Friday, April 1, 2011

Ellis Island: The Jersey side (no fooling!)

Though Ellis Island is right in the middle of New York Harbor and hosts more than two million visitors a year, it qualifies as a hidden New Jersey story.

That's not an April Fools joke -- the Island of Hope and Tears has a legitimate Garden State connection. Few people know that Ellis Island is in two states: New York and New Jersey.

Both Ellis Island and Liberty Island are on the New Jersey side of the state boundary that tracks down the Hudson River and through New York Harbor. Way back in 1834, the states entered into a compact that put the islands under New York jurisdiction, and both states agreed that the surrounding waters were New Jersey territory. In any case, the islands are federal property and were hosts to forts defending the harbor before becoming home to the Statue of Liberty and the immigration station.

Over the years, as immigration boomed and more space was needed for medical facilities to handle thousands of sick newcomers, the US government enlarged Ellis Island and built more than 30 buildings there. What was once about 3.5 acres became 27.5, consisting of fill taken from Manhattan and Brooklyn during the excavation of the New York City subway system.

Not much was said about Ellis Island's provenance until the immigration station was restored and opened as a museum in 1990. In stark contrast, the many buildings on the island's south side remained in disarray, and questions came up about what would come of them. Would they be torn down in favor of new construction, perhaps a shiny new hotel or casino? Given that the island is just a half mile from Jersey City, the state of New Jersey wanted a strong voice in any decision about the island's future. And certainly, monetary issues came into play, too. As it stood, visitors paid New York sales tax on anything they bought at the souvenir stands and snack bars on Ellis and Liberty Islands. Who would get the tax revenue from any additional profit making enterprises on the island?

One of the Ellis Island hospital buildings,
on the New Jersey side of the island.
The issue was settled in the time honored American tradition: a law suit that reached the US Supreme Court. In their infinite wisdom, the Justices looked back to the 1834 compact for guidance. Noting that the states had agreed that the naturally-occurring islands were New York land in New Jersey territory, they carefully drew the state boundary to include the original land within the larger, man-made landmass we know today. While the vast majority of the immigration museum rests within the footprint of the original island, tiny bits rest within New Jersey. And more than 80 percent of the total island, including the entire south side hospital complex, is part of the Garden State.

And the status of the south side buildings? Of course, as always, we get the fixer-upper. The non-profit Save Ellis Island is working with the National Park Service to raise funds for restoration of the hospital complex, with an eye toward opening an institute on world migration and health. All of the buildings are stabilized to prevent further decay, and one, the Ferry Building, is already open for guided tours.

I'm a volunteer docent for the Park Service and SEI, so I've made more than a couple of trips to the south side of the island. I've also done dozens of tours to the Ferry Building to talk with visitors about the Ellis Island Hospital.  More on that to come...

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