immigration. Until then, the federal government concerned itself only with narrow questions of immigration as they arose, such as naturalization, sanitary conditions aboard ships, and the tabulation of foreign passengers entering American seaports.   The Fritscher family, who arrived in America in 1876, would have been processed through Castle Garden.  Since Joseph's sister, Anna, was deaf and dumb, it is likely that they were all very apprehensive of the many questions and medical checks that were a part of the process, and they were likely fearful that they might be forced to return to Austria if she were not accepted as being physically sound.  Between 1855 and 1889, more than eight million immigrants passed through the Garden until in the Spring of 1890, the center was closed.  By 1892 all immigrants landing at New York would pass through Ellis Island.

Some have defined those who passed through Castle Garden as the "Old Immigration," and those who passed through Ellis Island (1892—1954) as the "New Immigration." These terms can also define the social and ethnic characteristics of the two groups. The Old Immigration was primarily composed of western and northern Europeans, a migration primarily of many Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics. The New Immigration was seen as a largely from eastern and southern Europe, and predominantly Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox. The first year in which the New Immigration exceeded the Old Immigration at U.S. ports was 1896.

Castle Garden was a fascinating place with a staff of about one hundred people in many departments, and run by a superintendent. Various departments carried out the daily grind. The process of landing in America was at the same time exciting and frightening.  Immigrants would be kept as long as three to four days on the ship anchored just off shore as the processing began. 

There was first a “Boarding Department” whose task it was to send officers to board ships in New York Bay, after they had passed quarantine inspection. Its clerks gathered  information, such as how many passengers were aboard the vessel, and how clean it was. When the ship docked, a New York City constable on "Castle Garden duty" and agents from the “Landing Department” transported the immigrants to the depot’s pier via tugboats and barges. Immigrants were then marched into the castle for medical examinations. Anyone found sick was put on a steamboat bound for Ward’s Island or Blackwell’s Island. Cripples, lunatics, the blind, and others who might become a public charge were only admissible under a bond.

The immigrants then proceeded in a body up the corridor into the interior rotunda of the building. Their boxes and baggage were removed to the luggage warehouses. Each person had been given a number while still on board the ship, and they arranged themselves in order on the long rows of wooden seats.  At any one time as many as 3,000 immigrants might be crowded into this area. Here the Registering Department clerks, divided into English and foreign language desks, interviewed the newcomers, recording their names, nationalities, old residences, and destinations.

Then one of the leading officers with the Bureau of Information would address the immigrants, and give them information about finding shelter, advice and information concerning tickets for railway and steamer to take them East, West, North or South and the best routes to take; about the best means of obtaining employment; and provide them with facilities for corresponding with friends, and of changing money.  There were Departments that handled all of these needs. The advantages provided to the immigrant by the staff at Castle Garden were the advice, information and police assistance, they gave to the unsuspecting emigrant, the unprotected female, the friendless, the orphan and the widow.

Many immigrants had relatives and friends who had come to meet them at Castle Garden, especially those who would be staying in New York. The Information Department handled such reunions. Its staff was composed of qualified interpreters for German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Swiss-German, Russian, and Latin.

The Forwarding Department, also in the rotunda, forwarded letters, remittances, and telegrams waiting for immigrants. The Letter-Writing Department included clerks versed in the various languages of continental Europe. Here, they wrote letters for immigrants who were often illiterate.

Another important service, the Exchange Brokers, changed all foreign money into American currency. An Employment Office, replaced by the Labor Exchange in 1867, helped immigrants find work upon their arrival to America. In 1871, for instance, work was found for 31,384 immigrants. The leading occupations for men and boys were cabinetmaking, shoemaking, baking, weaving, and gardening.

Another important service was that of the Boarding-House Keepers, who were strictly regulated. In 1867, there were seventy-six emigrant boardinghouse keepers allowed into Castle Garden. Each posted a full list of prices for room and board in English, German, French, Italian, and the Nordic languages.

Also within Castle Garden was a well-provisioned restaurant, as well as several bread stands and washrooms. In 1867, communication was improved when the Western Union Telegraph Company opened a branch office at the depot; a similar service was established at Ward’s Island in 1870.

The Ward’s Island Department handled applications for admission to Castle Garden’s institutions for the care and assistance of destitute and sick immigrants. The island’s main hospital was the Verplanck State Emigrant Hospital, supervised by a surgeon-in-chief.  It provided treatment and care for those suffering from such sicknesses as apoplexy, asthma, bronchitis, typhus, meningitis, and hepatitis. In addition, there was an Insane Asylum on the island, whose physicians treated those suffering from dementia, melancholia, epilepsy, chronic alcoholism, and mental retardation.

After 1882 as the number of immigrants gradually increased, more buildings were erected outside the Garden. Brick walls replaced the wooden fences. Then, on April 18,1890, the last immigrants went through Castle Garden. With control shifted to the U.S. Superintendent of Immigration, the Barge Office became a temporary landing depot, pending the opening of the newer, more commodious center on Ellis Island on January 1, 1892.






Ancestry Magazine March/April 2003 

Barry Moreno, "United States Immigration Laws and Policies of the Nineteenth Century and their Enforcement at the Port of New York," in Schoene Neue Welt: Rheinlander erobern Amerika, Kornelia Panek, editor (Kommern: Rheinische Freilichtmuseum, 2001).

George J. Svejda, Castle Garden as an Immigrant Depot, 1855-1890 (National Park Service, 1968).

Ann Novotny, Strangers at the Door: Ellis Island, Castle Garden and the Great Migration to America. (Chatham Press, 1971).

Thomas M. Pitkin, Keepers of the Gate: A History of Ellis Island (New York: New York University Press, 1975).