The Reason Long Island Isn't Considered an Island

iStock
iStock

Here’s a deceptive question: Is Long Island an island? It’s surrounded on all sides by water, yet for legal purposes, it isn’t an island. In 1985, all nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed. Long Island, that mass of land completely surrounded by water, is not an island. It’s a peninsula. One that just happens to have a little water between it and the mainland. 

The case in question, United States v. Maine, arose over disputes between states and the federal government over who legally controls the water between the eastern tip of Long Island and Rhode Island (Block Island Sound).

If Long Island were legally an island, that water would be considered the open sea, and therefore be regulated by the federal government. As a peninsula, the water around it (and the soil at the bottom of the sound) comes under the authority of the states surrounding it. 

Image Credit: Google Maps

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s geographically unsound ruling, the island is an extension of the New York mainland, and ships passing through the bay to its north need a state-licensed captain, per New York and Rhode Island law. Here’s the Supreme Court’s logic on why the island is not an island, according to the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday:

The court was led to its conclusion as a result of Long Island's shape and relation to the corresponding coast. According to the ruling, Long Island's north shore follows the south shore of the opposite mainland. But the shapes of the two lands almost completely surround the Long Island Sound.

The court also determined that Long Island and the adjacent shore share a common geological history, which contributes to its lack of island-ness. Deposits of sediment and rocks from the mainland formed the shores by ice sheets that retreated thousands of years ago, according to the ruling.

Technically, the East River, the body of water that separates Long Island from Manhattan and the Bronx (on the New York mainland), is a tidal strait, rather than a river. Since the East River is relatively shallow, difficult for ships to navigate, and not an outlet to the sea, it doesn’t count, the Court essentially argued. Newsday points out that scientific experts don't support this argument—geologically, the two islands are made of very different kinds of rock that formed at millions of years apart. But, as a matter of political expediency, it’s more convenient for Long Island to be a peninsula so New York can exercise jurisdiction over it (and reap whatever natural resources it can from that). 

While it may have simplified interstate squabbles, the demotion to peninsula status did cause Long Island to lose out on its designation as the longest island in the lower 48 states.

Themed Geography Grab Bag Quiz

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER