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CASTLE GARDEN, NEW YORK


From The Illustrated American, March 1, 1890 with additions from other sources - Transcribed and edited by BÝrge Solem 2005-09

AFTER serving for wellnigh half a century as the reception hall and temporary home of nine million strangers and pilgrims to the shores of the New World, Castle Garden, that quaintly ugly combination of fortress and shanty, which, in one guise or another, has occupied a corner of Battery Park, New York, since the days of Dutch domination, is once more to be decorated with a " For Rent " sign. The immigrants of the future are to set foot on other landing piers than those which, since 1855, have hidden the warlike embrasures of the old fort. The great rotunda, through which the babel of foreign tongues has resounded for forty-five years, is once again to know that silence which fell upon it after the thrilling notes of the "Swedish Nightingale" had made its dingy old walls famous throughout the world.

The site now occupied by Castle Garden was originally a rocky islet in the bay about three hundred yards from the mainland. When the Dutch rulers of New York selected the spot to build a fort there, it was connected with the shore by a drawbridge of wood and stone, and the river-waters flowing all around it served all the purposes of a moat. The Dutch coast defenses were supplanted, during the War of 1812, by forts of stone, then considered wellnigh impregnable. Among these, Fort Clinton, named after the Governor of New York, was reared by the Federal Government on the site of the crude old fortress. But the guns that frowned from its open front (now hidden by the landing-stage and immigrant sheds) were never fired and the soldier occupants had little to do save display their fine uniforms to the frequenters of Battery Park, then the fashionable promenade of New York's citizens.

Castle Clinton (Garden)
Castle Clinton (Garden)

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Castle Garden emigrant depot
Castle Garden emigrant depot
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At the close of the war, when the inutility of another fort in such close proximity to Castle William became apparent, Fort Clinton was dismantled. In 1824, on the occasion of the second visit of Lafayette to America, the interior was turned into a ball-room, where the Nation's guest was welcomed by the notabilities of the city and vicinity. In 1839 it was leased for a term of years to Richard French, who transformed the rather gloomy-looking structure into what would now be called a beer-garden. This became a popular resort -especially at night. The trees that flourished around the old fort were hung with lanterns. The music, the cool breezes from the bay, and the modest price of beverages proved great attractions. After a few years the more vulgar elements were eliminated from the amusements, the concert-hall resounded with the notes of leading singers, and quaked at the thunder of Jullien's monster orchestra. The plebs were routed; the garden became a fashionable resort. The summit of its prosperity was reached in 1850, when Jenny Lind made here her first public appearance in this country. An enormous audience, eclipsing any previous record of that time, packed the house from orchestra to gallery. Barnum had heralded the Nightingale's fame far and wide. Bonfires blazed on the Battery Green, bands played, all New York turned out to gaze upon the fortunate hundreds who held admission tickets. The river, even, was dotted with boats whose occupants gazed upon the illuminations and caught faint echoes of the thunders of applause that reverberated throughout the former fortress. From that night until May 5, 1855, when the Commissioners of Emigration entered upon the tenancy that they are about to relinquish, the Garden was devoted to a high class of operatic and other entertainments. The American Institute Fairs were held there at one time, and, although the lower portion of the city was no longer the fashionable place to live in, the Garden remained a leading place of amusement.


Immigrants gathered in the Castle Garden immigraiton processing center, 1865
Immigrants gathered in the Castle Garden immigration processing center, 1865
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Castle garden Interior
Interior of the emigrant depot
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Castle Garden 1864
Castle Garden 1864
, military recruitment officers at Castle Garden trying to recruit the immigrants for the army during the Civil War
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For eight years the Board of Emigration had been endeavoring to check the tide of knavery and temptation in which immigrants of that day were certain to be ingulfed directly upon their arrival. "Runners" for boardinghouses of the worst type, despicable scoundrels with hundreds of nefarious schemes, rough bullies, and smooth-tongued fiends beset the steamship wharves, and cast their nets for the unwary stranger of either sex.


Vicious and criminal immigrants clasped hands at once with citizens after their own heart, only too glad to welcome and initiate them into the evil mysteries of the New World. Honest but ignorant peasants and artisans, many of them unable to speak a word of English, fell helplessly into the clutches of scoundrels who had preceded them from their native lands. Desperadoes of both sexes were engendered by the squalor, vice, and helplessness of their surroundings. Thousands who might have risen in the scale of being on the Western prairies sank into the condition of brute beasts in the slums of the city. Thus it followed that the new blood pouring into America was in constant process of pollution; and a race of evil-doers was being manufactured that boded ill for present and future generations.

This evil was to be stamped out by the Commissioners of Emigration. To do their work effectually, it was necessary to secure some reception depot at which to centralize the en tire influx of immigrants. Castle Garden, with its water-front and ample space, seemed an excellent spot. And so it came about that the bureau established themselves here. Immigrants were protected from sharpers in New York and along the route they proposed to travel after leaving that city. Officials speaking every language and dialect of Europe were upon the staff of the Commissioners, ready to give information as to means of transport, and the probabilities of employment in every State in the Union. Facilities were given to employers for communicating with the immigrants, and thus large numbers found occupation a few hours after landing. Particular care was taken of young and unprotected females. Of course, the revolution was not wrought in a day. The undesirable classes whose very existence depended upon their plunder of the stranger flocked to the neighborhood of the new reception place. They had been scotched but not killed. Every now and then sweeping and decisive action has been called for in order to stay the abuses which have managed to avoid the vigilance of the Commissioners. Many of us can remember the outcry which was raised over the decoying of young girls into the haunts of evil; the outcry over the white-slave traffic of the Italian padrones and other brutes of different nationalities. The Commissioners have ably seconded the efforts of press and public toward securing a reform. At present the problem is not so much the protection of the immigrants as our own protection from the worthless classes among the hordes who yearly seek an asylum here. Criminals who would be a curse, paupers who could only be a burden, to the community are returned to the shores from which they came. It is even contended that some means should be devised to check a growing practice of foreigners who come here to drain the country of money which they take away to spend in their native lands as soon as they have amassed sufficient to satisfy their desires. But now that the supervision over the immigrant has been transferred from the State to the National Government, it is not unlikely that new legislation will soon meet the needs of the time.

Since its occupation by the Emigration Commissioners the Garden has known but little change. The greatest event in its recent history was the fire which on the afternoon of July 10, 1876, entirely destroyed the wooden shell that "Colonel" French had erected over and around the fort, when he transformed it into a concert-hall. Several of the out-buildings also furnished food to the flames, for the more modern portion of the Garden was as dry as tinder, and the fire spread with remarkable rapidity.




Attempts were made to cause the removal of the immigration depot to some more secluded spot, and in consequence the rebuilding of the Garden was somewhat delayed. But the present structure was built with little change from the original. The balconies were, of course, omitted, and the aspect of the floor, with its multifarious enclosures where sit the money-changers, the railroad-ticket sellers, telegraph operators, etc., is remarkably like a cattle pen. A plain-looking restaurant is almost hidden away in a dark corner, and wholesome food at moderate prices can be purchased there. The hospital, doctor's apartments, labor bureau, and other adjuncts of the establishment are not remarkable in any way. Overlooking the rotunda, from whose not over-fragrant atmosphere they are shut off by a glass passage-way, are the offices of the Commissioners, and of Superintendent Jackson, who has occupied that post for more than twenty years. Mr. Jackson has seen many queer things during his long term of office. To him are referred all dubious cases which, from physical inability, surplus of dependents, or other cause, seem likely to become a charge upon the country if admitted. Of course, the Commissioners have to make the final decision, but by his clear questions and careful scrutiny Superintendent Jackson can save them much trouble, and by tests, suggested by his long experience, decide pretty accurately whether the would-be immigrant is acceptable or not. The marvelous increase in immigration since Mr. Jackson first assumed his duties in Castle Garden has necessitated a corresponding increase in the facilities for transferring passengers from ships and providing for their accommodation in the Garden. Eight steam-boats are now employed in the service. When the arrival of a ship at the bar is reported and the number of her steerage passengers ascertained, the landing agent, Mr. Henry Moore, makes preparations to receive the latter. As the ship steams past Castle Garden on the wav to her dock, one of the transfer boats gets up steam, and almost as soon as the leviathan is at her dock the little transport is by her side with boarding officers and customs officials.

The scene at the Garden itself is a remarkably vivid and picturesque one. People of all nations seemed to have assembled within the spacious rotunda when the representative of THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN visited it, on a recent Sunday afternoon, and caught some photographs by flash-light of the strange scene. Sclavs, the men in garb not essentially different from that of the Germans, but the women wearing short skirts that afforded an ample view of their top-boots worn to the knee; Italians, with black hair, lustrous eyes, swarthy skins - the women gay with colored kerchiefs; German and French peasants ; Russian serfs in long, woolly, grayish overcoats, apparently blizzard proof; Scotch lads and lassies with glowing, rosy cheeks and sturdy frames ; Emerald Islanders, with their soft brogue and humorous features ; stolid-looking Englishmen, gazing around as if in hope of securing some dropped aspirate; Polish Jews, black-browed and suspicious-all these and many natives of minor states and little known kingdoms, speaking, seemingly, myriad tongues, the concentrated essence of which wafted roofward seemed to make the rafters quiver with its incessant, discordant babel - were gathered together in the old fort. Some were yet filing slowly through the narrow passage-way near the seaward entrance, where questions as to his age, nativity, occupation, companions, condition of health, and ability to provide for himself and companions are asked each immigrant. If the answers returned are not satisfactory, the applicant is turned aside and temporarily detained in a large pen, or cage, on the east side of the rotunda. If accepted, he is hurried on through a maze-like succession of barriers into the open space on the north. The outer gates are not opened until all the passengers have passed the scrutinizing barrier; and it was while the few last immigrants were undergoing examination that the photographs of the immigrants were taken.

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