Castle Garden is, geographically and historically, in the background of Ellis Island. Yet, as a New York City immigration center, it should be a main attention-getter.
Castle Garden is the real golden door Emma Lazarus described in her 1883 sonnet, The New Colossus. She wrote: “Give me your tired, your poor…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door!” Her words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty
Forgotten Gateway to America
This forgotten gateway to America is, ironically, near the ferry to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. It was predecessor to Ellis Island when states handled immigration.
Castle Garden processed at least 8 million immigrants between 1855 and 1890. Some believe it may have processed up to10 million. Record keepers claim an estimated 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry through at least one man, woman, or child who entered via Ellis Island. This would be true of Castle Garden since those immigrants are one to four generations earlier and now should have even more descendants.
New York City, bragged a Feb. 28, 1874 New York Times article, was a favored port because of its access to the Erie Canal and railheads for west bound trains carrying immigrants into the nation’s heartland.
In 1882, 87% of immigrants processed through Castle Garden were northern or western Europeans, most of them Irish and German. Ellis Island processed numerous immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.
The Molters and Webers
The Molter-Weber families were typical German immigrants. Peter Molter, 30, his wife, Catherine, their two little children, Charlie and Louise, and Catherine’s parents, Christian and Catherine Weber, all from Zusch in the Rheinland, sailed from Antwerp on the Vaderland, arriving in New York March 27, 1882. They had plans in hand and hard-earned cash to buy farmland in Bainbridge Twp. near Watervliet in Berrien Co., MI. A German community, with German language church and school, had been established there in the 1840s; kinfolk anxiously awaited their arrival.
Famous immigrants passing through Castle Garden include Mother Cabrini, Oscar Hammerstein, Harry Houdini, Nikola Tesla and Sophie Tucker.
An online database provides access to not only Castle Garden immigrants, but all those arriving in New York between 1830 and 1890, when the federal government took over processing all immigrants. The database covers more than 10 million immigrants. An additional two million records based on original ship manifests dating to 1820 is currently being digitalized.
Castle Garden was built as a defense fortress before the War of 1812 on a small artificial island off the tip of Manhattan. Later, enough fill was added to attach it to the mainland. It was named Castle Clinton in 1815 in honor of New York City Mayor Dewitt Clinton. Before becoming an immigration center it was used as an opera house, beer garden, exhibition hall and theater and called Castle Garden. Swedish soprano Jenny Lind began her 1850 American tour with two concerts there.
It is now operated by the National Park Service as a national monument about two blocks west of where Fort Amsterdam stood nearly 400 years ago when the city was known as New Amsterdam, its Dutch name. The 23-acre Battery Park, where Castle Garden is located, is one of the oldest public open spaces in New York City.
- George J. Svejda, Castle Garden as an Immigrant Depot, 1855-1890 (National Park Service, 1968); “Castle Garden: The Forgotten Gateway,” Ancestry Magazine, Vol. 21, No.2, 2003; Molter family records in possession of Rosemary E. Bachelor.