The Centuries-Long Squabble Over Who Owns Ellis Island

It’s actually the federal government, but don’t tell New York or New Jersey

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island with their possessions in 1907. Library of Congress

Ellis Island: starting-point for the American journey of thousands of immigrants, failed resort town, state... battleground?

On this day in 1998, the Supreme Court ended a lengthy, and at times bloody, fight between the Garden State and the State of New York, over who actually owns Ellis Island. The Court’s answer: New Jersey, mostly, based on a land claims agreement between the two states that was made before Ellis Island became the first, and biggest, immigration center in America.

Located in New York Harbor opposite Jersey City, the island had been caught up in border disputes between the two states before, writes Ken Jennings for Condé Nast Traveler. In colonial times, he writes, “the dispute actually turned into a shooting war more than once.” Then in 1834, an agreement was reached in Congress: the state line was placed in the middle of the Hudson River, Jennings writes. Ellis Island was in the New Jersey side of the river, but New York had leased it from New Kersey in 1794, so the Empire State got to keep it.

When that agreement was reached, Jennings writes, Ellis Island was the home of Fort Gibson, a military outpost dating back to 1795. Its location at the mouth of New York’s harbor made it ideal for defending the city from attacks from the water. “But in the 1890s,” he writes, “the federal government took over immigration, and Ellis Island was chosen as New York’s inspection station for new arrivals. To accommodate the new facilities, the island was doubled in size, using barges of dirt taken, in part, from the subway tunnels being dug under Manhattan. Today, fully 90 per cent of the island is artificial landfill.”

New Jersey wasn’t happy. The state argued that since it owned the riverbed and the water that was being displaced by the island expansion, it should own the new parts of the island. The resulting court battle led to a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in favor of giving 90 per cent ownership of Ellis Island to New Jersey, leading one senator of the time to gloat “'Welcome to Ellis Island, New Jersey,'” Jennings writes.

Although the legal battle over Ellis Island is settled for the foreseeable future, the states continue to tussle over cultural ownership of the island. The U.S. Mint is producing a series of quarters showcasing national parks and other national landmarks, one for each state. This year, New Jersey's quarter features the Ellis Island National Monument. It shows an immigrant family standing before the hospital building, which is technically in New Jersey.

Of course, Jennings notes, as Ellis Island is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, it’s actually administered by the National Park Service and under control of the federal government. But technically, it’s mostly part of New Jersey.

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