Strange Maps: Ellis Island is not quite in New York
August 9, 2007
For millions of immigrants, Ellis Island was where they first stepped upon the United States, after swinging by the island upon which the Statue of Liberty stood. (Yes, the Statue of Liberty does NOT stand on Ellis Island.) And just about everyone’s grandma and grandpa knew that Ellis Island is in New York. After all, every immigrant there knew that they would be stepping into a part of New York City — onto Ellis Island — when they step off the boat.
But is Ellis Island really a part of New York? Not really.
A first look at a map shows that Ellis Island is on the New Jersey side of the border.
However, from the beginning, New York had taken possession of Ellis Island, and New Jersey allowed it. In 1834, the two states entered into a compact recognizing that New York would have exclusive jurisdiction over Ellis Island.
However, beginning around 1890, the Federal government began to expand Ellis Island through landfill on all sides so that it could operate its immigration station there. Between 1890 and 1934, the Federal government poured so much landfill that the island ended up being 9/10th artificial land. That is, the original island area was only one-tenth the size of the entire “new” Ellis Island — everything else was artificial land.
New Jersey eventually filed claim to the “new” portions of Ellis Island, claiming that all of the additions were outside the boundaries of the compact and therefore a part of New Jersey. New York disagreed, and the two states actually duked it out in front of the Supreme Court in 1998. Rudy Giuliani, then Mayor of New York City during this dispute, famously claimed that his father, an immigrant from Italy, never intended to go through New Jersey.
The end result? The Supreme Court agreed with New Jersey, and said that the new additions were all part of New Jersey. If you look at the map below, the green shaded area is where the original island boundaries were — and therefore a part of the state of New York. Just approximately 5 acres were New York’s. All other portions of the island — or approximately 31 acres — were New Jersey’s. Only the Main Building was almost wholly in New York; all the other buildings were entirely or mostly in New Jersey. The two states ended up deciding to share claims to Ellis Island.
Since 1954, no immigrants have gone through Ellis Island. The entire island is Federal property anyway (although the land is shared by both states), and the Federal government operates the museum and maintains all of the buildings there.
Much ado over so little? Maybe not.