Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Black Tom Explosion: July 30, 1916

This week, the Statue of Liberty (aka "Liberty Enlightening the World," its official name) will be turning 125 years old. In celebration, the National Park Service is installing five webcams atop the statue's torch, allowing virtual visitors the opportunity to see a view that's been off limits for nearly a century.*


There are many reasons the torch has been closed since 1916: it is very difficult to access; it was never designed for tourists (indeed, none of the statue's interior was built to host millions of visitors, giving rise to many of the statue's structural problems of the last few decades); the climb from the shoulder to the torch was done in near darkness.

But the major reason the torch closed was an explosion on the night of July 30, 1916, on Black Tom Island in New Jersey, where millions of pounds of ammunition was being stored by the National Storage Company and the Lehigh Valley Railroad for eventual shipment to allied forces in Europe. It was the largest explosion in modern history--the equivalent of a 5.5 earthquake--and was felt in five states: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Black Tom Island was originally a small island between Liberty (then Bedloe's) Island and Jersey City. By 1916, landfill had connected the island to the New Jersey mainland, and it was used as a major freight depot by the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

On the evening of July 30, the night watchmen noticed that there were fires on the pier where Johnson Barge No. 17 was moored. (The barge--which held 100,000 pounds of TNT--turned out to be illegally berthed there in order to avoid port charges. Even had it been legally moored, it seems like that would have made little difference.)

When it became clear that the fires were too large for the night watchmen to fight on their own, the Jersey City fire department was called in; however, it was too dangerous for them to proceed and at 2:08a.m. the first of a series of explosions rocked the island. Shrapnel and munitions were blasted in every direction; some lodged in the Statue of Liberty (which ultimately cost $100,000 to repair), some made it was far away as the Jersey City clock tower, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m.

Almost everyone in Manhattan was awoken by the strength of the blast and there were numerous injuries, mostly from falling glass. As the head of the New York Plate Glass Insurance Company noted the next day, a million dollars of glass had rattled out of its casements in the city, mostly south of West 44th Street. (At least one person was injured from falling glass, however, at Third Avenue and 89th Street.)

At first, the guards at the pier were brought in for questioning, as it was believed that the smudge pots they'd lit to keep mosquitoes at bay had caused the fire. Soon, it became clear that the explosion was sabotage, and suspicion fell quickly on German agents living in the United States. Though the exact identities of the bombers were never known, the Mixed Claims Commission (set up after World War I to adjudicate claims against Germany) eventually decided to fine Germany $50 million for the explosion. The money was finally paid in 1979.

Meanwhile, the management of the Statue of Liberty decided that Lady Liberty's arm had been too weakened by the explosion to allow tourist traffic to continue to climb to the torch; the torch was never reopened.

The torch cams will go online on Friday, October 28, and can be accessed at http://www.earthcam.com/usa/newyork/statueofliberty/?cam=liberty_str.



* A handful of maintenance workers have been allowed access to the torch since 1916, but no regular visitors. Still, that doesn't stop a lot of people from reminiscing about having "gone up to the torch" in the 1940s and 50s. Unless those people were VIPs or statue staff, it is very unlikely.



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Read more about the Statue of Liberty in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York

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