The Castle Garden Tokens of NYC

Situated at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, Fort Clinton was erected as defensive countermeasure to British forces as the threat of war grew between the United States and Britain in the early 19th century.

Construction of the massive fort began in 1809, and workers completed the complex in 1811. Intended to complement Castle Williams on Governors Island, the fort itself was erected atop an artificial island, and was primarily built using sandstone.

Despite having been built in anticipation of the War of 1812, the fort itself never saw any military action. By 1821 the United States Army ceased using the fort, and offered to lease the entire complex to New York City.

Three years later the fort was renamed, and was opened as Castle Garden. Subleased by Jonathan B. Rathbone and Francis B. Fitch, the two men enclosed the fort with a roof, and converted it into a massive entertainment venue.

JennyLindWithin its walls was a huge concert hall, complemented with a beer garden, a restaurant, an exhibition hall, and an opera house.

For the next thirty years or so, the entertainment facility thrived. Contemporary stars were frequently featured at the venue, often times filling the concert hall to capacity.

Among the many celebrities who were booked at the hall, famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind launched her American tour there.

Lola Montez, a dancer known for her  popular yet risque “tarantula dance,” also headlined at the venue.

In 1855 use of the facility as an entertainment venue ceased. In August of that year the State of New York took possession of the property, and began it as its primary processing center for arriving immigrants.

For the next thirty seven years the facility was used for this purpose, and it was only until the Federal Government opened Ellis Island did the facility transition back to being used as an entertainment venue.

Immigrants Arriving at Castle Garden, circa 1863
Immigrants Arriving at Castle Garden, circa 1863

In 1896 the City of New York opened its aquarium at the site.  For the next 45 years it served that purpose.


In 1946 the site was designated as a national monument, and in 1950 the City of New York ceded the property back to the U.S. Government.


Since that time the property has been managed by the Department of the Interior, and has served as a landing point for ferries transporting visitors to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Numismatic Specimens

Engraved and struck by Richard Trested, it is surmised that tokens were used as subscriber passes to the Castle Garden venue during the 1820s.  In exchange for contributions to help convert the fort into a concert hall, it is believed that these tokens were issued to donors by Rathbone and Fitch.

There are a total of nine extant specimens known to have survived. Eight of the specimens were struck on brass and silvered, while the ninth is composed of lead.

The table below provides a census for all nine specimens.

Census of Castle Garden Tokens

The specimen pictured below was issued to R.L. Wilson and was unearthed in 1997 by James J. Shook in upstate New York.  It is approximately F-12 in grade.  Given that the specimen is a ground find, its surfaces are porous and thus makes it a ‘details’ grade.

Miller NY-654A Rathbone & Fitch Castle Garden Concert Hall c.1825

Aaron Packard [End Mark]

Notes and Sources

The text of this article originally appeared in The Civil War Token Society’s ‘The Copperhead Courier,’ Summer 1984, volume 18, Number 2.

  1. Immigrants at Castle Garden, New York City, 1866. Wood engraving in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper”, 20 January 1866, vol. 21, p. 280-281
  2. Castle Clinton, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
  3. Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004, pg.391
  4. Battery Park New York City, Essential New York City Guide
  5. The New York City Public Library Digital Archives
  6. The Library of Congress Digital Archives
Aaron Packard

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