Monday, October 11, 2021

The Lost 1882 Barge Office - Whitehall Street and the Battery

from the collection of the Library of Congress

By the early 1850's the South and Staten Island Ferries, and the Revenue Barge Office sat on Whitehall Street at the foot of Broadway.  The location, according to Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion in 1853, "forms a spacious rendezvous for the vast number of vehicles, omnibusses and carts that throng the place."  The article called the Barge Office "a beautiful building."

The original wooden Barge Office building incorporated a lighthouse in the upper section.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The Barge Office held the offices and inspection rooms of Customs officials.  Imported goods from freighters and the private baggage from ocean liners were brought by barge to be inspected here.  Passengers sat in a waiting room while their trunks and bags were inspected.

By 1878 the need for a modern, expanded Barge Office was apparent and on June 15 that year the New York Herald reported, "The bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Muller to provide for the construction of a barge office for the New York Custom House has been passed by the Senate and goes to the President.  The bill appropriates $210,000, and for this amount of money a convenient and commodious barge office may be built."  The amount set aside would equal about $5.6 million today.

Included in the proposal was a dedicated passenger dock.  The New York Herald said, "Passengers can be accommodated with a comfortable waiting room and relieved of the necessity of landing on a dirty dock amid the confusion of freight, trucks, stevedores and other laborers."

Government architect James G. Hill was the supervising architect.  His Romanesque Revival design shows the strong influence of Henry Hobson Richardson in its heavy rough-faced stone and rounded towers.

Hill's rendering of the proposed building.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Construction began in the spring of 1880.  Faced in Maine granite, the sprawling structure stretched 108 feet along Whitehall Street.  It was partially completed and occupied in December 1882.  According to The Treasury Department's A History of Public Buildings in 1901, the actual construction costs had soared to $300,000--more than $8 million today.

As promised, passengers from the steamships were ferried to a cast iron "shed" at the rear of the building.  On January 15, 1882, while it was still under construction, The New York Times said:

This shed, which is entirely of iron, with a dome-like roof, reminds the visitor at the first glance of Castle Garden, but with its concrete flooring and fitting up is to be by comparison to that establishment what a Fifth-avenue mansion is to a Division-street milliner's shop.  The passengers and the baggage will be brought in small steamers from the ocean steams to this iron shed, and the great annoyances of the present system will be avoided.

The second floor held "handsomely furnished" offices of Customs officials, as described by The Sun.  There were also "numerous rooms, some of which will be set apart for the examination of passengers suspected of smuggling."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Baggage inspectors had to remain constantly vigilant, even of the first-class passengers of the great steamships.  On October 5, 1884 The New York Times reported that "Mr. and Mrs. James Graves, who had spent part of the Summer in Europe, made the usual baggage entry and stood by with imperturbable countenances while their trunks were examined.  Then Mr. Graves picked up his hand sachel with an evident sigh of relief and started to push through the crowd to the door."

But as James Graves passed Special Agent Brackett, he was asked "without so much as an introduction," if he or his wife had anything dutiable "concealed bout their persons."  Graves replied that they certainly did not.  Captain Brackett said, "Very sorry, I'm sure, but I have information which compels me to search you."

The couple was separated, Mrs. Graves inspected by female officials and Mr. Graves by men.  The New York Times said that Graves, "seemed to glitter with diamonds from head to foot."  Meanwhile, the women inspectors were even more successful in their search.  "Mrs. Graves seemed to have more diamonds than she could comfortably carry," said the article.  "she had two diamonds set in earrings, three diamonds set in a lace in, and an amethyst and a pearl brooch in her purse."  When a thorough search of her baggage was made, more diamonds were found sewn into the lining.  The total value of the undeclared gems was $327,000 in today's money.  James Graves was arrested for evading Customs.  Interestingly, it was the European dealer who sold them the gems who had wired the details of the sale ahead to Captain Brackett.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicted the beehive of activity within the Barge Office.  Husbands and wives are reunited over the railing, and one woman watches suspiciously as her trunk is examined.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1884 (copyright expired)

The workload of the inspectors was dizzying.  In August 1885 The New York Times interviewed the Deputy Collector.  "He reported that at the Barge Office 73 boats landed 2,753 passengers within an average time of 2 hours."

At the time immigrants were processed through Castle Garden,
the former fort on the Battery.  But the facility could no longer handle the flood of immigrants by 1890.  Plans were laid for a new, sprawling complex on Ellis Island and, in the meantime, the Barge Office became the new immigration landing.

On April 20, 1890 The New York Times announced, "The Barge Office succeeded Castle Garden as the immigrant depot of New-York yesterday...The boarding-house runners, employment agents, sharks, and loafers, who formerly congregated at its doors, had transferred their allegiance to her successful rival, the Barge Office."

Carpenters were still at work reconfiguring the interior when the first shiploads of newcomers arrived.  The article explained the streamlined process of processing them.  "Those who were bound for the West were sent directly [from the shipsto the railway.  Those who will remain here were conveyed to the Barge Office...The Italian immigrants will all be examined on the docks of the steamship lines which bring them here."

The Barge Office's new duties brought along innumerable stories.  Marie Hartig arrived from Germany with her three-year-old child on May 26, 1891.  "The girl was about to be detained when she said she had come to marry [Johannis] Graessing," reported The New York Times.  Graessing, who was a waiter in a Bowery restaurant, was sent for.  He initially said he could not be married yet, as he was too poor to support her.

But when it was explained to him that Marie and the child would be sent back to Europe, he quickly changed his mind.  A German minister was summoned and the couple was married in the Barge Office.

Whitehall Street is crammed with buses, trucks and other vehicles as the flurry of business goes on inside.

The Barge Office medical staff was charged "to see that the 'halt, the lame, and the blind,' and those who are idiotic or mentally unsound to not get into the ground," said The Sun on March 29, 1891.  The article accused other countries of sending their unwanted to America.  "Foreign municipalities overburdened with paupers have a habit of shifting the responsibility for their support on Uncle Sam.  They are cunning enough to send only those whose incapacity cannot be easily detected," it said.

The staff at the Barge Office closely watched the immigrants as they descended the gangplanks of the immigration barges.  "Decrepit men or women, whose labored gait generally gives them away, are always detained until they or their relatives give assurance in the substantial form of a $500 bond that they will not become a charge on the Government," said The Sun.

Newly-arrived Jewish immigrants from Russia await their fate in 1891.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine 1891 (copyright expired)

Physical disabilities earned hopeful arrivals a trip back to their homeland.  "Several immigrants with glass eyes have been sent back since the Federal Government took charge of immigration," said the article.  "Immigrants afflicted with dropsy of the head...are debarred as a rule.  A half-witted immigrant thus afflicted was allowed to land a few months ago in charge of his father because he was more than able to support himself."  The young man was an Italian wood carver and his father promised he could earn $5 a day in America.

Mrs. R. Stucklen had held the position of "chief matron and inspectress" since 1885.  On September 14, 1899 the New-York Tribune profiled her in an article, saying she watched carefully every woman and child who passed through the building.  "Young girls without escort, minors, widows--any that seemed to need her special attention--she singled out at once and held a little court of inquiry of her own."

She told the reporter, "Yes, we are right in the center of no end of romance, tragedy and often comedy.  Already today we have had a Hungarian wedding on our hands, Hona Vineze having become Mrs. Stephen Kemperez.  We have an Armenian romance still in process of evolution, we have had a number of tragic histories recounted and have had children to tag and start on journeys to meet distant friends."

Finally, on December 16, 1900 The New York Times reported that the new immigrant station on Ellis Island was completed.  The following day all immigrants would debark at the new facility.

There were still services in the Barge Office for new arrivals to America, however.  A free employment bureau specifically for immigrants opened here, for instance.  Interestingly, the office was deluged with letters from businesses nationwide seeking help.   On April 8, 1906 the New-York Tribune wrote, "There are applications for butchers, watchmakers, tinsmiths, carpenters, cooks, waiters, etc., but the greatest demand is for farmhands."

The article reprinted a letter from a farmer in Pennsylvania.  It said in part:

I need two men & others around here need men.  I want two sober, godfearing men, single men, prefer English speaking men of good habits.  Now, if you can furnish the men, with some aptness for farm work, the sooner they come the better.  The pay is from $7 to $20, according to the man and the work.
A butcher wrote, "Kindly send a Butcher or Bologna maker to-morrow or Saturday.  Wages $5 per week, Board & Lodge.  Now, please do not send a man which looks Dissapated."

The wages the employers offered must have been unthinkable to the immigrant men.  The $20 offered by the farmer would be equal to nearly $600 today, and the butcher's $5 salary would be $150 per week in today's money.

Ivy climbs the tower in the last years before the building's demolition.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

On October 18, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported that government architects were at work on plans for a replacement Barge Office building "with a limit of $500,000."  (A staggering $14.5 million today.)  In a separate article the newspaper noted, "There is need for rebuilding.  The place is cramped painfully for its present work."

In July 1911 demolition on James G. Hill's Barge Office building began.  The New York Times promised, "A more decorative and modern building will be erected on the site."  Architect James Knox Taylor seems to have been inspired by the 1476 Venetian Renaissance Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona for his replacement structure--the same structure that inspired Stanford White's New York Herald building in Herald Square.  It survived until about 1942, demolished for Park Commissioner Robert Moses's remodeled Battery Park.

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Both Barge offices were good looking buildings. Robert Moses should have concentrated more on providing mass transportation, maybe saving the 1910 Pennsylvania Station in the process.

    The $600 for the farmhand must be per month vs the $150 per week for the butcher. Both positions include board and lodging. But $150 per week equals $600 per month. It seems the butcher would make more.

    Jut FYI -- anyone sponsoring a foreign national for U.S. citizenship today still has to pledge the individual will not become a financial burden on the government. In place of a bond the sponsor has to make a financial disclosure.

    Happy Columbus Day, Tom.

  2. A post like this is what makes this blog so fascinating. I never saw any photos nor knew of these 3 Barge Office structures prior to todays post and would have been happy to see any of them survive. Robert Moses certainly transformed NYC but not always for the better.

  3. Fascinating history and images. Thank you!

  4. Cute coincidence, looking at the photos. The first Barge Office building seems to incorporate a News Office for the NY Herald. And the last Barge Office building was based on the same palazzo as the NY Herald building in Herald Square.