Philadelphia, PA

The Little Know Terrorist Attack On The Statue Of Liberty

ErikBrown by Gautam Krishnan on Unsplash
“The sound of the blast was unearthly, and the tremor was felt 100 miles away in Philadelphia. The night sky over New York Harbor turned orange. People were jolted from bed and windows shattered within 25 miles. The Statue of Liberty, less than a mile away, was damaged by a rain of red-hot shards of steel. Frightened immigrants on Ellis Island were hastily evacuated to Manhattan.”
Richard Pyle, The Associated Press, via Washington Post

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most iconic monuments in the United States of America. It’s been in countless films and books. I’ve even found in mentioned in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. It’s one of those structures that’s easily recognizable to most in the world.

It’s also a prime tourist destination. As Statista reports, on a standard year about three to four million people visit. This visitor can go inside the statue and actually travel to its crown. However, in the early 1900s, visitors could also access the torch. Now, it’s off limits.

Occasionally, someone asks why you can’t visit the torch anymore. It’s likely one of the most interesting stories you’ve never heard.

A small commemorative plaque in Liberty State Park, across from Ellis Island, explains why. In 1916 German spies detonated “2 million pounds of dynamite, TNT, gunpowder and shells” according to Frank Warner’s article in the Morning Call about a mile from the statue on Black Tom Island.

The National Park Service says, “The shower of debris lasted for two hours. Several pieces of shrapnel became embedded in the right side of the Statue of Liberty.” According to Richard Pyle’s article, the blast had the equivalent destructive power of an earthquake registering 5.5 on the Richter scale.

Today, little remains of the event, except some plaques and a closed arm on one of the most iconic statues in the world. However, the story is ever present, and it’s too good to remain unknown. It was likely the first large scale terrorist attack on American soil, and most don’t know about it.

Lady Liberty Is Wounded
A Spike From Lady Liberty’s Crown Impales Her Arm — Picture From Library Of Congress [Public Domain]
“Every window in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, on Bedloe’s Island opposite Black Tom, was broken, and the main door, made of iron and weighing almost a ton, was blown off its hinges…”
— Frank Warner, Morning Call

According to the National Park Service, shrapnel embedded itself into the skirt of the statue. Plus, the huge iron door on Fort Wood, at the base of the monument, was torn off its hinges. It’s an impressive feat when you realize the door is four-inches thick, combined with its weight.

However, the most damaging effects occurred after the second blast. The internal framework of the statue was damaged. The blast wave moved the uplifted torch arm towards the spikes in the crown. You can see this in the picture above, taken during the 1985 rehab of the statue. It appears a spike impaled the arm.

Imagine raising your arm to answer a question in a classroom. Now, slowly push your bicep against your ear. Just picture it in your mind; the explosion was massive enough to do this to the giant statue. However, despite the damage, the light in the torch never died. But the island was evacuated.

Warner said the blast also knocked 100 rivets out of the arm. In his article he interviews librarian of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, Barry Moreno, who says the Army shut down the torch right after the attack. At the time, security was paramount, and it was thought best for the nation’s interest.

The Attack
Aftermath Of Explosion On Black Tom Island (1916) — FBI Website [Public Domain]

According to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, American business people could trade with anyone they wanted, until 1915. Britain enacted a naval blockade of Germany, shutting off American supplies. However, the U.S. kept sending arms to Germany’s enemies. Suddenly, the Black Tom site became a target.

Pyle reports the island was connected to the mainland with a mile-long causeway and was poorly guarded. Around 2 AM on July 30th, a strange set of fires on the piers set off the ammunition. While it was originally thought to be an accident, later investigation found German saboteurs initiated the blast.

In Warner’s article, he says guards at the pier were paid off and at least one New Jersey resident worked with the Germans. Pyle reports German agents were identified after a secret correspondence was found by investigators. These agents, after fleeing to Central America, admitted to having set up the blast and almost dying in the process.

He also interviews Jules Witcover, author of Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America, 1914–1917, who says the Germans had a spy network set up around the Hudson Bay. They also conducted other attempts at sabotage, but none as successful as this.
Map Of Black Tom Island And Its Causeway (1880) — Map By Spielmann & Brush Via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the power of the blast, and multiple millions of dollar’s worth of damages, only seven people died. Incredibly, one was a baby in Jersey City that got knocked out of his crib by the power of the explosion. Due to the amount of ammunition on fire, the authorities were forced to just let it burn itself out all night long.

Eventually, a commission found Germany liable in 1939 for the damages. Obviously, the Nazi regime ignored the charges.

The Aftermath
View From Statue’s Torch (Twin Towers In The Background) — Picture From Library Of Congress [Public Domain]
“The view is magnificent. Of course, it is shaky in the wind. It’s a little scary. There’s just a catwalk there, a railing, and there’s that big gold torch. It’s the best place to see the seven spikes, the halo of the goddess, the waves in her hair, the nose. It’s quite emotional because it is such a mighty symbol.”
— Barry Moreno, interview with Frank Warner, Morning Call

As of this day, tourists are not allowed into the arm of the statue of liberty. Moreno says he understands why. It’s not exactly the most tourist friendly part of the exhibit. It’s a real tight fit and a 40-foot ladder must be scaled to reach the torch. However, he says the view is unparalleled, even compared to the crown.

At one point this could have been something any of us could experience. But a blast about a mile away, from a war ages away shut this future experience down. The statue also underwent extensive renovation around 1985, having its blast damaged torch replaced. The picture above gives you an idea of the sight you could have experienced in another time but with a new torch.

The case also was fought out in court over the next forty years or so years. The New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry says the U.S. and the government of West Germany finally settled on damages in 1953. The final payment of the nearly $100 million settlement was paid in 1979.

View Of The Statue From The Explosion Site — Picture By PaigePhault Via Wikimedia Commons

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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