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New York and New Jersey fought their way to the supreme court over ownership of which landmark?

Richard Latimer

April 29, 2021

New York and New Jersey fought their way to the supreme court over ownership of which landmark?


The case known as New York vs New Jersey is a case with years old history that ended in the US Supreme Court. In this case, the dispute over who had more power over Ellis Island had to be resolved.

Located in New York Harbor opposite New Jersey the island is caught between the two borders. Ellis Island is an unsuccessful resort town that was turned into a place for the first steps on the path of the American dream for millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954. It welcomes more than 12 million immigrants. Later it became a battlefield for New York and New Jersey.


The conflict began many years ago still in the colonial era in 1664 after the British takeover of New Netherland. In the colonial land donation, there was an unusual clause that describes that New Jersey, rather the usual middle point of the river, takes the territories westward of Long Island and Manhattan.


In 1804 New York made the first attempts to rend an influence over the island lands, declaring its desire to command the right to trade in all of its water.


In the case of Gibbons vs Ogden, it was adjudicated that this right is to the government. New Jersey tried to announce his claims to the court in 1830 but the case was never even heard. Approved by the US Congress in 1834 the circumstance was resolved with a contract between the states.

It set the border between them as the middle of the Hudson River and New York Harbor but gave all the islands there in the river to New York. Later in other cases that explain the contract, it was affirmed by the US Supreme Court.


After the agreement, Ellis Island becomes Fort Gibson's base from where water attacks can be easily prevented.


In 1890 the United States government took control over the Ellis Islands and made it a new base for newcomers. The size of the island had to be doubleted and to become possible they used parts leftover from the Manhattan subway. In the late 19th century the federal government started to expand the island in stations until 1934. Nowadays near 90% of the island is unnatural landfills.


New Jersey did not like that much especially after they say that the artificial parts were theirs because they were outside the borders of New York.


New Jersey states that since the water around the island is theirs and has been swept away by the expansion of the island, they must own these parts of it. These requests are turned into a fierce battle that ends in the Supreme Court.


He conceded 90 percent of Ellis Island to New Jersey. After that decision, the majority says that after the waters are owned by New Jersey the added land should belong to the same state. The minority, people on the opposite side, says that there are historical reasons why the land should be returned to New York.

According to the court the original land of Ellis Island, that is not added in time, is still under the power of New York. The rest of the land, that is converted from the waters belongs to New Jersey. The whole island has land the size of 27,5 acres.


After the Supreme Court makes its decision for Ellis Island's land the two states start negotiations to decide from where do the borders that divide the island pass. The borders are drawn according to the decree of the Supreme Court.

The original land is sized 2,74 acres and few other areas that are earned after negotiations are sized 4,68 acres for New York. The case New York vs New Jersey is maybe the first one to use a geographic information system framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data (GIS), in the Supreme Court.

Even after this decision was taken and it changed the state's territories, the actual owner of Ellis Island is still the federal government.

The constant change of the owner didn't affect the activities and the people on the island, except the trades in few taxes. Nowadays the conflict doesn't exist anymore, even though there are still some disagreements over the cultural features of the island.


The Main building on the island is currently open for tourists. While you are on Ellis Island and you wonder if you are in New York or New Jersey, the answer is- it depends. You can visit it every other operating day. You have to make a reservation and buy tickets because the only way to reach the island is by ferry boat.

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