Ellis Island, the gateway to the U.S. for millions of immigrants in the early 20th century, is often considered a part of New York. After all, we rarely hear immigrant tales of sailing across the Atlantic in the early 1900s bound for … New Jersey. The Titanic wasn’t setting sail for New Jersey. But the island is, in fact, closer to the Garden State than it is to Manhattan. While you can only access the island from New York by boat, Ellis Island is connected to New Jersey’s Liberty State Park by a bridge that measures only 1100 feet long (though it's only open to authorized personnel). So who does it belong to, really? The answer is so contentious that in the 1990s, New Jersey went straight to the Supreme Court about it.
For centuries, due to the extremely vague wording of a 17th century land grant, the two states have both laid claim to Ellis Island. The 1998 Supreme Court case that finally settled the matter, was, improbably, sparked by a severed leg, as The New York Times recently explored in its F.Y.I. column.
New Jersey was formed by a land grant from the English Duke of York in 1664, establishing an English colony situated between the Delaware River, the Hudson River, and the Atlantic Ocean. The grant established New Jersey’s border as “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson's river.” The key word being part.
To New Jersey officials, that seemed to mean the state was entitled to the western half of the Hudson River, which would include Ellis Island. New York, on the other hand, took it to mean New Jersey ended where the water began. In 1833, as part of a compromise over the boundary between the two states, New Jersey acknowledged that New York owned the islands in the Hudson, including Ellis Island, but stipulated that it owned the land underwater up to the island's edge [PDF].
The federal government, however, was the one actually using the island at the time. In the early 1800s, the state of New York ceded the rights to the island over to the U.S. government to use as a military base, and later, an immigration station. The immigration center opened in 1892, operating up until 1954, when it closed and the island became surplus government property.
A few decades later, an accident would force the issue of who really owned Ellis Island. In 1986, tragedy struck during the construction of the immigration museum that now operates on the island. A worker from the National Park Service lost his leg due to an accident with a stump grinder on the landfill portion of the island, which had been built out into the Hudson River by the government when the island was still an immigration center. He sued the company that manufactured the grinder, and in turn, the manufacturer sued the federal government to share in the liability for the accident.
The federal government really wanted that piece of landfill to belong to New Jersey, since it had a better chance of dodging the lawsuit under New Jersey law. So it tried to give the land to New Jersey. Both the Federal District Court in Manhattan and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals begged to differ. In 1992, the appeals court reaffirmed that the property belonged to New York, since the 1833 agreement didn't say anything about the island's size.
New Jersey wasn't pleased. In 1993, the state went straight to the Supreme Court over where the border line fell. The move was prompted by more than just one worker's lawsuit. According to The New York Times’s 1996 write-up of the pre-trial hearing of the case, tax revenue played a major role. So did pure ego:
At issue is who can maintain bragging rights over a symbol of the immigration that helped forge the United States. (More than 4 out of 10 Americans trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through the island.) More important, the case would help settle the question of who could collect taxes on the island should plans be realized to convert the crumbling buildings into a hotel or convention center.
According to the newspaper, the trial was a doozy. "Bile oozed across the lectern," reporter Neil MacFarquhar wrote, "as each side mustered 200 years of accumulated skirmishing for the trial, expected to last a month and to include a field trip to the famous rock itself, with dueling experts as guides."
In 1998, the Supreme Court settled the case [PDF]. The court ruled that the landfill belonged to New Jersey, as the state owned the part of the river leading up to the island, including the land underneath it. Since the landfill had been built on top of New Jersey’s territory, it owned the more than 20 acres of landfill on Ellis Island. The state of New York, meanwhile, could keep its claim to the original island as it existed before the federal government got there.
New York ended up with about 17 percent of the island, a mere 4.68 acres, including the land on which the Ellis Island museum stands. But most of the other buildings—which stand in a state of "arrested decay"—belong to New Jersey. Some of the buildings even stand on top of the border, meaning they’re half in New York, half in New Jersey. The museum within the main immigration building largely belongs to New York, for instance, but the laundry and kitchen in the building (which are off-limits to the public unless they take a hard hat tour) are technically part of New Jersey.
But, as the Times notes, this debate only matters when it comes down to the sales tax revenue from concessions purchased by tourists. Otherwise, it’s merely a matter of state pride.
[h/t The New York Times]