Like so many New Yorkers, Castle Clinton is constantly evolving and redefining itself amidst a changing world. As one of New York’s most important historical monuments, this circular sandstone fortress has been everything from an immigration point, to exhibition hall, to beer garden before retiring as a national monument. Just a stone’s throw from Wagner Battery Park, Castle Garden is a neighborhood icon that makes for an inspiring look into New York’s dynamic past, and a wonderful afternoon jaunt.
Castle Clinton was built in 1808 as a way to defend New York City from British forces preceding the War of 1812. As it never saw military action, it went on to offer the city a variety of services, from immigration to entertainment. In 1824, it reopened as Castle Garden where it evolved into a promenade, beer garden and restaurant, exhibition hall, opera house and theater. But as time wore on, so did Castle Garden. In 1855 it shed its artistic identity to became the Emigrant Landing Depot, functioning as the state’s first immigrant processing center. More than 8 million people entered its doors when arriving in the United States from 1855 to 1890. That is, until the U.S. government assumed control of immigration and moved the operation to the more remote Ellis Island, whose location could handle the various disease and illness that came aboard the boats.
In the years following, Castle Garden experienced a dramatic shift. From 1896 to 1941, it became the site of the New York City Aquarium. It was the city’s most popular attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The structure was extensively altered, though the original masonry fort remained. After the aquarium was moved to Coney Island, many prominent New Yorkers advocated to save the castle, and in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed legislation marking it a national monument.
But this dedication didn’t stop the city, which voted more than once to demolish Castle Garden. Finally in 1950 the federal government obtained the property in an effort to save it. It underwent a major rehabilitation in the 1970’s and is currently administered by the National Park Service. In a moment of full circle history, Castle Clinton, as it’s now known, once again became a departure point for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It appears today much as it did in its earliest days.