From the Pale to the Golden Land
Castle Garden: Port of Immigration

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Historic Castle Garden
as reported by the Sun, a New York City newspaper

The article below appeared in the Sun, a New York City newspaper on February 23, 1890:



A Fort Early in the Century, Then the Home of Opera and the Drama in New York, and, Lastly, During 35 Years,
the Depot for Nearly 10,000,000 Immigrants--Henceforth Perhaps a Place of Amusement or Merely a Respectable Relic.

The determination of the United States Government to take the management of the landing of immigrants at this port out of the hands of the State Board of Emigration and remove the landing station from Castle Garden to Bedlow's Island leaves the fate of the old circular building at the Battery an interesting question. Probably few will regret the banishment of the immigrants and their attendant lodging-house runners from Castle Garden. The old building and the beautiful park upon which it opens have been but grudgingly given up to these newcomers by the citizens of New York. There is no more delightful spot upon the Island than the few waterfront acres of which Castle Garden is the centre. But for the thirty-five years that the old fort has been leased by the Board of Emigration, Battery Park has been practically deserted by the town folk. Since it has been announced that the landing station is to go elsewhere, a very general hope has been expressed that Battery Park will become again a popular summer breathing spot.

But what of Castle Garden? The lease to the Board of Emigration having expired, the property will go back to the city. Assuming that Battery Park will remain a park, it is most likely that the old round fort will be again leased as a pleasure resort, as it was 40 years ago, but it is hardly likely that it will become again the summer home of the best opera and drama. Perhaps it will become a mere summer garden for the dispensing of music and soda water, and the enjoyment of sea breezes. Or it may sink into a respectable but unostentatious old age, and exist merely as an honored relic of the past, a curiosity that visitors to the city are advised by their guide books to see. Of one thing everybody feels sure, and that is that the historic old building will not be leased as had been rumored, to a shipping house for the purpose of trade.

There is probably no building now standing in the city which so closely connects the present with the past, or about which cluster so many memories appealing directly to the people, as Castle Garden. It is not very old--it was built in 1805--but it was the immediate successor of another old fort at the Battery, which dates way back into Dutch times. The old fort was destroyed soon after the yoke of England was shaken off. Castle Garden took its place as an American fort, and figured in later years as a famous New York resort.

The old fort was built by the Dutch on a site now nearly embraced by State, Pearl, and Whitehall streets and Bowling Green. It was an earthwork at first, which from time to time was strengthened by stonework until it was gradually developed into a stone fort. It was occupied as a place of residence by a number of successive Dutch Governors, the last of whom was Gov. Stuyvesant. He could not stand the disagreeable spot, and moved out to a farmhouse of his own, several miles out of town. When the English got possession the appearance of the English flag above the ramparts of the fort where Dutch Governors had lived for fifty years was a continual irritation to the old Dutch burghers, who a few years after the capture took advantage of the absence of Gov. Francis Lovelace in Connecticut to recapture the fort and plant their own standards facing Bowling Green. What was, under the English, fort James, became now Fort William Hendrick. But not for long, for by treaty the fort came again into English hands. The colonists next rose against the English. This was in 1689, and was due partly to the fall of the Stuarts in England and chiefly to the unpopularity of the English Governor of New York, Col. Dongan. The colonists seized the fort and held it for two years, when the home Government regained it and remained in possession until the Revolution.

After the establishment of the new nation the fort was torn down and a residence for the President of the United States was erected on the site. This was never used, however. When the old fort was torn down a new fort was projected to take its place on the extreme southern point of the island, but was not built until 1805. It was then named Fort Clinton, but was popularly called the Castle from its shape. It became known as Castle Garden when it was made a pleasure resort in 1847.

The builder of Castle Garden was Col. Jonathan Williams, the son of a Revolutionary patriot and the grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin. He studied military science and fortifications in France, and was made Chief Engineer of the American army in1805, when he built most of the forts in the inner harbor of New York, including Fort Columbus, Fort Clinton, and Castle Williams on Governor's Island, which was named for him. As originally built, the fort was separated from the mainland of Manhattan Island by a strip of water which was bridged by a draw, and which was filled in later. It was a circular building of solid stone masonry, with walls in some places thirty feet thick. It was mounted with barbette and casement guns. It was regarded at the time as a triumph of skill and solidity, though it would be little more than an egg shell against modern guns. The original walls built by Col Williams still stand. Fort Clinton was regarded for a number of years as the chief defense of the city of New York. It was liberally armed and garrisoned by the Government, and was considered by military men one of the best forts in the country.

During the second war with England, Fort Clinton was the centre of a great deal of activity on the part of the citizens of this town. In 1814 the blockade which the English had established at Southern ports was extended all along the coast and included New York. The possibility of a naval attack at once presented itself, and early in the spring the Common Council called a mass meeting of citizens to consider the situation. A final meeting was held in City Hall Park on Aug. 11, 1814, which was presided over by Col Henry Rutgers, with Oliver Wolcott as secretary. The citizens pledged themselves to rally for the defense of the city. Enlisting stations were at once opened, and companies and regiments were rapidly formed, and drilled opposite Fort Clinton under the supervision of the officers stationed there. Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins and Major-Gen. Morgan Lewis were then in charge of military affairs in the city. Fort Clinton was much strengthened at this time by gangs of citizens working with trowel and spade. The intense excitement of the times, centering at the Battery, spread in all directions about the port and, largely by volunteer labor of citizens, works were thrown up on Brooklyn Heights, Ellis Island, Bedlow's Island, and Staten Island, and forts were built all around the lower bay and along the shores of the East River. McGowan's Pass was fortified to protect the city from approach by way of Harlem, and at Manhattan Pass a battery was trained on Bloomingdale.


After the war Fort Clinton was kept in good military shape for a few years only because the defenses in other approaches to the city had made it practically useless. It was deeded to the State in 1822. Then began its civic existence, which is more interesting than its military career. From 1824, when Lafayette landed there on his visit to this country, until 1853, when theatrical representations of a rather cheap sort were produced there, the fort was a popular resort.

photo: Castle Garden, 1924.

The guns and munitions of war were gone, but the fort was in all other respects unchanged. On festive occasions the fort in front of the drawbridge was lighted with colored lamps, and the draw decorated with bunting. Bird cages and hanging baskets were hung in the casements where cannon had frowned. Groves of trees were planted in the parks, and at night the whole was brilliantly illuminated. Early in this period the fort was in the most fashionable portion of the town. Canal street was out of town and Bleecker street a suburb. Chambers street was lined with the residences of the rich and Columbia College was at the foot of Park place. The up-town movement was felt somewhat in the quarter around Bowling Green and State street, but still that section was the centre of the conservative Knickerbockers and social leaders of the day. An old print, which is one of the most highly prized treasures in Mr. Jackson's office in Castle Garden, shows the Battery Park of this period. The park contained a few small trees and flowers were planted along the walk. Men in fashionable clothes are pictured strolling along the water front, and mothers innumerable walking with their daughters. At night, books of the period relate, hundreds of people, representing the wealthiest and most respected families of the city, used to stroll about the park and into Castle Garden.

The reception given to Lafayette in 1824 was one of the great events of that period. The newspapers relate that carpet was spread on the steps of Castle Garden leading from the landing where Lafayette stepped ashore from the steamboat Robert Fulton. He had landed on Staten Island upon arriving from England.

That night there was a great ball given in his honor in Castle Garden, and a huge illuminated balloon in the shape of the race horse Eclipse was sent up from the roof. In 1832 there was a reception in honor of President Jackson in Castle Garden, and in 1843 one in honor of President John Tyler.

A reception was given to Henry Clay at Castle Garden in 1848, and John Quincy Adams's remains were landed there. In 1850 a great Union meeting was held there, which was addressed by Henry Clay, Gen. Cass, Mr. Webster, H. C. Winthrop, and Ogden Hoffman. Mass meetings and celebrations without number were held there of the sort for which New Yorkers to-day hire Cooper Union or the Metropolitan Opera House.

photo: Castle Garden, c. 1845-50.


In 1847 Castle Garden began its career as a theatre and opera house. In this capacity its fame was great. It was here that Jenny Lind made her famous appearance in America under the management of P. T. Barnum. Here also many of the greatest actors and singers of the day appeared. Richard French, afterward the builder and proprietor of Frenchis Hotel, next to THE SUN office, was the man who first saw the possibilities of Castle Garden as a resort. For several years he made attempts to secure it, without success. At last he obtained a lease of several years, the lessees being the firm of French & Heiser.

The building was remodeled inside, and shut in with a high roof. It was fitted up as luxuriously as any place of amusement in the country at that time. A sketch of the interior, copied fro a book of the period, is reproduced here. The purpose was to make Castle Garden a summer theatre, in which none but the best actors and singers should appear. The house was opened on the evening of June 28, 1847, with a theatrical company which included Herr Cline, Holland, Walcott, Miss Clark, Miss Phillips, and Miss Isherwood. On Aug. 18 the Havana Opera Company, the leading opera organization of the period, appeared in "Ersani," which was alternated afterward with "Norma," "Somnambula," and "Saffo." The following summer George Holland became the dramatic director of Castle Garden, and produced a number of plays new to Americans. A notable performance was the American production of "Le Garde Mobile," on June 24. The cast was:
Martin Hyacinthe....................................................Mr. Conover
Hector......................................................................Mr. Nickerson
Jacques Buriet.........................................................Mr. Clark
Rigoletta...................................................................Miss Nickerson

Later Rosalie Cline (Mrs. Merrifield) made her first appearance here in "Sweethearts and Wives." In August a benefit to the returning volunteers of the Mexican war was a popular event. The season of 1848 was closed by a great ball, which the comedian Holland gave to his patrons. It was preceded by a performance of "Box and Cox." The Havana Opera Company again appeared in 1850.

Jenny Lind at Castle Garden, 1850


It was in 1850 that New York first heard Jenny Lind. She came over under the management of Phineas Taylor Barnum. Mr. Barnum contracted to pay her $1,000 a night, the first two nights, however, to be share and share alike. There was great excitement in New York over the coming of the prima donna. Seats in Castle Garden were sold at auction, and so great was the crowd that a shilling admission was charged to the auction, so as to weed out all except those who wanted to bid. The first choice was secured by John N. Genin, the leading hatter of the city, for $225. A thousand tickets were sold for $10,141, and the total receipts were  $17,864.05.

Jenny Lind at Castle Garden, 1850.

The first concert was the occasion of a great ovation to the singer. P. T. Barnum has described the scene in his book. He says:

P.T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum


Jenny Lind

Jenny Lind

"My arrangements for the concert room were very complete. The great parterre and gallery of Castle Garden were divided by imaginary lines into four compartments, each of which was designated by a lamp of a different color. The tickets were printed in colors corresponding with the location which the holders were to occupy, and 100 ushers, with rosettes and bearing wands tipped with ribbons of several hues, enabled every individual to find his or hear seat without the slightest difficulty. Every seat was, of course, numbered in color to correspond with the check, which each person retained after giving up an entrance ticket at the door. Thus tickets, checks, lamps, rosettes, wands, and even the seat numbers were all in the appropriate colors to designate the different departments. These arrangements were duly advertised, and every particular was also printed on each ticket. In order to prevent confusion, the doors were open at 5 o'clock, while the concert did not begin till 8. The consequence was that although about 5,000 persons were present at the first concert, their entrance was marked with as much order and quiet as was ever witnessed in the assembling of a congregation at a church.

"The reception of Jenny Lind on her first appearance in point of enthusiasm was probably never before equaled in the world. As Mr. Benedict led her toward the footlights the entire audience arose to their feet and welcomed her with cheers, accompanied by the waving of thousands of hats and handkerchiefs. This was by far the larges audience to which Jenny Lind had ever sung. She was evidently much agitated, but the orchestra commenced, and before she had sung a dozen notes of 'Casta Diva," she began to recover her self-possession, and long before the scena was concluded she was in her own drawing room. Toward the last portion of the cavatina, the audience was so completely carried away by their feelings that the remainder of the air was drowned in a perfect tempest of acclamation. Enthusiasm had been wrought to its highest pitch, but the musical powers of Jenny Lind exceeded all the brilliant anticipations which had been formed, and her triumph was complete. At the conclusion of the concert Jenny Lind was loudly called for, and was obliged to appear three times before the audience could be satisfied. Then they called vociferously for Barnum, and I reluctantly responded to their demand. On this first night Mr. Julius Benedict firmly established with the American people his European reputation as a most accomplished conductor and musical composer, while Signor Belletti inspired an admiration which grew warmer and deeper in the minds of the American people to the end of his career in this country."

Jenny Lind contributed $10,000 of her share of the proceeds of her first two nights to the charities of the city. The proceeds of the second night's concert were $14,203.03.

The appearance of the Swedish singer was Castle Garden's greatest triumph. The year following Maretzek inaugurated entertainments at a popular price there. "Marino Faliero" was sung for several weeks with an admission fee of 50 cents to the best seats, and proved a paying attraction. A notable benefit performance was given in August of that year to E. A. Marshall, lessee of the Broadway Theatre. It was called a dramatic jubilee. It lasted from 10 A. M. until midnight, and consisted of selections from numerous plays and operas, presented by different companies. Mme. Ponisi appeared at different times in the course of the day in different parts. Her name appears frequently upon the Castle Garden play bills during the whole tie it was a theatre. In 1852 the Julien concert group gave some notable concerts there, and Sontag appeared. The last year or two of Castle Garden's career as a theatre, the productions were of a more popular character.


In May 1855, French & Heiser's lease expired, and Castle Garden was leased by the State Board of Emigration. It has since then been used as a landing depot for immigrants. Its history under its present control has been hum-drum. Up to Jan. 1, 1890, 9,639,635 immigrants had landed at Castle Garden, and scattered themselves over the land. The building was burned out on July 10, 1876, and there was talk then of moving the landing station to some other place, but nothing was done. The rebuilding cost $30,000. The original walls were not injured by the fire.   next ►►

photo: interior of Castle Garden, 1871.

Photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.





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