New York, New Jersey Go Toe to Toe A Long-Simmering Feud Erupts over Which State Can Call Ellis Island Its Own

By Neal Thompson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

New York, New Jersey Go Toe to Toe A Long-Simmering Feud Erupts over Which State Can Call Ellis Island Its Own


Neal Thompson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Between 1892 and 1954, the first steps on US soil for some 12 million immigrants were on this small, mostly manmade island surrounded by the Hudson River.

Most people, if they thought about it at all, considered those first steps to be New York steps. For even though it is closer to New Jersey (1,300 feet) than to New York (2 miles), Ellis Island had been in New York City's jurisdiction ever since an 1834 agreement between the two neighboring states.

But New Jersey wants to right what it considers a faulty historical record. And it has taken its contest of Ellis Island's sovereignty to the US Supreme Court in a magnified version of a property-line dispute between suburban neighbors. The Ellis Island brouhaha has become not only the latest in a series of bi-state feuds known here as "the border war," but it is also emblematic of the Garden State's coming of age. The case, argued last month, is not one of ownership - the federal government actually owns Ellis Island - but of political jurisdiction and tax revenues on current and future tourist attractions. New Jersey lawyers claim the 1834 compact - which gave New York control of Ellis Island and gave New Jersey all underwater property - means that the 24 acres of landfill added to the original three-acre island should belong to New Jersey. New York's lawyers argue that the pact gave it control of the island, no matter what the size. Some observers see more at stake in a rift that has a deep, emotional, and familial genesis. "Historically, New York has always claimed the good things in the region and drained stuff from New Jersey. The galleries, the concert halls, and the like, all those amenities were centered in Manhattan, and New Jersey cities have been stunted by that," says James Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But now that New Jersey feels it has come of age, it wants stuff to call its own, which is an affront to New York's "arrogance," Mr. Hughes says. "When your poor neighbor ultimately grows up and becomes competitive, that's hard to swallow," he says, not bothering to hide his allegiance. …

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