The Time New Jersey Took New York to the Supreme Court to Lay Claim to Ellis Island

Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain
Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain

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]

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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