Castle Garden, which had already passed nine million immigrants into America under the supervision of the State of New York, also had a colorful background before it became an immigrant station.
It is a coincidence that Castle Garden was first built as a fort by the Federal government. Erected in 1807 and called Castle Clinton, it was manned by soldiers through the War of 1812 and owned by the United States until 1822, at which time it was ceded to the city of New York. About two years later it was leased to private interests and became a place of amusement. Not until 1839, however, did Castle Garden come into prominence as a beautiful and fashionable resort.
French and Heiser were the names of the two proprietors who managed it until 1854, the year before it became an immigrant station. Walking through it in these times to view the great collection of fish which graces the New York Aquarium, one finds it difficult to believe that it was once a lavishly decorated auditorium containing a stage and six thousand seats, and was considered one of the most beautiful resorts in the world.
Immediately upon obtaining their long lease in 1839, French and Heiser announced a new policy, and in contrast to the honky-tonk tawdriness of the offerings which had gone before them they provided New York with minstrels and music. A company of minstrels, in which were Barney Williams, Billy Whitlock, Dan Gardner and others, was the attraction in 1845 and 1846.
After being closed for renovations in the latter part of 1846 and spring of 1847, the Garden reopened with a stock company.
The outstanding event and one for which old Castle Garden will ever be famous was the triumph of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale.
P. T. Barnum was her manager. And what a success she scored! After her first concert the demand for seats was phenomenal.
Afterward an Italian Opera Company reigned for a season at Castle Garden. Grisi and Mario made their American debuts to an audience of fifteen thousand. Equestrian exhibitions followed in October and November of that year, 1854. In May, 1855, Castle Garden was closed in order that it might be converted into an immigration depot.
With the establishment of Castle Garden as an Immigration Station under the supervision of the State of New York, things began to happen.
The facilities were inadequate for the proper care and treatment of the immigrants who had commenced to arrive in flood-tide numbers. The German revolution of 1848 had started an exodus from that country, while the Irish and Scandinavian peoples were also joining the caravan.
Hospital patients from Castle Garden were detained at Ward's Island in the East River. At Ward's Island riots frequently occurred. Many immigrants escaped by swimming to the Manhattan shore, asking to be arrested and confined in the New York jails, rather than remain there with the insane and, as some charged, in a state of starvation. An investigation on one occasion revealed the startling fact that the bodies of dead immigrants were being used for purposes of dissection.
With this curious and chequered background, the Ellis Island Immigration Station, conducted by the Federal government, commenced to function in the year 1892.