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The Attack That’s Closed Part of the Statue of Liberty for Nearly a Century [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

The Statue of Liberty has been standing guard at the mouth of New York harbor since her dedication on October 28, 1886.  She is a symbol of welcome to immigrants arriving to the United States.  She has been closed for six months due to damage from Superstorm Sandy.  However, one part of her structure has been sealed off to visitors after a terror attack nearly a century ago.

Given as a gift from the people of France, Lady Liberty was designed and constructed by artist Frederic Bartholdi.  Completed in stages, parts of the new statue were displayed in both France, New York, and at international expositions before being crated up and shipped to the US.  Once the appropriate funds were raised, she was assembled on what was then called Bedloe’s Island, now known as Liberty Island.

The statue, representing the Roman goddess of freedom, features one foot moving forward to symbolize progress and a broken chair at her feet.  She holds a tablet with the inscription July 4, 1776, the date of American independence from the British.

statueoflibertynightNew York City held its first ticker tape parade to celebrate that statue’s completion with President Grover Cleveland on hand for the festivities and dedication.

The statue has welcomed millions of visitors over the years.  When the statue reopens, visitors will once again be able to climb the long spiral staircase to the crown and take a peek out the windows high above the harbor for spectacular views of New York City and the busy waterway.

But, there was once another part of the statue visitors were permitted to tour, until a terror attack that occurred in 1916 known as “The Black Tom Explosion.”

A circle of flags marks the spot of the Black Tom Explosion in Liberty State Park.

A circle of flags marks the spot of the Black Tom Explosion in Liberty State Park.

Black Tom was once an island in the New York Harbor located a short distance from the Statue of Liberty.  The island was connected to the mainland Jersey City, New Jersey by a long causeway and railroad track.  Eventually, the area between the mainland and island was filled in and officially became part of the city.  A huge pier and warehouses were also constructed on the site.

The island became a major munitions depot where American companies were able to sell weapons and ammunitions, which were in large demand across the Atlantic for the upcoming World War I.  Being allied with France and Britain, they were the only two countries allowed to make purchases from the depot.

After midnight on July 30, 1916, several small fires were discovered on the pier.  While some locals tried to extinguish the flames themselves, the Jersey City Fire Department was called in.

At 2:08am, a major explosion took place with residents being shaken from their beds by earthquake like vibrations that registered between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter Scale.

Black tom explosion

Historic photo taken the day after the explosion showing the obliteration of the piers and warehouses.

The force was so powerful, that windows were blown out all over Manhattan and as far as 25 miles away.  The Brooklyn Bridge was shaken, but undamaged.  The outer wall of Jersey City’s City Hall was cracked and a large clock in the Journal Square neighborhood over a mile away was hit and damaged.

The noise and vibration could be felt as far away as Maryland and Connecticut.

On Ellis Island, frightened immigrants that were being processed at the time were evacuated by ferry to Manhattan.

The Statue of Liberty took $100,000 in damage after shrapnel pierced many parts, including several pieces that lodged in the arm.  As a result the torch, outer walkway, and arm were permanently closed.   The narrow hatchway inside that once welcomed visitors is still gated off to the public, but does allow access for employees to conduct repairs.

black tom plaqueAccording to historic records and government investigations, the munitions were set on fire by the Germans, who did not want the weapons to make it across the Atlantic due to a military blockade.

Several different conclusions have been drawn as to how the fire was carried out, with one story linking a Slovak immigrant who transported suitcases for the Germans, to German agents and even one of their ambassadors.

Fires and explosions continued throughout the following day as the flames were slowly brought under control.  At least 7 people were confirmed killed including a Jersey City cop and a 10 month old infant.

Under the Treaty of Berlin, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, who owned the pier sued the German government for $50 million in 1953 and won.  Although it took decades to pay off, their final payment was made in 1979.

The total cost of the property damage was estimated at $20 million (which would be $422 million in today’s dollars.)

The statue itself has undergone extensive rehabilitation and restoration over the decades since, with one of the largest happening in 1986.

The long spiral staircase to the crown of the Statue of Liberty.

The long spiral staircase to the crown of the Statue of Liberty.

Following the September 11th attacks, the statue was closed to all, although the island was reopened in 2004.

Finally on July 4, 2009 the statue was reopened by order of President Obama, but with a change… only a limited number of visitors would be able to climb to the crown at one time.  The statue remained open for two more years, before closing again after her 125th birthday on October 29, 2011 for more rehabilitation, including installing elevators and upgrading the stairs.

The statue reopened a year later on Sunday, October 28, 2012 – the day before Superstorm Sandy made a direct and devastating hit on the area.

The island was open for one day before the storm flooded most of it.  While the statue only received minimal damage, the infrastructure below it was destroyed.  The docks for arriving ferries were crushed.  Electricity was knocked out and only temporary floodlights still keep the statue lit and are currently operated by generator.


Tourists stroll along the walkway on Liberty Island that was flooded and damaged during Superstorm Sandy later in the year.

Workers have continued to reconstruct the tourist facilities on both Liberty and nearby Ellis Islands, and the parks department has announced the statue and both islands will reopen to all on July 4, 2013.  There is a charge for the ferry access, which is the only way to visit the islands, but all activities and sites on both are free.

Several replicas also exist around the county, including a scaled down version that appears as part of the skyline at the New York, New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.


THE 411

What: The Statue of Liberty

Current Status: Closed due to damage from Superstorm Sandy

Reopening date: July 4, 2013

Location: New York Harbor

Official website:


Statue of Liberty seen through the Slip 1 sign at the ferry’s departure point in Battery Park, New York City



I am making it a point this summer to visit both islands once they reopen.  Superstorm Sandy was a nightmare and I hope to never have to repeat that experience.  I can see the statue down my block and knowing the damage that happened here, there was no way those islands were going to be spared.

Thankfully, both will reopen for July 4th, and I’m sure that will be brought up again and again during the coverage of the annual Macy’s Fireworks.

If you are looking to save a buck, visit both Liberty and Ellis Islands on one trip as the ferry boats stop at both.  Ferries are the only access, since private boats are forbidden from docking.  You can catch the ferry in Liberty State Park, Jersey City or Battery Park at the Southern tip of Manhattan.

To climb up the statue, you must make reservations, which can be done online up to a year in advance.  When it reopens, the limit is 240 people per day, permitted in groups of ten, up to three groups per hour.  This is done in case there is a sudden evacuation in which case, the long, narrow, spiral staircase would make it nearly impossible for a large crowd.  Just bear this in mind.  It’s very difficult to show up on the spot and think you will be getting access to the crown, so book in advance.


Image credits – faithmonsoon, LifeinMegapixels, Sue Waters, Martin Deutsch, t i b i