Even by New York standards, the crowd gathered at Clinton Castle in Battery Park last Monday was ethnically diverse.
They were there to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Castle Gardens, the world’s first immigration facility, which opened in 1855. It is thought that up to 8 million immigrants entered the U.S. through Castle Garden before Ellis Island opened in 1892.
“The general public is very aware of the histories of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but the Castle’s rich history has been far too little recognized,” according to Warri Price, president of the Battery Park Conservancy.
“Approximately 74 million Americans are the descendants of immigrants who arrived during the Castle Garden period. By contrast, only 42 million U.S. citizens are descendants of immigrants from the later Ellis Island era.”
In contrast to the current U.S. “secure borders,” policy, the Castle Garden facility aimed to welcome and protect as many immigrants as possible.
New York State Board of Emigration established the facility in an attempt to protect immigrants form criminals, swindlers and crooked boardinghouse keepers who preyed on new people arriving at ports around the city.
The Board also set up programs and services to help immigrants adjust to life in their new country and kept records of new arrivals.
“Most of the Famine Irish came through here before Ellis Island opened,” according to Timothy Carey, President and CEO of the Battery Park Authority.
“I’ve been tracking down my great grandfather and mother, who we think passed through here during the Famine.”
The ceremony also marked the launch of a new website which will make the names and records of those who passed through the Castle Garden freely accessible to the public. The website aims to help immigrants of all nationalities trace their ancestry.
“I’m going to be looking for my ancestors,” said actress Pia Lindstrom, whose better-known relations include her mother, Swedish screen legend Ingrid Bergman and sister Isabella Rossellini.
“I was just in Sweden visiting my family. Half of my grandfather’s children emigrated to America. I’ll be one of the first people looking at the website to find out where they went.”
“My grandfather came through here at some stage,” said McCourt, who spoke at the ceremony.
“Somebody sent me a shipping list that included my grandfather. He was a bit of a wild man by all accounts. Its very irritating that there’s been no proper paper trail for Irish people looking for their ancestors. Something like this gives us a sense of solidity. Something to sink our roots into.”
Already, the Battery Park Conservancy has received over 1,000 enquiries about the website, which is now online at www.castlegarden.org.
“I will probably look up his dad’s lineage,” said Alison Sinko, who attended the ceremony with her son.
“My husband’s parents came here from Czechoslovakia. We know a little bit about them, but it will be great if we can find out more.”
“My family was originally from Luxembourg, Germany and Russia,” said one man.
“I don’t know much about their roots but now I can trace them, thanks to this project.”
“I’ll definitely try to find out stuff,” said another woman.
“I have Irish, Scottish and German heritage. It’s been difficult to find things out in the past.”
The event culminated in the unveiling of a fountain and monument outside Clinton Castle, which will serve as a permanent tribute to all immigrant communities in New York.
“New York has become very award of its history. Now the Irish community is disappearing, and we need to know more about Irish history,” said McCourt.
“We should also remember the ones who were turned away. I think we should build a monument to them.”