6. Ellis Island

Ellis Island. Image via Save Ellis Island.

Visitors to Ellis Island rarely give a thought as to which state Ellis Island belongs. They are content to wander the Guastavino–tiled halls and imagine what life was like for immigrants over a century ago. Nevertheless, individuals at the highest echelons of the New York and New Jersey State governments have spent the better part of two centuries fighting over sovereignty of the Island.

In the colonial period, New Jersey had jurisdiction over all land west of Long Island, which would include Ellis Island. An 1834 compact conceived by delineated the border between New York and New Jersey “as the middle of the Hudson River” and “provided that Ellis Island, then three acres, was part of New York, despite its location on the New Jersey side of the river.” However, New Jersey retained sovereign rights “over submerged lands on its side [of the Hudson River].” The small island that existed completely changed over the course of the nineteenth century as the federal government added landfill to suit its changing needs from a small battery to a large immigration depot.

In 1954, the immigration station closed and New York and New Jersey once again tried to claim the island for themselves. On January 4, 1956, a party from Jersey City, led by Mayor Berry, commandeered the Coast Guard Cutter, Tuckahoe, “to land an expeditionary force” on Ellis Island. Mayor Berry “favored planting the New Jersey flag on the island,” although no one brought one along. “There was some discussion about going back…to get one. But it was finally agreed that planting the flag would only infuriate New York, and who could foretell where that might lead!” Nothing came of this pseudo-military expedition, though it is worth noting that while New Jersey wanted to turn the island into a park, New York was interested in using the “facilities for its Departments of Welfare and Corrections.”

It took until 1998 for the Supreme Court, with the assistance of Special Master Paul R. Verkuil, to finalize the matter once and for all. The Court ruled 6 to 3 that every inch of landfill on the island belongs to New Jersey. Justice Stevens dissented, arguing that it was a “bizarre decision” to make divide the main immigration building between the two states: the building’s kitchen and laundry are in New Jersey.

Also join us for our tour of the abandoned Ellis Island Hospital to learn more about the history of the complex:

Behind-the-Scenes Hard Hat Tour of the Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital