9. An Explosion Near Liberty State Park Damaged the Statue of Liberty

Image via WikiCommonsNational Archives

In 1916, Black Tom, once a small island in New York Harbor adjacent to what is now Liberty State Park, was racked by a massive explosion that would have registered as a 5.5 magnitude earthquake, with shocks felt all the way to Connecticut and Philadelphia. The island was originally used as a freight facility with a dock and then connected to the mainland and used as a work yard and storage facility for the Lehigh Valley Railroad between 1905 and 1916. By the late 1910s, before the United States officially joined World War I, Black Tom had become a major munitions hub where American arms dealers sold weapons to which ever side was buying. In 1915, British troops established a blockade that prevented opposing forces from gaining access to the American armaments. In retaliation to being shut out of the arms deals, German troops planned an attack.

On the evening of July 30, 1916, as freight cars and barges, supposedly stocked full with over 2 million pounds of ammunition, sat waiting to be shipped overseas, a series of small fires broke out causing a major explosion. The shock blew out windows within a 25-mile radius: shrapnel damaged the outside wall of Jersey City’s City Hall and flying pieces of metal struck the skirt of the Statue of Liberty. Over 100 years later, the torch of the statue is still closed off to visitors because of damage from the explosions. The blast even made it necessary to temporarily evacuate Ellis Island. The total cost of losses was estimated at $20 million and seven people were killed.

Though lax safety precautions and poor handling of hazardous materials on Black Tom led to speculation about the actual cause of the fires that sparked the explosion, a special commission officially ruled in 1939 that the German Government had authorized the sabotage. This event spurred the Federal Government to create the Espionage and Sedition Acts, and the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was very involved. Another world war got in the way of the U.S. receiving any reparations, and the $95 million owed to the USA by Germany for various claims, including the explosion at Black Tom, was not fully paid off until 1979.

The site of the former island can be found along Morris Pesin Road and encompasses the land under the park office and Flag Plaza. A plaque commemorating the explosion sits inside a circle of American flags. You can even see remnants of the explosion! Near the offices of Liberty State Park, at the kayak launch are the train tracks that went straight from Black Tom island to deliver goods directly to ships, poking out of the water at low tide. If you’re lucky, you might even see a piece of charred wood or two from the blast sticking out of the soil profile of the jetties nearby.