The Time New Jersey Took New York to the Supreme Court to Lay Claim to Ellis Island

Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain
Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain

Ellis Island, the gateway to the U.S. for millions of immigrants in the early 20th century, is often considered a part of New York. After all, we rarely hear immigrant tales of sailing across the Atlantic in the early 1900s bound for … New Jersey. The Titanic wasn’t setting sail for New Jersey. But the island is, in fact, closer to the Garden State than it is to Manhattan. While you can only access the island from New York by boat, Ellis Island is connected to New Jersey’s Liberty State Park by a bridge that measures only 1100 feet long (though it's only open to authorized personnel). So who does it belong to, really? The answer is so contentious that in the 1990s, New Jersey went straight to the Supreme Court about it.

For centuries, due to the extremely vague wording of a 17th century land grant, the two states have both laid claim to Ellis Island. The 1998 Supreme Court case that finally settled the matter, was, improbably, sparked by a severed leg, as The New York Times recently explored in its F.Y.I. column.

New Jersey was formed by a land grant from the English Duke of York in 1664, establishing an English colony situated between the Delaware River, the Hudson River, and the Atlantic Ocean. The grant established New Jersey’s border as “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson's river.” The key word being part.

To New Jersey officials, that seemed to mean the state was entitled to the western half of the Hudson River, which would include Ellis Island. New York, on the other hand, took it to mean New Jersey ended where the water began. In 1833, as part of a compromise over the boundary between the two states, New Jersey acknowledged that New York owned the islands in the Hudson, including Ellis Island, but stipulated that it owned the land underwater up to the island's edge [PDF].

The federal government, however, was the one actually using the island at the time. In the early 1800s, the state of New York ceded the rights to the island over to the U.S. government to use as a military base, and later, an immigration station. The immigration center opened in 1892, operating up until 1954, when it closed and the island became surplus government property.

A few decades later, an accident would force the issue of who really owned Ellis Island. In 1986, tragedy struck during the construction of the immigration museum that now operates on the island. A worker from the National Park Service lost his leg due to an accident with a stump grinder on the landfill portion of the island, which had been built out into the Hudson River by the government when the island was still an immigration center. He sued the company that manufactured the grinder, and in turn, the manufacturer sued the federal government to share in the liability for the accident.

The federal government really wanted that piece of landfill to belong to New Jersey, since it had a better chance of dodging the lawsuit under New Jersey law. So it tried to give the land to New Jersey. Both the Federal District Court in Manhattan and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals begged to differ. In 1992, the appeals court reaffirmed that the property belonged to New York, since the 1833 agreement didn't say anything about the island's size.

New Jersey wasn't pleased. In 1993, the state went straight to the Supreme Court over where the border line fell. The move was prompted by more than just one worker's lawsuit. According to The New York Times’s 1996 write-up of the pre-trial hearing of the case, tax revenue played a major role. So did pure ego:

At issue is who can maintain bragging rights over a symbol of the immigration that helped forge the United States. (More than 4 out of 10 Americans trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through the island.) More important, the case would help settle the question of who could collect taxes on the island should plans be realized to convert the crumbling buildings into a hotel or convention center.

According to the newspaper, the trial was a doozy. "Bile oozed across the lectern," reporter Neil MacFarquhar wrote, "as each side mustered 200 years of accumulated skirmishing for the trial, expected to last a month and to include a field trip to the famous rock itself, with dueling experts as guides."

In 1998, the Supreme Court settled the case [PDF]. The court ruled that the landfill belonged to New Jersey, as the state owned the part of the river leading up to the island, including the land underneath it. Since the landfill had been built on top of New Jersey’s territory, it owned the more than 20 acres of landfill on Ellis Island. The state of New York, meanwhile, could keep its claim to the original island as it existed before the federal government got there.

New York ended up with about 17 percent of the island, a mere 4.68 acres, including the land on which the Ellis Island museum stands. But most of the other buildings—which stand in a state of "arrested decay"—belong to New Jersey. Some of the buildings even stand on top of the border, meaning they’re half in New York, half in New Jersey. The museum within the main immigration building largely belongs to New York, for instance, but the laundry and kitchen in the building (which are off-limits to the public unless they take a hard hat tour) are technically part of New Jersey.

But, as the Times notes, this debate only matters when it comes down to the sales tax revenue from concessions purchased by tourists. Otherwise, it’s merely a matter of state pride.

[h/t The New York Times]

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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