Many people think that if their Irish ancestors arrived through New York City that they were processed through Ellis Island. While many thousands were processed through Ellis Island, it was not the only place where they could have entered the city. In fact, Ellis Island was only one of three immigrant-processing stations for the port of New York. Where your Irish ancestors were processed depends upon their date of arrival.
Neither the state of New York, nor the Federal Government, performed any immigrant processing prior to 1855. In those days, the arriving immigrant merely got off the boat at the dock and then walked directly into the city. After epidemics of typhoid and small pox swept the city, the state of New York decided that immigrants should be screened for diseases. The state also wanted to protect the immigrants from criminals who were preying on them as soon as they arrived.
In 1855, the state of New York opened an immigrant processing station at Castle Garden. This location was an old 1812 military fort known as Castle Clinton. It sat at the southwest tip of Manhattan Island in an area known as Battery Park. It had been built to protect the harbor, but it was vacated by the army in 1821 and given to the city.
In 1824, the city renamed it Castle Garden and it was an entertainment center, beer garden and opera house until 1854. In 1855 the state took over the facility for use as the processing center for all arriving immigrants.
Castle Garden was used from August 8, 1855 until April 18, 1890. During those thirty-five years, an estimated eight million immigrants were processed through Castle Garden.
National Immigration Laws
On August 3, 1882, Congress passed the first comprehensive national immigration law. The law gave the federal government authority over the regulation and processing of immigrants. Initially, the federal government went into partnership with the state of New York and allowed the state to continue processing at Castle Garden, as long as they met the new federal processing requirements. In 1890, due to alleged corruption and incompetence at Castle Garden, the federal government cancelled its contract with the state and took over the processing duties.
A dispute with the state regarding the continued use of Castle Garden resulted in the closure of that facility. The federal government moved the processing operation to a building known as the Barge Office.
The Barge Office was a much smaller building, also in Battery Park. It was located just to the east of Castle Garden on the southeast tip of Manhattan, at the foot of Whitehall Street.
The Barge Office was not designed or equipped to handle the growing wave of immigrants. The building was also plagued with roof leaks.
An article in the Brooklyn Eagle stated that in its first eight days of operation, the office processed 15,209 immigrants. The Barge Office served as a processing station from April 19, 1890 until December 31, 1891. During that short time, an estimated 525,000 immigrants were processed through the Barge Office.
While the immigrants were being herded through the Barge Office, the federal government was constructing a new processing facility on Ellis Island. Since they were unable to get New York to provide one of its islands for this purpose, the federal government made a deal with the state of New Jersey for the use of Ellis Island. The 24.2 acres of Ellis Island are actually in New Jersey and only 3.3 acres of the island are located in New York.
On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island officially opened for the processing of immigrants. Annie Moore, from County Cork, was the very first immigrant to be processed through the buildings of Ellis Island. Immigration officials gave Annie a $10 gold piece to commemorate the event. The story goes that a Polish immigrant stepped aside to allow Annie and her two brothers to go first.
Five years later, on June 14, 1897, a fire swept through the wooden buildings of Ellis Island. The buildings burned rapidly and were destroyed. Sadly, the fire also burned some of the immigration records from Castle Garden and the Barge Office that were being stored there. Fortunately, the ship’s passenger records for those sites were kept in a separate location and remained unharmed.
Back to The Barge
Due to the fire, immigrant processing was sent back to the Barge Office. Conditions at the Barge Office had not improved and it was expected to process even more immigrants than it had before. Because of the overcrowded conditions, immigrants were often treated roughly and rudely by the processors.
It took three years for the federal government to complete the reconstruction of a new and expanded Ellis Island complex. This time, it was built to be fireproof. On December 16, 1900, the rebuilt Ellis Island reopened for business. It served the countless immigrants who passed through it until 1954.
Although the island station officially closed its doors November 12, 1954, the bulk of immigrant processing was ended by 1924, when new federal legislation severely restricted foreign immigration into the US. In total Ellis Island processed over twelve million immigrants.
To review the dates: If your ancestors arrived between August 1, 1855 and April 18, 1890, they were processed through Castle Garden; if they arrived between April 19, 1890 and December 31, 1891, they were processed through the Barge Office; if they arrived between January 1, 1892 and June 13, 1897, they were processed through Ellis Island; if they arrived between June 14, 1897 and December 16, 1900, they were processed through the Barge Office; and if they arrived between December 17, 1900 and November 12, 1954, they were processed through Ellis Island.
If your ancestors were processed through Ellis Island or the Barge Office after 1892, you can find copies of ships logs on the Ellis Island website at www.ellisisland.org. For those who were processed through Castle Garden, the records have been digitized and are available on the website www.castlegarden.org.
Today, you can visit Castle Garden. It has been renamed the Castle Clinton National Monument. The Barge Office no longer exists. The area where it once stood is near the Staten Island Ferry at the base of Whitehall Street.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FC*******@ao*.com.