Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Castle Garden - The Forgotten Immigration Point

In a post last Friday about our visit to Castle Garden, I alluded to the fact that this important National Monument no longer stands as a symbol of our ancestors' struggles, hopes and dreams in the way that Ellis Island does.

It is run down, in need of maintenance and repair. It holds construction materials, a bookstore with mainly Liberty Island and Ellis Island souvenirs and the ticket booth for Liberty and Ellis Island boats and tours. It is a shell of the original fort it housed from 1811 - 1821, it is such a shame.

I may be getting ahead of myself, listening to Canadian Federal election projections as I type, so let me tell you a bit about this monument for those who are not familiar. (You can also visit the national park service site to get more detail.)

Originally known as Southern Battery, this was a fort constructed between 1808 and 1811. In 1817 it was renamed Castle Clinton for the Mayor and later Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton. In 1823 it was deeded to New York City and became an entertainment center for the next 31 years, renamed Castle Garden. After a roof was added in 1840 it hosted the American premieres of such stars as Jenny Lind and Lola Montez.

In 1855 Castle Garden became the New York State immigration point, America's first. Too many new arrivals to New York were ending up homeless and destitute when unable to find housing or employment or because they were parted from what little they had in the world by con artists as soon as they arrived. Castle Garden provided services and certified merchants and service providers to avoid such mistreatment. You can read about that here in more detail, from an 1871 immigration pamphlet.

More than eight million immigrants were processed here between 1855 and 1890 when the national government took over the immigration process and eventually opened Ellis Island in 1892. By one count 1 in 6 Americans can trace their lineage to an immigrant who was processed at Castle Garden.

And yet, how many people even know the name Castle Garden? And how many who are not dedicated family historians, researchers and genealogists know that it still stands today under a different name?

After the transfer of immigration processing to the Federal Government, Castle Garden was transformed once again, this time to an aquarium, which you can see here in some old postcards available for sale, and read about on the National Parks website. And then in the 40s came Robert Moses and construction of the Battery Tunnel which almost wiped-out this historic site altogether but did spell the end of the aquarium and doom the building to its fate today; one of the most visited national parks in the country but only because it houses the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty. Demolition of the aquarium had begun before public outcry saved the main structure. It stood empty until the National Park Service took it over in the 70s but was only restored to its condition as a fort. Entering the Castle today in search of Liberty or Ellis Island tickets, you would have no idea that this uninspiring building is one of the most historic in lower Manhattan.

When I was taking photos on Thursday I was actually trying to show the building in a positive light, to take away for myself something of what it was like when Carl Anderson, my great-grandfather, passed through here in 1888. I wish I had taken more photos to show what it really looks like now and unfortunately the photos I was able to find on Flickr and by doing a Google image search were very similar to mine.

When you walk in through these doors (this photo was actually taken from the inside) there is a room to the right which I was at first excited to see as it houses an exhibit. Then I saw the exhibit and I was aghast. It consists of three dioramas that show what the building looked like in 1812, 1886 and 1941.

Across the small room was a pretty sad reminder that this building also housed the country's premier aquarium. A small shadowbox table containing shells and an old program. That's it, three dioramas and a display table. The one remaining cannon is far more impressive than this exhibit.

Walking through the now open air building we decided to take in the harbor, to hopefully get an idea of what Carl saw when his ship arrived in the harbor. This also was a disappointing experience. Yes, we could see Lady Liberty and Ellis Island but our view was partially blocked by the tourist boats and the huge shed that now houses airport-level security checks for those traveling to the islands.


Finally, we had hoped to take a Ranger-guided tour of the Castle. Times were not available online. We arrived at 12:07, too late for the 12:00 p.m. tour and two hours early for the 2:00 p.m. After purchasing the only book available at the bookstore about Castle Clinton and touring the site on our own for an hour, we decided that the book probably held more information than we would get on a tour. A tour, by the way, that is only given if people show up and make it known to a Ranger that they are there for more than just Liberty Island tickets.

I have never been to Ellis Island but even their website is more inspiring than this visit was to me. But there is hope. Searching out information for myself and this blog post took me to the website for the Battery Conservancy and its page about rebuilding Castle Clinton. Also available is a free website where you can search for ancestors who were processed through Castle Garden (though I understand that not all records survive). How much more funding is needed before the redesign is presented to the public? Will that design truly embody the Castle's dynamic past uses? Will it properly pay homage to those who came to America through this building and made our country what she is today?

Adding to my to-do list is to reach out to someone at the Conservancy and see if I can find out where this all stands. And when I do, I will share it here.

Tomorrow I will have a simple pictorial post in honor of the 110th anniversary of my grandmother's (Carl Anderson's daughter) birth. And then, I will get back to the do-over and what I've been doing with that.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

You've done your part to bring attention to Castle Garden. I know about CG because my great-grandmother came through there as did some of her sisters. At least one sister came through Ellis. However, I did not know all that you shared in this post.