Castle Clinton or Fort Clinton, once known as Castle Garden, is a circular sandstone fort located
Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, New York City. It is perhaps best
remembered as America's first immigration station (predating Ellis Island), where over than 8
million people arrived in the U.S. from 1855 to 1890. Over its active life, it has also functioned
as a beer garden, exhibition hall, theater, public aquarium, and finally today as a national monument.
Today, Castle Clinton stands approximately two blocks west of where Fort Amsterdam stood almost 400 years ago, when New York City was still known by the Dutch name New Amsterdam. It is also located a few blocks from the World Trade Center, scene of the most horrific attack on American soil.
Construction began in 1808 and was completed in 1811. The fort, known as West Battery (sometimes South-west Battery), was designed by architects John McComb Jr. and Jonathan Williams. It was built on a small artificial island just off shore.
West Battery was intended to complement the three-tiered Castle Williams, or East Battery, on Governors Island to defend New York City from British forces in the tensions that marked the run-up to the War of 1812, but never saw action in that or any war. Subsequent landfill expanded Battery Park, and incorporated the fort into the mainland of Manhattan Island.
West Battery was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815, its current official name, in honor of New York City mayor Dewitt Clinton.
The US Army stopped using the fort in 1821 and it was leased to New York City as a place of public entertainment. It opened as Castle Garden on July 3, 1824, a name by which it was popularly known for most of its existence, even to the present time. It served in turn as a promenade, beer garden/restaurant, exhibition hall, opera house, and theater. Designed as an open-air structure it was eventually roofed over to accommodate these uses.
In 1850, the castle was the site of two extraordinarily successful concerts given for charity by the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to initiate her American tour, managed by P. T. Barnum. In 1851, European dancing star Lola Montez performed her notorious "tarantula dance" in Castle Garden. In 1853 and 1854, the famous and very eccentric French conductor and composer of light music Louis-Antoine Jullien gave dozens of very successful concerts mixing classical and light music.
In the first half of the 19th century, most immigrants arriving in New York City landed at docks on the east side of the tip of Manhattan, around South Street. On August 1, 1855, Castle Clinton became the Emigrant Landing Depot, functioning as the New York State immigrant processing facility (the nation's first such entity). It was operated by the state until April 18, 1890, when the Federal Government took over control of immigration processing, which led to the opening of the larger and more isolated Ellis Island facility on January 2, 1892.
Most of Castle Clinton's immigrant passenger records were destroyed in a fire that consumed the first structures on Ellis Island on 15 June 1897, but it is generally accepted that over 8 million immigrants (and perhaps as many as 12 million) were processed during its operation. Called Kesselgarden by Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews, a "Kesselgarden" became a generic term for any situation that was noisy, confusing or chaotic.
In 1896, Castle Garden became the site of the New York City Aquarium until 1941. For many years it was the city's most popular attraction, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The structure was extensively altered and roofed over to a height of several stories, though the original masonry fort remained.
In 1941 the politically powerful Park Commissioner Robert Moses wanted to tear the structure down completely, claiming that this was necessary to build a crossing from the Battery to Brooklyn. Much of Castle Garden was demolished in construction for the tunnel project, but Castle Clinton's basic structure stood. The public outcry at the loss of a popular recreation site and landmark stymied his effort at total demolition, but the aquarium was closed and not replaced until Moses opened a new facility on Coney Island in 1957.
Although Castle Garden was designated a national monument on August 12, 1946, the law did not take effect until July 18, 1950, when the legislature and the governor of New York (Thomas Dewey) formally ceded ownership of the property to the Federal Government.
As with all historic areas administered by the National Park Service, Castle Clinton National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
Today, the National Park Service uses Castle Clinton as a departure point for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Open daily 8:30am - 5pm except December 25
New York City, New York