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]

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER