An often overlooked and forgotten New York City landmark, Castle Clinton welcomed many of the city’s residents into its walls as a place of innovation, entertainment, and new beginnings.
The circular sandstone fort which currently stands in Battery Park, was built to improve harbor fortifications in 1811. The Southwest Battery, as it was known, never fired a shot.
Constructed on a rocky outcropping just off shore, the Southwest Battery was connected to the mainland by a wooden drawbridge. The fort, renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 after city Mayor and New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton, was decommissioned in 1822. Its garrison was moved to Governor’s Island and the federal government ceded the property back to the city, who leased the Castle as a “place of resort.”
Opening to much fanfare, Castle Clinton was reintroduced to the public as Castle Garden on July 4, 1824. It became the city’s preeminent public hall and entertainment space, as it gained a long-standing reputation as a social and cultural gathering point through the events, activities, and spectacle that occurred within its walls.
Castle Garden welcomed visiting dignitaries and heads of states such as the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. US Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and Hungarian political reformer Lajos Kossuth were also greeted at Castle Garden by massive crowds and overwhelming enthusiasm.
In the 1820s through the 1840s, Castle Garden was one of the city’s fashionable resorts. New Yorkers established boathouses and floating saltwater bathhouses around the Garden’s wooden drawbridge. The Garden additionally acted as an outdoor venue for concerts, operas, horse shows, and lectures. In 1842, Samuel Morse demonstrated sending telegraphic signals between Castle Garden and Castle Williams on Governor’s Island via a submerged two-mile copper wire in New York Harbor.
Many of New York City’s affluent families settled around the Battery and its adjacent neighborhood at this time, so much so that Bowling Green was dubbed Nob’s Row. The proprietors of Castle Garden (French and Heiser) renewed their lease in 1843, and in a move to keep up appearances, transformed the Garden into a theatre with the addition of a roof.
In 1850, the renowned European singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” made her American debut at Castle Garden which led the theatre to be “packed to its utmost capacity.” Yet, Castle Garden’s days as a beloved public performing venue end when the private lease ended in 1854.
The Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot
During the mid-nineteenth century, the city of New York experienced an influx of European immigration, particularly from Ireland and Germany. New York State established a Board of Commissioners of Emigration to oversee immigrant entry. At the time, New York was the nation’s busiest port of entry.
Then, on April 13, 1855, the New York State legislature passed “An Act for the Protection of Immigrants, Second Class, Steerage, and Deck Passengers.” In May the Commissioners obtained the lease to Castle Garden and transformed the Garden into a state-run Emigrant Landing Depot.
On August 3rd, what had been one of the city’s premier locations for spectacle and theatre reopened as the New York State Emigrant Landing Depot. In the months leading to the Garden’s transformation however, there was a backlash. Men who held financial interest around Manhattan’s Battery, such as railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and restaurateur Lorenzo Delmonico, attempted to halt construction.
Schemes to stop the Garden’s conversion included a plan to develop a “Washington Monument,” a 600-foot structure which would replace Castle Garden. A New York Times editorial captured the adverse reaction of elite New Yorkers:
“No more Operas, or Kossuth Receptions or Concerts – that is settled. Yesterday the Commissioners of Emigration took possession of these beautiful and very historical quarters… and hereafter the Garden will be used as a sort of depot, vulartie, pen, into which paupers, convicts and honest men and reputable of Europe shall be tunneled from shipboard through the city to their places of destination.”
Despite the protests of those who feared the incoming immigrant population would bring disease and disorder, the Landing Depot welcomed over 8 million people to the United States from 1855 to 1890. It offered immigrants a decent reception into the city of New York, by at least partly protecting them from the worst of the unscrupulous businesses who employed “runners” to corral customers their way. Previously, these runners could easily take advantage of newcomers arriving around the city’s many docks (much as some ticket hawkers still do today with tourists in Battery Park).
Now, immigrants entered the Garden through a wharf at the back of the depot. Once inside, they were ushered into the large rotunda. The registration desk would often be the first stop for newcomers, who were greeted by clerks conversant in various languages; their names, the ship on which they arrived, and final destination were recorded. (These records are now available online for free).
Castle Garden provided immigrants with bathing rooms, a money exchange, a Labor Bureau, luggage storage, and a means to obtain transportation to their destination. Notable figures who passed through the facility included Erik Weisz (Harry Houdini), Joseph Pulitzer, Emma Goldman, and Nikola Tesla.
Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the federal government assumed control over immigration policy in 1882. Cooperation between federal and state authorities rarely went smoothly, and the decision to halt operations at Castle Garden was made in 1890. Ellis Island opened as the newly established U.S. Immigration Center and would go on to welcome 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.
A National Monument
On December 10, 1896, Castle Garden once again drew crowds to the Battery, after the structure reopened as the New York City Aquarium. The Garden’s facade was altered by the famed architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, and the facility attracted over 30,000 visitors on its first day.
In 1941, city planner Robert Moses decided spurred the closure of the aquarium to begin construction on a bridge to connect the Battery to Brooklyn. Moses had begun demolition of the structure’s interior when the general public, civic leaders, and a coalition of historic and art societies railed to save the Castle. The New York Times received repeated letters from concerned community members, one of whom fondly referred to the landmark as an “old friend worth preserving.’
Moses surrounded the structure with a fence and said there was nothing left to preserve, but on inspection it was discovered that Moses hadn’t been truthful. A bill signed by President Truman on April 29, 1949 allocated funds for the Castle’s restoration, and by 1950 the site was designated a National Monument. Now restored to its original 1811 construct by the National Park Service, Castle Clinton serves as the official ticket center for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
The structure’s various repurposing throughout the years is a constant reflection of New York City and the downtown community’s growth and development. Castle Clinton has, for most of its history, remained a public social and cultural center and is currently one of the most visited National Park Service sites in the country.
Illustrations, from above: “Landing of Gen. Lafayette, at Castle Garden, New-York, 16th August 1824”; and “State Emigrant Landing Depot, Castle Garden, NY” (courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.