· · · NEW JERSEY, NEW YORK · · ·


New Jersey Invades Ellis Island

Ellis Island is to be put up for sale for private commercial use. The little island … which for fifty years had been “God’s twenty-seven-and-a-half acres” for at least 15,000,000 immigrants, is scheduled to be sold to the highest bidder.… The decision to dispose of Ellis Island by sale put an end to the hope that the historic spot might be preserved as a public area. New York and New Jersey had each sought to obtain the island.


Nine months prior to this decision to sell Ellis Island, the efforts of New York and New Jersey to obtain the island had taken a bold new turn. January 4, 1956, had been foggy in the New York metropolitan area. As reported in the New York Times, the fog presented ideal conditions to

land an expeditionary force of New Jersey officials on Ellis Island. New Jersey wants the island even though New York contends it is within its own territorial limits and will fight for it to the last lawyer. The three federal government employees on the island yesterday put up no resistance. In fact, it took about fifteen minutes to find them. There were no casualties, although Mayor Bernard J. Berry of Jersey City got separated from the main party and for a while was listed as “lost.”

Once found, Mayor Berry suggested that they plant a New Jersey flag in the ground, but no one in the raiding party had thought to bring one. After some discussion about going back to the office to get one, they decided to let that go, since by the time they could return some New Yorkers might have heard about their foray, and the middle-aged officials did not think a rumble would aid their purpose.

What was their purpose? Boundary disputes between states were settled by the Supreme Court even in the early years of the Republic, when invasions by militias did happen. What, then, were the New Jerseyans up to, and why were they up to it at this point in time?

The purpose of the “raid” was publicity—as evidenced by the excerpt above, in which the nature and degree of detail suggest the presence of the reporter. The purpose of the publicity was to create greater awareness of New Jersey’s claim to Ellis Island, since the famous immigration portal had always been known as Ellis Island, New York. And the reason for doing so at this moment was that, just more than a year earlier, the federal government had closed the island.

In response to the closure, New York prepared a proposal to use some of the island’s now abandoned buildings to house the homeless and treat alcoholics, and to use the remaining buildings as part of the Department of Corrections—not a place to take the family. New Jersey proposed using the island and its structures for an ethnic museum and park. Since the federal government owned the land, it could lease it for either project. But New Jersey’s proposal would stand a far better chance politically if the land it sought to lease was in New Jersey, which is what Mayor Berry and his troops in gray flannel suits maintained.

Bernard J. Berry (1913-1963) (photo credit 41.1)

Nor were they the first to do so. Disputes over the boundary of Ellis Island dated back to 1893, just after the island was put into service as an immigration station. In that initial challenge, it was not New Jersey that brought suit but a defense attorney for an immigrant charged with committing perjury in the statements he made when being processed at the new facility. The case was assigned to the federal court for the Southern District of New York, but the defendant’s attorney wanted his client to be tried in the federal court in New Jersey.

The defense attorney based his argument on the unique boundary lines that divide that segment of the two states. The division is marked by two simultaneous boundary lines. Nowhere else in the country has such a boundary ever been implemented. But nowhere else was there such a valuable harbor, particularly at the time the boundary was negotiated in the early years of the Republic. One of the boundary lines is where the water meets the mainland, thus giving all of the Hudson River and Upper New York Bay—and the islands in those waters—to New York. The other boundary line is under the water along the middle of the channel. This second boundary enabled New Jersey to build a structure on its land, extend it over the water and secure it in the ground under the water—in other words, to build piers.

Dual New York-New Jersey borders

When the federal government decided to use Ellis Island for an immigration portal, the facility it planned required that the island be enlarged, which was done with landfill. Because the added acreage was built up from land on the New Jersey side of the underwater border, the argument could be made that the newly added land belonged to New Jersey.

The issue of federal court jurisdiction in the 1893 criminal case was ultimately decided without ruling on the boundary issue, since neither state was a litigant. Neither was the issue resolved in 1903–4, when New Jersey sued the U.S. Immigration Commission on behalf of the descendants of the colonial proprietors of Ellis Island. In this instance, the claim was based on a deed issued by the Duke of York, whose ownership was based on a deed issued by his brother, King Charles II. The government opted to sidestep this head-scratching challenge by simply buying Ellis Island from New Jersey. The deed for this purchase was therefore issued by New Jersey, but that fact did not constitute a definitive decision on the boundary, since such a ruling could only be issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

These were the historical reasons why Bernard Berry and his merry men temporarily occupied Ellis Island, but a more contemporary issue further motivated them. In the 1950s Americans had begun moving from densely populated cities to suburbs. Shopping centers, some with branches of downtown department stores, were cropping up in the suburbs as well. Not far behind were office buildings. If the trend continued—and it did—urban centers would find themselves increasingly depleted. Berry’s raid was part of a larger effort to attract commerce to New Jersey’s older urban areas.

In 1954, for example, Berry had sought and received commitments from Jersey City businesses to contribute to the renovation of nearby Newark’s old Center Market as part of an effort to lure the New York Stock Exchange to relocate in New Jersey. The following year, Berry commenced a major effort to lure the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jersey City. In 1956 the Dodgers played seven league games and one exhibition game at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium. Mayor Berry again displayed his quirky publicity skills when Time magazine wrote that the Dodgers had “crossed the Hudson to Jersey City for a second ‘opening game,’ the first of seven regular-season ‘home’ games they will play there this year,” and went on to note that “somebody gave Jersey City Mayor Bernard J. Berry a ball to throw out. Came time for the historic throw. ‘Mr. Mayor, the ball,’ an aide prompted. ‘The ball?’ echoed His Honor with surprise. ‘I gave it to some kid.’ ”

The Dodgers left Brooklyn after the following year’s season, but not for Jersey City. Team owner Walter O’Malley opted for the nation’s burgeoning “suburbanopolis,” Los Angeles, where the population had doubled since the beginning of World War II and was still expanding without end in sight. Undaunted, Berry unsuccessfully offered the stadium the following year to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cincinnati Reds.

Berry’s efforts to keep Jersey City and its neighboring urban centers economically viable were coupled with efforts to prevent them from becoming what he did not want them to be. Toward this end, he ordered the confiscation of the film The Moon Is Blue and the arrest of a movie theater manager, who was charged with violating state and city obscenity laws. Berry’s act in October 1953 drew national attention because The Moon Is Blue was not some low-budget porn film but a comedy directed by Otto Preminger, with a cast that included William Holden and David Niven. Critic Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review, wryly noted the film’s prerelease hype regarding its “decency” and observed that several thousand people had jammed the two Manhattan theaters showing the film, which dealt with “such things as whether a nice young lady who has let herself be lured to a pleasant young bachelor’s apartment should frankly inquire of him as to his romantic intentions, whether she should ask him about mistresses and such, and whether she should candidly acknowledge a healthy but cautious interest in sex.” After a grand jury refused to issue an indictment, the Jersey City theater manager again scheduled the film. Again the theater was raided—this time during the film’s first show. The squadron of police, not wanting to disturb (or confront) the adult-only audience of more than 400, sat and watched with them before arresting the manager.1

During this same period, Berry also sought to have bookstores in Jersey City voluntarily cease selling James Jones’s popular novel From Here to Eternity. The novel’s language was more explicit than the Academy Award—winning film, which was currently in release.

While these actions may sound outrageous today (and were controversial and derided at the time), they shared a common denominator with Berry’s other efforts, and in particular with his adventure on Ellis Island. They all bespoke a desire to preserve Jersey City as it was—or as Berry believed or wished it was. Ironically, Jersey City had been one of the most politically corrupt cities in America when ruled by Mayor Frank Hague and his nephew, Mayor Frank Hague Egger, from 1917 to 1949. But that was not the Jersey City Berry longed to preserve. His vision, real or imagined, was captured in the town’s Hudson Reporter in 2007, forty-five years after his death. “Prior to the large malls, there were many neighborhood stores,” a letter to the editor remembered. “Totaro Hardware, Stegman Tavern, Stanley Bakery.… The candy stores on Jackson Avenue would remain open until after 10 PM.… The City, under Bernard J. Berry, conducted nightly basketball games at Audubon Park (starring Vinny Ernst), art shows, handball games and an open playground with outdoor showers for the children in the summertime.”

Bernard Berry was unable to stop the cultural and economic forces of the 1950s. But one effort that succeeded was his Ellis Island raid. It raised awareness of New Jersey’s ownership claim, thereby helping prepare the way for the state’s subsequent legal efforts. The legal challenge, far less theatrical and far more time-consuming, culminated in 1998, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that the landfill acres of the island were indeed in New Jersey. Today Ellis Island is officially Ellis Island, New York/New Jersey.

But Berry’s publicity stunt achieved even more. His vision of an ethnic museum and park—yet another of his efforts to preserve and respect the past—prevailed when Ellis Island became part of the National Park Service’s Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Since 1990, following a $150 million restoration effort, its main buildings have served as a tremendously successful immigration museum and records center.

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