Before starting this quest, I wrongly assumed that all immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s passed through Ellis Island. We have all probably seen the historic films of Ellis Island and the process new arrivals endured, so I naturally started searching for my grandparents among the millions of names recorded in the Ellis Island records. But then I discovered that Ellis Island did not open until 1892. So where did my great-grandparents disembark?
If you ever have the opportunity to visit New York City and decide to include a tour of either the Statute of Liberty or Ellis Island in your travel itinerary, look around you and take in the moment while you are waiting in line to purchase your tickets because you are standing on exactly the same ground that my great-grandparents first set foot upon after disembarking. Now known as Castle Clinton, Castle Garden received millions of immigrants in the 1800s.
As they approached New York City, my grandparents would first pass the recent French gift located in New York harbor, the Statute of Liberty. Since the pier at Castle Garden could not accommodate the large transatlantic steamships, the Obdam would have anchored out in the harbor after passing quarantine (all incoming ships were inspected for cases of serious infectious diseases, especially smallpox, among the crew members and passengers). My great-grandparents, holding tight to their small children and the few personal belongings that they had in their possession, would next board a smaller boat that delivered them to the landing at Castle Garden. I am not sure if during the two week vogage that my great-grandfathers had learned to master any English, as the Holland-Amerika Line issued a manual on practical English for the Dutch emigrant, that would aid them on what would transpire next for them and their families. After collecting their stored luggage (the Reyst had none and the Smouters only one), they would await their turn for a quick medical examination before being permitted to proceed into the waiting room. Once again they would have had to patiently wait until called to register inside the enormous interior of the Castle Garden. Entering the Castle Garden interior must have been over-whelming for these 2 young couples. The great room was divided into various stations and on any given day it would be crowded with people of all nationalities, not just British and Western Europeans, but by 1890 many from Italy, Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries, most dressed in clothing unique to their homelands. Amidst this throng of people, they would have had to manage to first register with a clerk at the Registry Department, then exchange currency, proceed to the telegraph or letter-writing stations to send a brief message if someone in the USA was anxiously awaiting their arrival, then finally proceed to the Railroad Department station to find out how to get to Michigan. The clerks here would then once again direct them outside to the pier where they would board yet another ferry to transport them across the Hudson River to the Erie Railroad depot. Quite a first day in their new homeland, especially when you are unfamiliar with the language…and we think it is stressful today to travel by air. Having traveled in Europe during one summer vacation while in college, I can certainly relate to what might have been some of their tribulations during this process.
I wonder if they had thought by this time if it was all going to be worth it? It probably wasn’t what they expected, but something compelled them to take the chance for something better.
For more info on the immigration station, see my new page on Castle Garden.