Nine-tenths of the emigration from Europe to the United States is through the port of New York. In order to accommodate the vast number of arrivals, the Commissioners of Emigration have established a depot for the especial accommodation of this class.
The emigrant ships, both sailing vessels and steamers, anchor in the river after entering the port. They generally lie off their own piers, and wait for the Custom House boat to board them. As soon as this is done, and the necessary forms are gone through with, preparations are made to land the emigrants, who, with their baggage, are placed on board a small steamer and conveyed to Castle Garden, a round building which juts out into the water at the upper end of the Battery.
In the year 1807, work was begun on this building by order of the General Government, the site having been ceded by the city. It was intended to erect a strong fortification, to be called Castle Clinton, but, in 1820, it was discovered that the foundations were not strong enough to bear heavy ordnance, and Congress reconveyed the site to the city. The building was then completed as an opera house, and was used for several years for operatic and theatrical performances, concerts, and public receptions. It was the largest and most elegant hall in the country, and was the favorite resort of pleasure-seekers. Jenny Lind sang there, during her visit to the United States. It was used for public amusements until 1825, when, the wealth and fashion of the city having removed too high up town to make it profitable, it was leased to the Commissioners of Emigration as a landing-place for emigrants.
This commission has the exclusive charge of the Landing Depot and its inmates. It is composed of six Commissioners, appointed by the Governor of the State. The Mayors of New York and Brooklyn, and the Presidents of the Irish and German Emigrant Societies, are members ex-officio. They are responsible to the Legislature for their acts.
The Landing Depot is fitted up with quarters for the emigrants and their baggage, and with various stores at which they can procure articles of necessity at moderate prices. As most of them come provided with some money, there is an exchange office in the enclosure, at which they can procure American currency for their foreign money. Many of them come furnished with railroad tickets to their destinations in the West, which they have purchased in Europe, but the majority buy their tickets in this city. There is an office for this purpose in the building, at which the agents of the various lines leading from the city to the Great West are prepared to sell tickets. No one is compelled to transact his business in the building, but all are advised to do so, as they will then be fairly treated; while they are in danger of falling into the hands of swindlers outside. Attached to the establishment is an official, whose duty it is to furnish any information desired by the emigrants, and to advise them as to the boarding houses of the city which are worthy of their patronage. The keepers of these houses are held to a strict account of their treatment of their guests.
The majority of the emigrants go West in a few days after their arrival. Some have already decided on their place of future abode before leaving Europe, and others are influenced by the information they receive after reaching this country. Should they desire to remain in this city, they are frequently able to obtain employment, through the Labor Exchange connected with the Landing Depot, and by the same means many obtain work in other parts of the country—the Commissioners taking care that the contracts thus made are lawful and fair to both parties.
As we have said, the greater number of the emigrants arriving here have money when they come. Others, who have been able to raise only enough to reach this, to them, “land of promise,” or who have been swindled out of their funds by sharpers in European ports, arrive here in the most destitute condition. These are a burden to the city and State at first, and are at once sent to the Emigrant Refuge and Hospital.
This establishment is located on Ward’s Island, in the Harlem River, and consists of several large buildings for hospitals, nurseries, and other purposes. It has a farm of one hundred and six acres attached to it. The destitute emigrants are sent to this establishment, as soon as their condition is ascertained, and cared for until they either obtain employment, or are provided for by their friends in this country, or are sent to their original destinations in the West at the expense of the Commissioners. Medical attendance is provided at the Landing Depot, and is free to all needing it. Serious cases are sent to the hospital on Ward’s Island, where good medical skill and attendance are furnished.
The number of emigrants at the Refuge sometimes amounts to several hundred of all nationalities. The Irish and German elements predominate, and these being bitterly hostile to each other, the authorities are frequently compelled to adopt severe measures to prevent an open collision between them. In the winter of 1867-68, the Irish and German residents on the island came to blows, and a bloody riot immediately began between them, which was only quelled by the prompt arrival of a strong force of the City Police.
The Commissioners adopt every means in their power to prevent the inmates of the Landing Depot from falling into the hands of sharpers. Each emigrant in passing out of the enclosure for any purpose is required to apply for a permit, without which he cannot return, and no one is allowed, by the policeman on duty at the gate, to enter without permission from the proper authorities. In this way sharpers and swindlers are kept out of the enclosure, inside of which the emigrant is perfectly safe; and when he ventures out he is warned of the dangers he will have to encounter the moment he passes the gateway.
The majority of the emigrants are unable to speak our language, and all are ignorant of the country, its laws, and customs. This makes them an easy prey to the villains who throng the Battery in wait for them.
Approaching these poor creatures, as they are gazing about them with the timidity and loneliness of strangers in a strange land, the scoundrels will accost them in their own language. Glad to hear the mother-tongue once more, the emigrant readily enters into conversation with the fellow, and reveals to him his destination, his plans, and the amount of money he has with him. The sharper after some pleasantries meant to lull the suspicions of his victim, offers to show him where he can purchase his railroad tickets at a lower rate than at the office in the Landing Depot, and if the emigrant is willing, conducts him to a house in Washington, Greenwich, West, or some neighboring street, where a confederate sells him the so-called railroad tickets and receives his money. He is then conducted back to the Battery by a different route, and the sharper leaves him. Upon inquiring at the office, he learns that his cheap tickets are so much worthless paper, and that he has been swindled out of his money, which may be his all. Of course he is unable to find the place where he was robbed, and has no redress for his loss.
Others again are led off, by persons who pretend to be friends, to take a friendly drink in a neighboring saloon. Their liquor is drugged, and they are soon rendered unconscious, when they are robbed of their money, valuables, and even their clothes, and turned out into the street in this condition, to be picked up by the police.
All sorts of worthless wares are palmed off upon them by unscrupulous wretches. They are drawn into gaming and are fleeced out of their money. Dozens of sharpers are on the watch for them, and woe to them if they fall into the hands of these wretches.
Women are prominent amongst the enemies of the emigrants. The proprietors of the dance-houses and brothels of the city send their agents to the Battery, to watch their opportunity to entice the fresh, healthy emigrant girls to their hells. They draw them away by promises of profitable employment, and other shams, and carry them off to the houses of their heartless masters and mistresses. There they are drugged and ruined, or in other ways literally forced into lives of shame.