Ellis Island gets all the notoriety. But the city’s first immigrant processing center—the building that greeted an astounding eight million new arrivals over 35 years—was Castle Garden, a former fort and concert hall at the foot of the Battery.
From 1855 to 1890, immigrants whose ships arrived in New York Harbor would be ferried from the ocean liners that brought them to America to Castle Garden on barges.
Once there, they were examined by doctors, given access to a job board, currency exchange office, and waiting area—and then free to reunite with relatives or disappear into the streets of Manhattan.
Castle Garden brought some sense of order to immigration, which skyrocketed in the years following the Civil War. It was regarded as a noisy, alienating place—so much so that it’s the source of the Yiddish word “kesselgarden,” meaning chaos.
The 1884 painting above, “In the Land of Promise, Castle Garden,” by Charles Frederich Ulrich, illustrates the confusion and the sense of uncertainty that must have permeated the waiting rooms.
And though native New Yorkers were unlikely to ever visit, city journalists often did and recorded their accounts. An 1871 Harper’s Weekly article had this to say about the waiting room:
“Father and son, sister and brother, meet here in fond embraces, with tears of joy, after years of absence. What shaking of hands, and assurances of love, and inquiries for those dear to the heart, that are still thousands of miles away. . . .”
And outside the foreboding fortress: “The lights were shining feebly on the Battery. The lamps but few and far between, and an almost total darkness prevails at some places.
“Behind me were the crowds of immigrants still emerging from Castle Garden, whose dome loomed up splendidly out of a sea of darkness—a beacon for the guidance of immigrants who arrive on our shores.”
Read more of the fascinating Harper’s article, plus other accounts of landing at Castle Garden in the late 19th century, in New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age, by Ephemeral New York.
[illustration: Harper's Weekly, 1880]