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May 2006 - edited and transcribed by Jo Anne Sadler



At the tip of Battery Park is Castle Garden, the most historic site in New York City. It has had many functions and names in its long history and was converted into the first Immigration Processing Station in New York on August 1, 1855. It continued in that capacity for thirty-five years and it is estimated 8,500,000 immigrants passed through its gates.

On Sunday afternoon, July 9, 1876, a fire destroyed the main depot building within the walls of the old stone fortress. Some of the buildings which were located outside of the walls survived.

It was decided to keep Castle Garden open and the immigrants were processed at the Labor Bureau. Established in 1868, it was an 80 by 52-foot building, located adjacent to the main Castle Garden structure. The purpose of the Labor Bureau was to assist immigrants in securing employment at no charge.

On July 16th, it was reported in the Times that after removing the debris, the floor of the depot was found to be in good shape and did not have to be replaced. It was decided to immediately replace the roof and put the reconstruction job out to bid.

On September 8th, the Emigration Commissioners announced that a contract in the amount of $13,000. had been awarded to rebuild the depot. The cost was covered by insurance. The Emigration Commission's lease for the Garden was expiring the following May and there was strong public opinion that the Immigration Processing should be moved to an island location in the area. The Commissioners stated that 6,000,000 immigrants had landed there without a single loss of life and they hoped they would be permitted to stay.

The depot was rebuilt and was opened on November 27, 1876 to very little fanfare, no notice of it's reopening was noted in the New York Times.

These New York Times articles detail the fire and also includes a history of the Garden and well as many details of the physical setup that the immigrants encountered. At the time of the fire and for the rest of the month, New York City was going through a severe heatwave, the papers daily recording the deaths, mostly of children, from the heat.

The Garden continued to operate as an Immigration Processing Station until April 18, 1890. It now is operated by the National Park Service as Castle Clinton National Monument and is open free to the public.


(New York Times - Monday, July 10, 1876)

A fire broke out in the Emigration Bureau at Castle Garden yesterday afternoon, which destroyed property to the extent from $50,000 to $60,000 in value and left the historic edifice a complete ruin. The fire was first discovered about 5:15 P.M. by George Drockenbrodt, a gate-tender, in the rear of the hospital. The latter called the attention of Charles Essingler to a thin cloud of smoke which was apparently issuing from a crevice in the floor of the balcony on the westside of the building upon which Esslinger was sitting. Assistance was called and an alarm given. The flooring was ripped up, and the draft thus created fanned the flames, which spread rapidly over the upper part of the building. The wind was blowing briskly from the north-east, and the fire was driven downward toward the docks into the Customhouse and railroad departments. Mr. Nicholas Muller, the Erie Railroad Emigration Agent, was standing on the steps of the Washington Hotel when the fire broke out, and hastily collecting twenty-five or thirty men, he employed them to drag the baggage of the emigrants from the Customhouse and railroad departments, on the southern side, with which he loaded the transports Warren and Inspector. By this means the greater part of the baggage was saved, as the police-boat Seneca towed the transports out into the stream away from the flames. During this time the immigrants themselves were doing all in their power to save their own effects, and it was amusing to see their anxiety as they risked their lives to save what to the ordinary observer appeared to be of small value. One old fellow ventured into the blinding smoke and reappeared with what appeared to be a plan of his native village. Two old Havarian women worked liked slaves in bringing out trunks, chests, and feather beds, belonging to themselves and their more helpless neighbors. Capt. Petty, of the First Precinct Police, was on the ground early after the fire broke out with two platoons of the reserve, and having established his lines to keep back the immense crowd which increased with the arrival of every ferryboat, employed the rest in the work of removing the baggage of the unfortunate inmates, and to their credit be it said, they worked with a will. Officer Montgomery pushed his way into the blinding smoke, after it had become dangerous to life to venture into the burning structure, and on turning to come out, laden with a heavy chest, was struck in the face by a stream of water from a hose, and knocked to the ground. Quickly regaining his foot however, he made his way out with the baggage he had secured just as his companions were beginning to fear that he had perished in the flames or had been suffocated in the dense smoke. Thieves were plentiful, and managed to creep through the lines in spite of the vigilance of the officers. Two of this class were arrested and removed to the station, one of them making such a strong resistance that it required the strength of two officers to retrieve him. Two gallant firemen were injured in the discharge of their duties. One of them, William Kline, of Hook and Ladder Company, No. 8, sprained his ankle. The other, Capt. John Sattler, Foreman of Hook and Ladder Company, No. 2, was overcome by the heat, and carried off, and restoratives were applied with such relief that, in spite of the remonstrance of Dr. Shine, who attended him, he returned to his duties. He was again prostrated, and this time so seriously that it became necessary to send him to the Hospital.

In the meantime the fire worked its way southward, and destroyed the outbuildings and Customhouse department and the offices, batteries, and furniture of the Western Union and Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Companies, On the western side of the building were the apartments of the janitor, John Ivers, who lived with his aged mother. The rooms and furniture were entirely destroyed, and the old lady walked mournfully about, wringing her hands and deploring here loss and the absence of her son, who left home just before the fire, and had not returned at the time it was extinguished. Mrs. Esslinger, the matron, lived in the building in which are situated the hospital and Information Bureau, near which the fire originated. Her apartments escaped destruction, as did the Labor Bureau, a similar building, directly opposite. The other losers were Higgins and the firm of Schilling & McDovirt, brokers, who occupied desk-room directly beneath the Commissioners' offices. Their furniture was, of course, destroyed; but as their books and money were kept in safes, it is believed that their loss will be trifling, as the heat, though intense, was not of sufficiently long duration to penetrate a safe. Commissioners Joseph L. Parley and Vincent C. King, of the Fire Department, were on the ground, but Mr. Forrest, the President of the Board of Emigration, and Mr. Jackson, the Superintendent of the Garden, are in Washington, where they went on Friday to present a bill relative to the landing of the emigrants. All the books and records, excepting the more valuable papers, which were contained in safes, were destroyed. At one time the pier on the southern side of the Garden took fire, and burned for some time before it was observed and the flames extinguished. The grass in the park took fire in many places, and the foliage of the trees was seared. The swimming baths off the Battery were subjected to an intense heat, but escaped destruction.


The fire broke out on the second gallery to the right of the main entrance, being a portion of the wooden superstructure erected on the walls of the old fort. In this portion of the building were the apartments of the Matron, Mrs. Esslinger, Patrolman Quinlan, of the First Precinct, who was on duty on the Battery, saw a cloud of smoke ascending from the gallery which completely encircled the rotunda. He hastened to the Garden and found that the persons on duty there had already become aware of the fire and were making every effort possible to extinguish the flames, which appeared to be at that time confined to the space between the floor and the ceiling. A small line of hose had been connected with the water main, and with an insignificant stream of water the employees were endeavoring to check the progress of the flames. Their efforts were without avail, and precious time had been wasted which would have been more advantageously employed in summoning the Fire Department. The alarm was sent out from the box on the Battery by Officer Quinlan at 5:40 P.M., and was promptly responded to by the engines comprising the First Battalion under Chief Bonner. By the time the firemen arrived the fire had along the gallery until it encircled the whole of the superstructure, and had ignited the interior of the building, which was of wood. A second alarm was soon sent out, and this was quickly followed by a third. These repeated alarms brought to the scene of the conflagration, Chief Engineer Bates, with his assistant, Engineer Shay, and all the engines and hook and ladder trucks below Canal street. The fire-boat Havemeyer, Capt. Griffith, and the Police-boat Seneca, Capt. Irving, were also quickly on hand. With this large force at his command, Chief Bates hoped to be able to gain control of the flames before they had destroyed the building, but he was doomed to disappointment. The flames had gained to firm a hold on the light, inflammable materials of which the upper portion of the building was composed, and had the number of engines and the firemen been double the result would have been the same.

The flames made their way along the wooden beams and pillars supporting the dome of the Rotunda, and as soon as they commenced to burn the entire structure was doomed. A dense volume of black smoke ascended in to the air, and huge tongues of flame could be seen through this cloud of smoke, heating the already heated atmosphere, compelling the brave firemen to keep at a respectful distance. A brisk seabreeze, which sprang up soon after the fire broke out, drove the flames landward and threatened with destruction the numerous buildings within the inclosure, which are all composed of wood. The attention of the firemen was specially directed to saving these buildings, and in this they were successful, being aided by the thick walls of the old fort, which acted as a barrier against the progress of the flames in this direction. When the flames burst forth through the dome, the sight was magnificent.

The huge body of flame rose high in the air and lighted up the harbor for miles and cast a lurid glare on the shipping. The Battery, filled with an immense crowd of spectators, was a light as noonday, and the glare of the conflagration reflected on the crowded roofs of the tenements along State street and Battery place.

In less than an hour after the fire broke out the roof fell in with a loud crash, and the huge beams fell to the ground. They myriads of bright sparks and burning embers rushed upward into the night air as from an immense furnace, and were carried by the wind over the harbor to the imminent danger of the shipping. The falling of the roof gave the firemen their first advantage, as it rendered a nearer approach to the burning building possible. Ladders were placed against the old wells, and large streams of water were poured into the interior of the edifice over the walls and through the embrasures. No further damage was now apprehended, and at 8 o'clock Chief Bates joyfully announced that the fire was out.

The destruction of the Emigration Bureau is complete, with the exception of the buildings on the northern portion of the grounds, situated between the old walls and the outer fence with which the grounds are inclosed, and which comprise the hospital, Labor Bureau, and intelligence offices. The buildings were all by the State, and the loss is roughly estimated at $50,000, which is not covered by insurance.

Among the property destroyed was a large quantity of unclaimed baggage, and also a quantity of baggage in the Customs Department and under charge of the railroad companies, belonging to immigrants who had lately arrived, and who were en route to the West. The baggage of the last-mentioned class of immigrants is placed in charge of the railroad companies immediately upon the arrival of the emigrants at Castle Garden, and they are responsible for the safe delivery to the owners when they arrive at their destination, and it is therefore presumed that the loss will fall upon the railroad companies. It is supposed that nearly one thousand pieces of baggage were burned up. At the time of the fire there were 120 immigrants in the building, the majority of whom are Mennonites who arrived from Russia a few days ago. They were all removed from the building in safety by the large force of Police under Capt. Petty. After the flames had been extinguished Mayor Wickham arrived at the scene, and under his direction the immigrants were all properly cared for and provided with supper. They were also furnished with sleeping apartments in the hospital and Labor Bureau, where they remained during the night. To-day they will be provided with comfortable quarters on Ward's Island.

The force of the Police on the ground consisted of three sections from the First Precinct, under command of Capt. Petty and Sergts. Blair, Randal, and Smith, and a platoon from the Twenty-seventh Precinct, commanded by Capt. Sanders. Superintendent Walling and Inspector Dilka were also present during the fire. An excellent fire-line was established and maintained during the conflagration, despite the excited multitude which had been attracted to the spot.


Castle Garden comprised an old circular castle, which formed the main building, surrounded by numerous wooden additions. The main building was built of brown-stone blocks, closely cemented, forming a wall six feet thick. The port-holes retain their original shape, and the old nail-studded gates which guarded its portals in olden times are still in a state of good preservation. Inside the gateway, on either side, were commodious wash-rooms for males and females. On the right hand, beyond the wash-rooms, was the Ward's Island Bureau and medicinal departments, which are still standing. The principal room was large and provided with plain wooden benches for the reception of visitors. Opposite this building is the Labor Exchange, which has a separate entrance from the Battery. Not only immigrants but all others wanting employment have been supplied with places at this bureau. Next to the Labor Exchange is the City Express Office, from which the baggage of emigrants who intended remaining in this City was transported to its destination. Upon the second floor were the rooms of the janitor and matron. On the left side of the buildings just mentioned were similar structures, occupied by the Commissioners of Emigration, including their meeting room, the offices of the Secretary and Treasurer and clerks. Next adjoining was the Custom-house department, where all the baggage was examines, and adjoining that the building occupied by the several railroads.


Castle Garden has a somewhat eventful history. The building which was burned yesterday is connected in the minds of old residents of the City, mainly with public amusements, to which it was devoted previous to 1855; but the site of the building has more historic associations than any other in New-York. It is at the southern point of Manhattan Island that the first settlers of New Amsterdam established themselves, and here was built the battery, containing the Governor's residence. When it was captured by the British the battery received the name of Fort James. It was again temporarily occupied by the Dutch, and became "Fort William Hendrick." While thus occupied the works were greatly strengthened against an expected attack from the British settlements of Massachusetts Bay, but a treaty did more than the sword. New Amsterdam was ceded to the British, and Gov. Audros came. Col. Dongan, from who the Dongan charter derives its name, succeeded him. When the Stuart dynasty was driven from England the colonists here rose and seized the fort. For two years it was the central point of attraction for the colony, and it was in civil war that its guns first shed the blood of an enemy. Succeeding the unfortunate Livingstone, who had held temporary supremacy there came over Col. Sloughter, but he died a short time after at his residence in the fort. Col. Fletcher, who followed him, made New York and the Battery the resort of all the most desperate pirates that then infested the seas, this model Governor being in league and partnership with them. Under the Earl of Bellomont, who succeeded Fletcher, a great improvement was made, the pirates betook themselves elsewhere, the fort was improved, and the buildings repaired, a large garrison was maintained and military parades were daily held on the parade ground, now the Bowling Green. During the Governorship of John Montgomery, from whom the amended Dongan or Montgomery charters comes, the fort became the head-quarters of quite a courtly circle. On this charter "Fort Clinton," was reserved from the City itself. Gov. Montgomery was wealthy and of refined and cultivated tastes. The mansion in the fort was refitted and refurnished and the inventory of the Governor's effects at the time of his death shows that he lived in a princely style. On the death of Montgomery, the Government was administered for two years by the Chief of Connert, Rip Van Dam, a respected old Knickerbocker, but it is not known whether or not he lived in the mansion. Col. Cosby, then came out, and he was succeeded by various Governors and Generals down to the Revolutionary War, when the fort was occupied by Lord Howe, the British commander. At the close of the war the mansion was demolished to form a site for a residence for the President of the United States. A building was erected for this purpose, but the banks of the Potomac, and not those of the Hudson, were chosen for the official residence of the President, and the structure was never used for the purpose named. The outer walls, gates, stockage, &c., had been leveled at the time of the demolition of the mansion, but the circular fort itself was left untouched. After the war of 1812 it was thought that the Fort would be no longer needed for military purposes, and there was a general change. The mansion was demolished, the Battery turned into a great pleasure resort, and the land parceled out and sold in building lots, embracing nearly the entire block bounded by Sate, Pearl, and Whitehall streets.

Castle Garden then became the central place of amusement in New York. At this time it truly deserved its name, for the catellated structure which frowned on the bay was surrounded by the most beautiful gardens and shrubbery, and was naturally the Central Park of the day, the residential portion of the City being still in its near neighborhood. As a place of amusement it is remembered as the spot where Lafayette was entertained in 1825, and where Kossuth was welcomed in December, 1851; where the American Institute first held their annual fairs, where circuses, menageries, theatricals, and operas followed each other; where Sontag, Grisi, Alboni, and lastly the famous Jenny Lind made their first appearances before the New-York public. On the occasion of the appearance of that famous songstress, which was in 1851, the old fort had galleries and other additions made to it, inside and out, and took substantially the shape it had when destroyed by the fire yesterday. Indeed, two years ago so little change had been made that the flooring, benches, and galleries put up to accommodate the vast audiences which assembled at the Lind concerts were still in use, but in such a rotten state that great complaint was made of the bad management of the Commissioners in that having them properly replaced. With Jenny Lind the history of Castle Garden as a place of amusement may be said to have closed. The City had grown northward, the residential portion of moving up, and New-York was rapidly becoming-in fact had become-the great landing-place for foreign immigrants. It was with much regret, and not without long debate, that the Legislature consented to turn the old fort, so rich in historic and social associations, into a landing depot for immigrants. An act, however, was finally passed for that purpose, and on the 1st of August, 1855, Castle Garden was opened as a refuge for the crowds of ignorant and friendless foreigners arriving at our shores. Since that time the building has undergone very little alteration, but the grounds around which, since it had been used as a depot, had been allowed to remain in a disgraceful state of neglect and unsightliness, were in 1871 improved, and laid out into the present very pretty park.

It is interesting at this time, when the United States Supreme Court has decided that the State cannot regulate the landing of immigrants to recall some of the circumstances under which the Emigration Commission started. It encountered the most furious opposition from the horde of scoundrels and thieves who had gained a livelihood by preying on the unfortunate immigrants. On the third day after Castle Garden had been opened as an immigrant depot, three ship-loads of immigrants arrived, and were taken charge of by the officers and employees of the commission, who were immediately attached by the emigrant runners, who threw stones at them, and made a fierce demonstration. Commissioner Kennedy drew a revolver, the Police were called upon, and the runners were overawed. On the afternoon of the same day the question was discussed in the Common Council whether the use of Castle Garden as an emigrant depot was not a violation of the terms on which the building had been granted to the City by the United States. On the evening of August 6 the runners held a "grand indignation mass-meeting" on the Battery, the posters announcing the meeting calling upon "Americans to remember that Castle Garden is the place where we welcomed our beloved and immortal Washington and indomitable Jackson, and our chivalrous and ever-faithful ally in the hour of need, Lafayette." The meeting was called in the interest of Tammany politicians and was addressed by Capt. Isaiah Rynders and David O'Keefe and was very noisy and demonstrative. A large police force prevented any overt act, and protected the emigrants who were within the Garden, and who actually appeared like inmates of a besieged fortress. During the first year 183,186 emigrants landed at the Garden, brought by 615 vessels from 24 different ports.


(New York Times - July 12, 1876)

At Castle Garden yesterday a force of men was employed in clearing away the debris from the site of the baggage-room on the east side of the main building. Three safes were taken from the ruins in the center of the old fort, two of them belonging to the railroad brokers during business in the building and the other to Superintendent Doonan. The contents of all were found to be in good condition. Yesterday there were about 300 immigrants who had to be cared for by the Commissioners of who some 250 were Mennonites, who arrived on the steam-ship City of Chester. Owing to the confusion and delay caused by the fire, these last failed to get their drafts cashed, and were compelled to pass the night on-board one of the barges of the Erie Railway, by which line they went to their destinations in the West yesterday. The others who arrived on the steam-ship Oder will leave for the West so soon as their affairs can be arranged. Capt. Heintzieman, Mr. Connolly, and Mr. McQuade were busy all day taking affidavits of immigrants who lost their baggage in the fire. They were required to present their baggage checks and a schedule for the articles lost, with their value. The value of the baggage and personal effects lost amounts to about ten thousand dollars. This is covered by the insurance. The whole amount insurance by the Commissioners was $20,000. This only included the personal effects of the immigrants and the improvements added by the Commissioners together with the office furniture and other fixtures. It did not include the main building and its roof. In the opinion of Mr. Jackson, the Secretary of the board, the insured property lost, including the immigrants' baggage, will amount to about thirteen thousand five hundred dollars, and the total loss from forty to fifty thousand dollars.

A meeting was held yesterday afternoon at the Mayor's office for the purpose of considering the situation of affairs. Commissioners French, Quintard, Starr, Lynch, Mauger, and Mayor Wickham were present. After some discussion in regard to making temporary arrangements for the accommodation of the immigrants now on the hands of the board, and of those about to arrive, the matter was referred with power, to the Castle Garden Committee, consisting of Commissioners Huribut, Chairman; Lynch, Scnack, Starr, and Forrest, the President. The committee, it is understood, propose to erect awnings to shelter the immigrants from the sun, and to use the barges as temporary waiting-rooms for them, while awaiting the departure of trains.

On motion of the Mayor, Commissioners Forrest, Mauger and Starr were appointed a committee to obtain estimates for rebuilding the edifice. Commissioner Mauger was appointed a committee of one to collect the amount of insurance due the board. For the present the passengers who may arrive from day to day will be received and registered in the small wooden building formerly used as a Labor Bureau.

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