Since the summer I have written historical walking tours for an iPhone app called Rama. It’s a fantastic resource – it guides you around a specific area, accompanied by archival photographs showing how it would have looked a hundred years ago. For my first tour, I wrote about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and during my research, I came across the fascinating story of a previous terrorist attack. The Black Tom Island Explosion occurred in Liberty Park, New Jersey in 1916, an area that can be seen from Liberty Island. At the time, the land was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, and housed several warehouses containing ammunition, particularly during World War One. Between midnight and two in the morning on the 20th July, fires began to erupt around the pier, eventually leading to the first explosion that caused shrapnel to blast from the island and hit the Statue of Liberty. Windows over 25 miles away were smashed, immigrants from Ellis Island were evacuated, the Brooklyn Bridge trembled, and people from Maryland and Philadelphia felt the shockwaves. It was estimated that over $20 million in damage had been caused, equivalent in today’s money of over $402 million. Repairs on the torch and Liberty’s dress totalled over $100,000; Liberty’s torch was closed, and has not been reopened since. Over forty people were killed and several hundred were injured. Initially, two watchmen were arrested, the New Jersey Police believing they had accidentally started the fires, but eventually they identified an arsonist - Michael Kristoff, an immigrant from Slovakia. The plot thickened however, as two German agents in the 1930’s confessed to starting the fires, although further investigations proved inconclusive. Ultimately, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company believed the German government to be responsible, arguing that German terrorism was to blame and they should pay reparations. In 1953, the German government agreed to pay $50 million in damages over a twenty-year period. The explosion is little known today, despite the fact it continues to have repercussions for Lady Liberty herself.
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