Thursday, July 29, 2010

Welcome to America!

Everyone’s heard of Ellis Island. It was the gateway to New York City, to America. Twelve millions immigrants passed through its gates from 1892 to 1954. But what about the millions who came before 1892? How did they enter America?

Castle Garden.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. But for my novel, Masquerade, which involves two English girls coming to New York in 1886, I had to learn.

In the early 1800’s, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, Castle Clinton (which was to become Castle Garden) was created as a fortification to protect the city from the British. In peacetime, during the 1820’s, it took on a resort-like purpose with a theatre and restaurant. People would stroll around the walls of “Battery Park”, take warm sea-water baths, read newspapers from around the world, and drink mint juleps. Many inventions were first demonstrated there: the submarine, the telegraph, and the steam fired engine.

In the 1840’s because of the Irish potato famine and the hopelessness it spawned, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to America. In 1855 Castle Clinton was appropriated to deal with the influx. Eighteen-eighty-six, the year of my story, was also the year the Statue of Liberty was given to the United States as a gift from France. I have a scene when the characters arrive in New York harbor in October, 1886, and see the statue right before Lady Liberty was dedicated.

So how did the immigrants carry out their entry into the United States at Castle Garden? It was a tedious process. They arrived on ships that anchored in the harbor. Officials came on board to check on the health of its passengers, and the cleanliness of the ship. The officials didn’t want anyone to come ashore who might end up a ward of the state or cause an epidemic. I can’t imagine getting that far only to be sent home without ever setting foot on American soil.

Next, the passengers were ferried to Manhattan on barges—First Class first, of course. There, they entered the Castle Garden rotunda which was a magnificent circular structure with natural light coming in at the center. There—as with Ellis Island years later—they began the process of hurry-up-and-wait. A reporter from “Harper’s Weekly” said, “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.”

Every passenger had to go before a clerk who entered their name, home town, reason for coming to America, and destination in a large ledger. You were required to prove you had money. Most people had between $5 and $50, with Russians and Poles generally the poorest. If you hesitated or acted like you were lying or were not all there mentally, you could get sent home. I’m sure everyone was very nervous, so I wonder how many were sent home with false reason.

There was a men’s and ladies’ where you could clean up, a place to change money, a lunch counter where you could have a sausage sandwich, a railway station, and a labor exchange. Most people were hired as factory workers, farm hands, or domestics. Once all this was accomplished, you had to leave the area. There were no beds in Castle Garden and you weren’t allowed to sleep on the benches outside. However, nearby there were plenty of seedy boarding houses that charged too much.

Castle Garden also had an elevated train that led to all points north. And besides the people luring you toward a boarding house, there were plenty of others who were quite willing to take you—literally. Shysters were abundant, and the confused immigrants who couldn’t speak the language were often conned out of their money and sometimes their lives. The lucky ones had family there to meet them.

Also there to meet them were Christians who handed out religious tracts, offering help and fellowship for those hoping to keep their faith alive in this new world. They would need God’s help here . . .

There were also people selling their wares. One in particular was the apple lady, Jane Noonan. She sold her apples and oranges at Castle Garden every day for decades. Once Ellis Island opened she took her business there. Such an entrepreneur!

You can still visit Castle Clinton today. Castle Clinton Visitor Information. Or see more pictures of Castle Garden at: Castle Garden pictures.  //Nancy Moser


  1. I'm a native New Yorker and didn't know this bit of history. We always think of Ellis Island.

    Thanks for the info.

  2. My GGG parents came thru in 1855 on the Conqueror.
    Thank you for this post :)