Once Home to Soldiers, Immigrants, and a Beluga Whale: The Remarkable Story of Battery Park’s Castle Clinton

Postcard depicting Castle Garden entertainment center in Battery Park. Dated approximately between 1830-1845. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service Manhattan Historic Sites Digital Archive.

If you’ve ever had a picnic in Battery Park or taken a trip to the Statue of Liberty you’ve probably walked through Castle Clinton, a medieval-looking fortress dating back to 1808 that sits by the water’s edge. This structure, now used as a ticket office and information center for tourists heading to Liberty Island, has been through almost as many changes as New York City itself and was nearly demolished on six different occasions, only to be rescued and restored by the National Park Service in 1946. A remnant of the City’s colonial roots, the building has been involved in military, artistic, and immigration-oriented initiatives since it’s construction, serving an impressively diverse variety of roles during its 207 years of existence. Like the Museum at Eldridge Street, the now restored building pays homage to the stories of the people who passed through its doors during each stage of its evolution, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the city and the people who inhabit it.

Construction of the fort commenced in 1808, four years before the United States would declare war with Great Britain yet again. The war of 1812 carried on for two years before both sides were finally willing to negotiate peace. The fort, situated only two blocks west of where Fort Amsterdam once stood in 1626 when the island was controlled by the Dutch, was fully armed with 28 cannons, each capable of firing a 32-pound cannonball approximately 1.5 miles into the harbor. After a brief period of war the fort was deeded to the city, and there was much discussion about what would become of it.

During the summer of 1823, a new restaurant and entertainment center opened at the former fort which had been newly renamed Castle Garden. During this period in New York City’s history, the population was growing at an alarming rate and, in an effort to overcome the disease and filth that had plagued the city for many years, the need for public parks and recreational areas was growing. The transformation of Castle Clinton to Castle Garden was, as it would continue to be for many years to come, an example of the how the city was being transformed. A roof was added to Castle Garden several years later, allowing the space to now function as an indoor opera house and theater. The space was also used to display new technologies such as the telegraph, colt revolver, underwater explosives, and an early version of the steam powered fire engine.   

Lithograph from 1852 depicting New Yorkers gathering by the Castle Garden entertainment center. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service Manhattan Historic Sites Digital Archive.

Beginning in 1855, the building took on a new role, one that yet again reflected how America was changing during the mid 19th century. During this period, immigration laws were changing and waves of immigrants began to arrive in New York from all over Southern and Eastern Europe. Thus, in 1855 Castle Gardens became one of the first immigration processing centers in the nation, welcoming over 8 million immigrants between 1855 and 1890 before most immigrant processing was transferred to Ellis Island.

Immigrants arriving at Castle Clinton on January 20th, 1866, 15 years before the opening of Ellis Island.

When the federal government took over the processing of immigrants at Ellis Island, the city had to decide, yet again, what to make of Castle Clinton. Thinking back to the days when the building functioned as a entertainment center, the city decided to use Castle Clinton to benefit the neighborhood and encourage families to spend time in Battery Park. In 1896 the building opened as the new home of the New York Aquarium, whose Beluga whale made it a new and exciting attraction. The aquarium remained in Battery Park for 45 years before moving to its current location on Coney Island.

A New York Aquarium employee feeds seaweed to a walrus, who would have lived at Castle Clinton some time between 1896 and 1941. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service Manhattan Historic Sites Digital Archive.

After the fish, whales, and sea lions moved to Brooklyn, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Commissioner Robert Moses tried to have the structure torn down to build the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, one of six attempts to demolish the building since 1811. Fortunately, civic reformers battled to save the fort, and in 1946 it became a U.S. historic landmark site. Today, the fort is an often overlooked part of Battery Park from which tourists can catch the ferry to Liberty Island. Although not as glorious as it was in its heyday, the building is an important part of the New York City collective memory and we are lucky that it still stands where it once did, back when its purpose was to protect the fledgling city from foreign powers and external threats.

The story of Castle Clinton, like so many other historic buildings in New York City, reminds us not to take for granted the hard work of those who have fought to keep historic sites alive and restored so we can continue to learn from the past and honor the stories of the New Yorkers who paved the way for those who now call the city home.

Amelia Geser is a summer intern at the Museum At Eldridge Street. She is currently in her final year studying art history at Grinnell College. 

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