THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY
The First Entry Point To America
Before there existed Ellis Island to serve as gateway to America for
millions of immigrants, there was Castle Garden. Set on a spit of rocky
land thrust 300 feet into New York harbor and connected to the mainland by
a narrow wooden bridge, it was first constructed as a fortress in 1807 to
defend Manhattan against a possible British invasion.
In 1822, Castle Clinton (as it was known then, named after Governor DeWitt Clinton) had lost any military value and was given, along with its adjoining grounds, to New York City, which in turn rented the combined package to two enterprising businessmen, Philip French and Christopher Heiser. They refurbished the circular building, installing a stage and 6000 seats in a rotunda-style arena, and a domed ceiling overhead. They also landscaped the grounds, planting trees and flowerbeds. Rechristened Castle Garden, it became an elegant entertainment hall, the finest of its kind in the City. Concerts were held. Fireworks displays lit up the night sky over the waterfront. Foreign dignitaries such as the Marquis de Lafayette and the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth were feted there.
With increasing numbers of immigrants flooding the Port of New York, its officials needed a central facility to process them. Newcomers would simply disembark on the piers, into a roiling mob of relatives waiting to greet them, government inspectors recording their arrival and hordes of predators ready to fleece the unsuspecting foreigners.
City fathers decided not to renew French and Heiser’s lease, and in 1855 the New York State Legislature designated Castle Garden the official receiving station for all potential new Americans. A board of nine Emigration Commissioners with absolute authority was appointed to govern the facility. The former amusement palace was stripped of its central stage and other amenities in the conversion process. Despite the vigorous objections of Lower Manhattan residents and businessmen, who predicted the degrading of the area by European riffraff, Castle Garden opened for business on August 1, 1855. Over the next 35 years, some eight million souls seeking a better life, from Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia—and, towards the century’s end from the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Poland—passes through this narrow funnel into the American Eden.
Early on, the typical immigrant would usually arrive in steerage class, in old wooden sailing vessels that were nothing more than floating firetraps. The cost was about $18 for a two-month thoroughly degrading journey across the monstrous Atlantic Ocean. Later, from the 1870’s on, as steamships came into their own, the charge rose to $30, but travel time was cut to about 10 days.
In either case, the ships would anchor in the harbor until Emigration Commission representatives would board to do a cursory inspection of the human cargo and weed out the obviously ill and the patently undesirable Then two 150-ton barges would ferry the remaining hopefuls to the facility.
Almost from the first, Castle Garden proved insufficient to the task of handling the influx of humanity (300,000 alone in 1886). A reporter for Harper’s Weekly described the scene through the immigrant’s eyes, as terrified and apprehensive, the newcomer first entered the massive circular building with its walls of stone six feet thick. “The whole floor is as busy as an anthill and a great deal noisier, a great deal more picturesque, also with the strange shapes and hues of the costumes of many nations, and vocal with more different dialects of human speech than have been heard since the Tower of Babel.”
Immediately inside the dank, gloomy, poorly-lighted, foul-smelling building, in a confined section resembling a cattle pen, were large public washrooms, one for males, another for females, both supplied amply with 20-foot-long troughs of running water, lots of cheap brown soap, and large rolls of clean towels to wash off the stink and grime and sweat after many days of close confinement at sea.
Refreshed, the soon-to-be Americans would emerge into a huge central area where physicians would give a two-minute examination, weeding out those unsuitables overlooked by the boarding inspectors. Next, teams of officials would register each entrant by name, birthplace and destination in large ledgers, a daunting task, as the officials had to have some knowledge of many languages. One of the foreign tongues, used with the Russians and the Poles, was called ‘jargon’ though its true name was Yiddish.
Among the questions asked by the teams were: “How much did you pay for your passage?” “How much money do you have?” (Generally it was between $5 and $50, the Russians and Poles having the least.) And “Who encouraged you to come to America?”
Show the lease hesitation or evasiveness, or appear mentally or morally deficient, and that European would be culled out and returned to country of origin.
The grueling ordeal of cross-examination over, the accepted immigrant would be then permitted to visit the only lunch counter on the premises for an inexpensive but hearty meal of sausage and coarse bread, washed down with steaming cups of highly diluted coffee. Then on to a central booth labeled ‘Money Exchange’ where foreign currency could be turned in for American greenbacks. At the ‘Railroad ‘ kiosk, ticket agents would take some of those greenbacks for train fare to the Midwest and other destinations. Many of these agents were unscrupulous, in the pay of the railroads, and would send the unwary by circuitous routes, or often to the wrong station, to increase the fares and the commissions earned.
Directly abutting Castle Garden was the ‘Labor Exchange’, where the newly landed would wait on wooden benches for prospective employers. The most frequently hired were domestics, farm laborers and factory workers.
Absent from all the tumult, was a dispensary for the sick who had to be transported to nearby Ward’s Island for medical care. Neither were there any accommodations for children, nor an information center to answer questions, to calm the immigrant’s fears, nor to ease the transition between worlds.
Once permitted entry onto American soil, the immigrant had to be out of Castle Garden by nightfall. There were no beds available, and the benches weren't for sleeping.
An even greater horror was to be found outside the exit gates, on the once landscaped, now neglected promenade. Bands of sharks and vultures descended, only too eager to separate the immigrant from his remaining cash. These were the pickpockets, the prostitutes, the hawkers of overinflated goods---and the ‘runners’: fast-talking, devious hustlers, who would steer the recent arrival to one of the many seedy, expensive boarding houses that had sprung up like mushrooms around Castle Garden.
The partners-in-crime of these ‘runners’ were the baggage handlers, who competed with one another for the right to transport the confused immigrant and his few possessions, at exorbitant rates, to the boarding houses. Once there, they would demand an extra tip before surrendering the immigrant’s belongings.
And even on the train speeding them away from Castle Garden, the beleaguered newcomer wasn’t safe. Often their Americanized countrymen would strike up friendly conversations across the aisle, then shove a handkerchief soaked in chloroform under their noses and make off with their baggage.
The Russian and Polish Jews, though among the poorest to endure the Castle Garden gauntlet, were the most fortunate. They were the third wave of Jewish migration to America, the first being the descendants of Spanish Jewry expelled by the Inquisition, the second made up of those escaping from Southern Germany after the anti-Semitic backlash unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars and the minor revolutions of 1830 and 1848.
But their combined numbers were minuscule compared to the Eastern Jews, who’d fled the Pale of Settlement as a result of the pogroms and other abominations encouraged by Czar Alexander lll. This third wave, according to Julian Ralph of Harper’s Weekly were “stalwart, broad-shouldered, muscular Russian Hebrews who did not look at all like Hebrews [and] were enormously aided by The United Hebrew Charities, which had at its dispersal $150,000 annually. The Germans and Irish maintain a free labor bureau, and they and the Scandinavians, Italians, Poles, French, Scotch and English…protect their countrymen in various ways; but not all of them together support so wholesale and grand a charity as that of the Hebrews. Their Society is perhaps the principal source of those emigrant bonds by which the government is guaranteed against the landing of possible paupers…The Hebrew fund is being applied in Europe to send victims of Russian persecution here and to South America, and, in this country, to care for them after they land.”
With immigration continuing to flourish exponentially, conditions in Castle Garden grew steadily worse for the boatloads entering each day. What was initially a godsend to the downtrodden of Europe, became a nightmare for all concerned, what Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper World described as “a place for tyranny and whimsical rule…the disgrace of the nation in the eyes of those who desire to become citizens.”
In 1887, a congressional committee investigated the situation, deciding that Castle Garden had outlived its usefulness. Provisions were made to erect a vastly more efficient and humane edifice, this time under Federal jurisdiction. The site chosen was a tiny island in the harbor that had served as a munitions depot. It was called Ellis Island after its former owner Samuel Ellis.
Castle Garden lay dark and unused for years, reincarnated in 1896 as an aquarium. Closed again in 1940 while the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was being burrowed out, it was turned over a decade later to the Interior Department and the original fort was declared a National Monument. This historic piece of Americana came to an ignoble end, as at present it houses the ticket booths for the Statue of Liberty and to the newly refurbished Ellis Island.
Photograph courtesy of the
New York Public Library,
Humanities and Social
Sciences/ Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of
Art, Prints and Photographs
Copyright © 2008-9 Museum of Family History. All rights reserved. Image Use Policy