Updated: Jan 28
From the time the Dutch settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan, New York City), they knew the southern tip of the island was a strategic location for guarding the harbor and protecting the settlers on the island. A substantial fort called Fort Amsterdam was built there by 1626, shown in the illustration below from one of my favorite books, "The Legend of New Amsterdam". My father's ancestor, Daniel Tourneur, lived nearby in 1660.
Fort Amsterdam remained until after the American Revolution but was demolished in 1790. For nearly two decades, there was no fort there, but with tensions rising again between the U.S. and Britain, a new fort was built in 1808, just before the War of 1812. The new structure was built slightly west of where the original fort stood, on an artificial island called West Battery. A bridge connected the fort to Manhattan, as shown in the painting by Samuel Waugh, below.
The name of the fort was changed to Castle Clinton in 1815, in honor of Mayor DeWitt Clinton, who later became Governor of New York. Then, in 1822, the U.S. Army ceded the fort to the city who used it as a venue for public entertainment such as concerts and plays.
On August 1, 1855, Castle Clinton was designated as New York's official Emigrant Landing Depot, the country's first immigrant processing center. Prior to that, most ships arriving in New York City landed at the docks on South Street. With more standardized procedures in place, it is estimated that 8-12 million immigrants were processed here between 1855 and 1890, maintained by the State of New York.
In the 1860s, landfill was used to replace the water between Castle Garden and Manhattan, thereby extending the island of Manhattan and forming what we know of today as Battery Park or "The Battery". Strolling or riding along the paths of Battery Park, admiring the dozen or more massive granite monuments scattered throughout the park, you'd never suspect it was built upon 19th century garbage any more than you'd suspect there are cars driving underground beneath your feet, through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
The Pier A Harbor House was built in the mid-1880s as headquarters for the NYC Board of Dock Commissioners, later known as the Department of Docks. It was also home of the Harbor Police.
In 1890, the U.S. Government assumed control of immigration processing and desiring a more isolated place to do so, Ellis Island was built and opened by 1892. The records from Castle Clinton were moved to Ellis Island and operations commenced, but to every genealogists dismay, a fire broke out on Ellis Island on June 15, 1897, destroying at least 42 years of immigration records containing valuable information about our ancestors.
Castle Clinton was slightly modified to host the New York City Aquarium in 1896, quickly becoming a popular attraction, drawing thousands of visitors to the city for the next 45 years. In 1941, the aquarium was closed for the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and more than once, demolition was considered. In 1946, legislation was passed making the castle a U.S. historic monument, and still, just a year later, it came close to being demolished for the sixth time, but because of the public outcry of those who opposed the demolition, the New York State Assembly rejected the request.
Finally, in July of 1950, the city ceded Castle Clinton to the federal government. It was renovated in 1956 and again in the 1970s. The original masonry of the fort is still in tact. These are photos I took last week.
Today the castle is managed by the National Park Service and has been restored relatively close to its original appearance, minus the water surrounding it. To this day, visitors from around the world enter the castle to experience a taste of what millions of immigrants experienced. It is used as a departure point for visitors taking cruises to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis island, the place where life in America began for millions. Click here to see my photos from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
You can learn more about Castle Garden/Castle Clinton in this book: