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Friday, August 5, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Black Tom Explosion

First of all -- thank you to everyone who turned out for our talk, "Exploring Hamilton's New York," at the New-York Historical Society last Friday. Around 400 people filled the main theater to hear us give a virtual tour of the city that Hamilton would have known in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. (Here we are wondering "who wore it better?" at the beginning of the talk.)

(Interested in an actual walking tour of Hamilton's city? We give those, too.)

Second -- yes, today is Friday. Postcard Thursday sometimes keeps a schedule all its own.

Last Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the Black Tom Explosion, when German saboteurs blew up a munitions depot in New Jersey. What does that have to do with the Statue of Liberty? Read on:

Sometimes when we are giving tours of Lower Manhattan people will tell us: "I remember climbing to the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty." This is almost certainly a faulty memory; the torch has been closed to visitors since 1916.

There are many reasons torch access was shut down: 

1) it is very difficult to access; 2) 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); 3) 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 2:08 a.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.

(This post has been adapted from one that appeared on this blog on October 26, 2011.)

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