From August 1855 to 1924, millions of new arrivals to New York City went through an immigration processing center. The most famous New York immigration centers are Ellis Island and Castle Garden. The least famous is likely the Barge Office, which was used briefly just prior to the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, and again following a fire on Ellis Island in 1897, which destroyed the buildings there. When the new buildings were completed in 1900 Ellis Island again became New York's immigration center.
Here's a simple timeline for when New York's immigrant processing centers were operating:
Prior to August 1, 1855 ... No central processing center
August 1, 1855 - April 18, 1890 ... Castle Garden
April 19, 1890 - December 31, 1891 ... Barge Office
January 1, 1892 - June 14, 1897 ... Ellis Island
June 15, 1897 - December 16, 1900 .... Barge Office
December 17, 1900 - 1924 .... Ellis Island
On July 1, 1924 a new law went into effect which stated that immigrants were to be inspected at US consular offices in the immigrant's home country before coming to the US. Ellis Island continued to be used as an alien detention center until November 1954. The first person to be processed at Ellis Island in 1892 was a 15-year-old Irish girl, Annie Moore. The last Ellis Island detainee was a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen.
The Barge Office was located on the southeastern tip of Manhattan. Castle Garden, now called Castle Clinton National Monument, was located on a small island just off the southwestern tip. Later landfill has attached the island to Manhattan. Castle Clinton National Monument serves as a visitor information center for New York's National Parks and Monuments. You can also purchase tickets there for ferry trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The passenger ships to New York didn't actually land at Ellis Island -- they landed at Manhattan and the passengers were ferried over to the island for processing. Generally only steerage passengers went to Ellis Island for inspection. Most of the first and second class passengers were allowed to leave the ship soon after docking. All passengers, however, were (or should have been) listed on the ship manifest (or passenger list). However, from June 1897 to early 1903, New York passenger lists contain the names of steerage passengers only (with some exceptions). Most of the lists for first and second class (cabin class) passengers for that period are missing. After January 1903, (and from 1820 to June 1897), the lists should include all classes of passengers. (See Marian Smith's discussion on this topic at the Avotaynu link in the sources section below.)
The Ellis Island fire of the night of June 14, 1897 also destroyed some Ellis Island administrative records and the New York immigration passenger lists. However, separate New York customs passenger lists were kept elsewhere (at the Customs House), and they have survived. So ship passenger lists for the early Ellis Island period (1892-June 1897) are available for research along with the rest of the New York passenger lists, beginning with 1820. These passenger records were later microfilmed by the National Archives (customs lists 1820-mid June, 1897), and the INS (immigration lists mid June, 1897-July 3, 1957), who gave the master copies to the National Archives. Over time many indexes and finding aids have been created to help locate individual immigrants on these lists. For information on finding New York passenger lists see...
Finding New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957
For help with other ports...
- Ship Passenger Lists Guide, 1820-1960s: For Ships Arriving at U.S. Ports from Europe and Other Places
- Online Ship Passenger Lists
Thanks to INS/USCIS historian, Marian Smith, for her help with this article.
- Castle Garden/Castle Clinton National Monument History from the National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/cacl/learn/historyculture/)
- Ellis Island Immigration from the National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/elis/learn/historyculture/places_immigration.htm)
- "Fire on Ellis Island," New York Times, June 15, 1897, page 1.
- They Came in Ships by John P. Colletta, Ph.D., revised 3rd edition. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2002.
- "Last Day of Castle Garden (Fun Begins at the Barge Office about Future Immigrants)," New York Evening World News, April 18, 1890, page 3.
- "Just How Were Passenger Manifests Created?" by Sallyann Sack-Pikus. April 1, 2009: Avotaynu.
- 125th Anniversary of Annie Moore and Ellis Island by Megan Smolenyak (https://www.megansmolenyak.com/125th-anniversary-of-annie-moore-and-ellis-island/)