Between 1892 and 1954, the first steps on US soil for some 12 million immigrants were on this small, mostly manmade island surrounded by the Hudson River.
Most people, if they thought about it at all, considered those first steps to be New York steps. For even though it is closer to New Jersey (1,300 feet) than to New York (2 miles), Ellis Island had been in New York City's jurisdiction ever since an 1834 agreement between the two neighboring states.
But New Jersey wants to right what it considers a faulty historical record. And it has taken its contest of Ellis Island's sovereignty to the US Supreme Court in a magnified version of a property-line dispute between suburban neighbors. The Ellis Island brouhaha has become not only the latest in a series of bi-state feuds known here as "the border war," but it is also emblematic of the Garden State's coming of age.
The case, argued last month, is not one of ownership - the federal government actually owns Ellis Island - but of political jurisdiction and tax revenues on current and future tourist attractions. New Jersey lawyers claim the 1834 compact - which gave New York control of Ellis Island and gave New Jersey all underwater property - means that the 24 acres of landfill added to the original three-acre island should belong to New Jersey. New York's lawyers argue that the pact gave it control of the island, no matter what the size.
Some observers see more at stake in a rift that has a deep, emotional, and familial genesis.
"Historically, New York has always claimed the good things in the region and drained stuff from New Jersey. The galleries, the concert halls, and the like, all those amenities were centered in Manhattan, and New Jersey cities have been stunted by that," says James Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
But now that New Jersey feels it has come of age, it wants stuff to call its own, which is an affront to New York's "arrogance," Mr. Hughes says. "When your poor neighbor ultimately grows up and becomes competitive, that's hard to swallow," he says, not bothering to hide his allegiance.
Perhaps no two US jurisdictions bicker with the emotion and bluster of New York (specifically New York City) and New Jersey. While there may be significant tax and business revenues at stake, politicians in both states regularly act like school children grabbing toys from one another on a playground.
A few years ago, a number of investment firms defected to New Jersey, prompting New York to accuse its neighbor of raiding Wall Street.
Earlier this year, the two states squared off in competition over two commodities exchanges - the New York Cotton Exchange and the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange, which had announced plans in July to move to Jersey City. Both later accepted an incentive package from New York City and New York State, and stayed in Manhattan.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani regularly complains that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that oversees ports, airports, bridges, bus terminals, and the World Trade Center, favors New Jersey. The mayor recently proposed dissolving the agency.
And then there's the ongoing tug-of-war for the New York Yankees.
The team's lease at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx expires in 2002, and owner George Steinbrenner often threatens to follow the New York Giants and Jets football teams and take his Bronx Bombers across the Hudson River.
The two states even argue over bragging rights as the birthplace of baseball: New Jersey says the first game was played in Hoboken; New York says it was in Cooperstown.
But none of those skirmishes has found its way to the US Supreme Court. Not yet, at least.
Lawsuits between states bypass lower courts and go directly to the Supreme Court, which appoints a fact-finding "special master" in place of a trial judge. New York's Columbia University law professor Paul Verkuil, the special master who heard Ellis Island arguments in August, will collect final briefs from the two states by October. A decision is expected before the end of the court term next June.