|photograph National Parks Service
Since the 17th century the lowest point in Manhattan, then known as Schreyer’s Hook, had contained a fortification of one kind or another. But around 1788 it was resolved to demolish the badly damaged old stone Fort and build a residence for the President of the United States on the site. Known as the Government House, its foundation stones came from the old fort. For nearly 20 years New York City’s southern tip would be without protection.
In 1806 Congress dedicated 400 feet of ground off shore for the erection of a national fortress. Planned by Lt. Joseph G. Totten of the United States Engineers, the project relied on a stone mole constructed below the water line. The South West Battery would be connected to Manhattan by a long drawbridge. Completed around 1811, the large oval-shaped fort, capable of mounting 28 heavy cannon, was built of red sandstone with walls thick enough to withstand a cannon barrage. Inside were cisterns, two large magazines for the storage of weapons, explosives and provisions, and barracks for the soldiers and officers.
|An early night-time view clearly shows the drawbridge. The flagpole rising from the circular upper section prompted Washington Irving to liken it to a butter churn. (copyright expired)
The port of New York was now securely defended by the Battery and Castle Williams, on Governor’s Island. The new fort would keep its name only a few years. Immediately after the War of 1812 the South West Battery was renamed Castle Clinton, in honor of DeWitt Clinton. The military purpose of the fort was abandoned after only ten years. In November 1822 the Government gave the property to the Corporation of the City of New York. The garrison was dismantled and removed to Governor’s Island.
The City leased the relatively new fortress for five years at an annual rent of $1,400 dollars—in the neighborhood of $29,000 today. Victorian amusements often centered around “pleasure gardens”— indoor-outdoor spaces with restaurants and entertainment. The ambitious men who leased the space recognized the immense potential and installed a roof, stage and seating. In doing so they created what was believed to be the largest audience space in the world. There was a promenade where finely-dressed ladies and gentlemen could enjoy the sea breezes. William Loring Andrews, in 1901, said it “immediately became a fashionable resort.”
|A charming watercolor of about 1841 captured Castle Garden from the harbor -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
Renamed Castle Garden, it became the venue for New York’s most important celebrations. When Lafayette was honored by the City in September 1824, a “Fete and Gala” was staged here. About 6,000 persons attended and a newspaper said it “far transcended in splendor any pageant ever before witnessed in the United States.”
In his Picture of New York in 1828 author Goodrich commented on the relief that the Garden’s water setting provided in the summer. “The felicitous situation of this spot and the combination of objects that are here presented to the eye, caused a rush of genteel company during the warm season that was quite unprecedented in the City.”
Welcoming receptions like that for Lafayette were repeated in 1938 for President Jackson, in 1843 for President Tyler and for Hungarian hero Louis Kossuth in 1851. But as important to the public were the spectacles staged here. On July 29, 1841 the New-York Tribune reported “Castle Garden is not only the grand centre of attraction, but is to be, this evening, according to the bill in another column, the scene of a grand and terrific explosion. Old Mount Vesuvius will emit her fires and cover herself and the surrounding hills with burning lava. The scene is thrilling beyond imagining and the proprietors deserve credit for the industry and perseverance which they have displayed ever since they came into possession of the garden.”
The success of the outdoor show was such that it demanded a second performance. “In consequence of the unbounded approbation bestowed on Thursday evening, and the great success on the first representation of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius it will be repeated on Monday evening, August 2nd,” reported the New-York Tribune on August 2.
The newspaper described the scene, which covered 20,000 square feet, “extending over the entire front of the Garden, including the whole of the lower Grand Promenade, on both sides of the Garden.” The eruption had been designed by Henry J. S. Hall, “long and favorably known to this community as a Pyrotechnist.” Working with him was Mr. Grand “one of the oldest and most celebrated Scene Painters in this city,” and Mr. Johnson and Mr. Speyer, who operated “the machinery.”
The evening began with the New-York Brass Band performing “many of the new and favorite pieces, for which the Band is so celebrated.” Immediately at sundown single rockets were fired, continuing until 9:00 “when the exhibition will commence with brilliant bengola lights, Marine Signal Rockets with gold rain, the Chaplet of Flora, rockets with colored meteors, illuminated yew tree [and] Pride of Aurora.”
The crowd, filled with anticipation, now took a 30-minute intermission “for Promenade and Refreshments,” after which was the Grand Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Tickets for the extravaganza cost 50 cents (about $14 today).
An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on May 27, 1846 provides a glimpse into the lives of Castle Garden’s mid-Victorian patrons. Neither sea breezes nor wealth and status could not eradicate the smells of city life. Cultured women protected themselves from the offending odors of human sweat, rotting garbage, and horse droppings by carrying pomanders or perfume-filled bottles. The ad that morning read “Lost—At Castle Garden on Wednesday evening last, at the Philharmonic Concert, a cut glass, garnet-colored Smelling Bottle. The finder will confer a favor, and receive a suitable reward, by returning the same to No. 25 Waverly-place.”
The description of the item and the lady’s enviable address reflected the wealth and refinement of the citizens who attended Castle Garden events. But no occasion would evidence this more than the appearance of Jenny Lind in 1850.
Impresario and marketing genius P. T. Barnum leased Castle Garden for the Swedish Nightingale’s debut in the United States. Anticipation of the internationally-famous soprano’s concerts grew to obsession and near riot to obtain tickets. To increase the audience capacity, the stage and orchestra were demolished “to make way for the improvements contemplated by Mr. Barnum,” reported the New-York Daily Tribune on September 10, 1850. But while workers sawed and hammered inside, ticket buyers swarmed the grounds in near panic.
“The narrow entrances were taken possession of at an early hour, and were not again freed till after noon; the mass of people standing wedged in, somewhat after the California fashion upon the arrival of a steamer.” Barnum sold the tickets at auction, limiting the number of tickets to a single purchaser to 50. Hotels snapped up blocks of seats and while the average price hovered at $5, single tickets brought as much as $225—nearly $7,000 in today’s dollars.
As opening night neared, regulations were put in place regarding the “government of carriages and hacks” in order to prevent confusion and chaos. Excitement increased and on September 11 the New-York Daily Tribune wrote “To-night will be a new Avatar in our musical history—the first appearance of another divinity in the world of Song.” The newspaper said “The power of a name that, without actual performance, can bring together six of seven thousand people at a cost of some $35,000 for tickets alone, must rest on a marvelous gift indeed, to retain its spell on the public mind. Nevertheless we have no fear that the spell will be broken or the gift grow dim.”
|Jenny Lind sings to a crowd of over 8,000 on September 11, 1850. Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier (copyright expired)
Following the sixth and final concert on September 24, the Tribune estimated its attendance at between 8,000 to 9,000 persons. “Sure it is, at least, that Castle Garden never before held so many mortal men and women with its wide circle.” The newspaper summed up the series of concerts saying they were “unequalled in moral grandeur, and we doubt much whether they have ever been surpassed in Europe in brilliancy and magnitude.” Following her last encore, Jenny Lind “received a bushel, at least, of splendid bouquets.”
A tiny article at the bottom of the page noted “We understand that Friday and Saturday next will be receiving days at Castle Garden for the approaching Fair of the American Institute.”
Organized in 1828, annual Fair exhibited the marvels of American engineering. On reporting on the opening of the 24th Fair the following year, in October 1851, The New York Times pointed out some of the attractions. Visitors could see Cyrus McCormick’s reaping machine “to harvest cereal grains.” The patriotic newspaper boasted Yankee ingenuity by poking “Yes, fellow-citizens, in Old England, where they pride themselves as having made the greatest advance in the science of agriculture, we have carried off the palm.” Here too was Samuel Colt’s repeating firearms, and B. F. Palmer’s artificial leg.
The Fair also included “specimens of pianos, tapestry, carpeting, clothing, shawls, hardware, silver ware and glass,” as noted by Vice President Livingston Livingston.
While the American Institute was displaying article of Yankee ingenuity, New York Harbor was seeing an unprecedented influx of immigrants. New York City recognized an immediate need for a processing depot and Castle Garden, sitting in the harbor away from the mainland, presented a viable option.
A hearing was held on May 28, 1855 during which Quarantine physician Carl G. Rota testified “that good would arise if emigrants were prevented from spreading themselves over low, unhealthy neighborhoods, where for the first few days they mostly congregate, spending their money in drunkenness, and every form of excitement tending to produce disease.”
A Committee later took a different approach, arguing that utilizing Castle Garden as an Emigrant Depot would be to the best interest of the immigrants. “No laws could protect emigrants from imposition and fraud if landed promiscuously on the docks.” The men said that “runners, hotel keepers, &c., could be excluded” and that was “essential for their protection.
“Runners” were the men who awaited at the docks for naïve arrivals. Working with hotel keepers or railroad ticket agents, they convinced the immigrants that they could provide cheap, clean lodging or inexpensive passage to the West. In fact, the newcomers were most often fleeced.
On August 1, 1855 Castle Garden opened as an immigrant processing station. The New York Times said “Bob Murray got out his brand new books, all ruled and labeled, to keep the record of the new comers, his assistants were ready for service in ascertaining their wants; the bathtubs were full of Croton for anticipated ablutions, and Captain Cruttenden was duly prepared to give the aliens all needful dispatch by railroad or steamboat to their Western homes.”
The Committee that insisted that the Castle Garden location would prevent the immigrants from being ill-used apparently did not consider rogue workers. On July 7, 1857 the New-York Daily Tribune printed a letter to the editor that complained “It is a fact too well known, that the Castle Garden establishment, beneficial as it may be to the immigrants, generally speaking, is still very far from being perfect—very far from preventing all abuses. Again it is a matter of notoriety that a considerable number of immigrants (almost all of them Germans) have lost their luggage at the Castle Garden depot, after having been compelled to intrust [sic] it to the safe keeping of the establishment, and have never been compensated for such losses.”
The Castle Garden commissioners held a monopoly on railroad tickets and hotel bookings for the immigrants. If a runner were found offering lodging even at an approved boarding house, that establishment would lose its ability to house immigrants. The penalty often spelled the end of the small businesses. The Evening World complained on October 14, 1887 that “the pool” (the authorized railroad tickets) overcharged the newcomers. A runner was able to offer tickets to Omaha, for instance, at $23.75 each. “The rate charged by the pool in the Garden is $26,” said the newspaper.
|Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicted immigrants arriving on January 20, 1866 (copyright expired)
Victorian periodicals and novels portrayed the Castle Garden arrivals, perhaps a bit melodramatically, as poor and desperate. A writer for The Evening World was disgusted by the depictions and made an argument at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.
“Campaign orators are wont to picture the ‘poor, down-trodden emigrants’ as coming to this country in rags. One thing that forcibly strikes the visitor to Castle Garden is that the 2,000 emigrants there are all well dressed. They wear durable, all-wool clothes. There isn’t a patch to be seen in the Garden. Not on emigrant comes to Castle Garden in a shoddy suit of clothes, though he may wear shoddy before he has been in American very long.” No doubt many of the passengers disembarking would have an argument with his assessment.
Not all of the hopeful arrivers were received with open arms. On March 24, 1890 “pretty Elizabeth Ellen Hewitt” arrived with her husband Henry Becket on the Germanic. Becket, whom The Evening World described as “grizzled and gray” and “will never celebrate his sixtieth anniversary again” had married the 17-year old Elizabeth in Ireland. Despite the protestations of the journalist for The Evening World the year before, the couple was raggedly dressed.
“Her jacket was cheap, her fustian gown of black still cheaper. Her shoes were brogans and her hat was a fifteen-cent black straw, with an impossible yellow crow impaled upon it,” reported The World. “They have a tin trunk with 75 cents worth of extra clothing in it, and Henry has a nickel watch and chain.”
The couple was detained because “he hadn’t a farthing in his old gray trousers.” Henry Becket told authorities that he owned “three acres and a little house” in Toronto. But he could provide no contacts or proof. Immigration officials did not admit the indigent, and after the couple’s long and arduous sea journey Henry and Elizabeth were refused entry.
“He will probably have to return to old Ireland with his youthful bride, for he is set down as a monumental liar by the Castle Garden authorities.”
A year later authorities were considering new uses for Castle Garden. Having processed approximately 7.5 million immigrants, the old building was no longer able to accommodate the ever-increasing flood of arrivals. A magnificent new station was being constructed on Ellis Island in 1891. On April 14 that year a movement was considered “for the conversation of Castle Garden into an aquarium and a music hall,” as reported in The New York Times that day. Another consideration was using the structure for the Naval Reserve Association of the State of New-York as an armory.
The debate lasted until 1896 when the aquarium argument won out. McKim, Mead and White was commissioned by the city to convert the old fort. The upper floors were removed, bringing the structure back—nearly—to its fort-like appearance. After the interiors were gutted and tanks and pools installed, The New York Times remarked “When empty, its huge barbaric pillars and great groined roof remind one strongly of the pictured temples of Karnak, fringed with sparkling pools and massive reservoirs whose green waters intensify the filtered sunshine that reflects back from the cool, white-tiled flooring.”
|McKim, Mead & White's conversion included mosaic floors and ornate railings along the pools -- Guide to the New York Aquarium, 1919 (copyright expired)
The Aquarium not only exhibited fish and shellfish; but alligators, a crocodile, sea lions, manatees, turtles and other water life. The New-York Tribune described it on April 4, 1915 as “the largest institution of the kind in the world, having numerous large floor pools, at least one hundred large wall tanks, thirty smaller tanks and thirty-six reserved tanks.”
|Guide to the New York Aquarium, 1919 (copyright expired)
The Aquarium acquired both rare and common examples of sea life; but two unexpected acquisitions came in October 1920. In celebration of Jenny Lind’s 100th birthday a “centennial exhibit” was held in the building where she sang 70 years earlier. “Many of Jenny Lind’s personal belongings and interesting relics associated with her tour here will be shown,” reported the New-York Tribune on August 21. On the afternoon of October 6 the Park Commissioners presented the Aquarium with a marble bust of the singer and a portrait—both made during her 1850 appearance.
|By 1900, when this postcard was printed, Manhattan landfill had engulfed the structure.
In 1940 construction began on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The decade-long project was directed by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman Robert Moses—not well known for his preservationist stance. The approaches to the Tunnel as designed would require the demolition of the Aquarium building and in 1941 the building was vacated.
The Government stepped in, however, and in 1946 designated the historic building a National Monument and renamed it Castle Clinton. Now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service it was protected and Robert Moses’ roadway had to be redirected.
While the red stone structure retains only the basics of its original appearance; it clearly represents the many manifestations of its two-century history--an historic survivor snatched from almost sure annihilation.