A Path to Steam
U. S. Custom House
The United States Custom House was the place where federal customs duties were collected in New York City.
The custom house existed at several locations over the years. From 1799 to 1815, it was in the Government House, roughly on the former site of Fort Amsterdam. From 1842 it was at 26 Wall Street in a building designed by John Frazee. That building is now Federal Hall National Memorial. From 1862 it was in the Merchant’s Exchange Building at 55 Wall Street.
In the 19th century, the Port of New York was the primary port of entry for goods reaching the United States, and as such the Custom House in New York was the most important in the country. In 1853, for instance, it collected almost 75% of the custom revenue in the country. The amount of money passing through the House made working there a prime position, as corruption was widespread; at one point, 27,000 people applied for 700 open positions in the Custom House.1
Until the civil service reforms of the late nineteenth century, all Custom House employees were political appointees. The President appointed the four principal officers: Collector of Customs, Naval Officer, Surveyor of Customs, and Appraiser of Customs. The Customs House patronage was the subject of great debate during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, as Hayes attempted to establish a merit-based system of appointments, while Senator Roscoe Conkling wished to retain the spoils system, under which he controlled the patronage there. One Collector of Customs, Chester A. Arthur (1871-1878), later became President of the United States. Arthur was said to have made several times more income as a collector than he did as a lawyer, about $50,000 a year in his first three years in office.