Liberty State Park & the Black Tom Explosion

Manhattan is an impossible place to grasp while you’re on it, it’s only with water between you that you can see the density of the buildings and stratus of the architecture. Buildings indicate neighborhoods and you can see how it all ripples from impossible heights down the island. For some of the best views, I recommend traveling to Jersey City and walking through Liberty State Park, which is what Hannah and I did after exploring the park’s abandoned train station. The park was also of interest to me as the site of the biggest act of WWI sabotage committed on US soil: the Black Tom Explosion.

If you do make it over to Liberty State Park, be advised that there is absolutely no shade by the water and it is also an incredibly long park, so be prepared to walk and walk and walk. While a sprawl of green now, the area of the park was once part of the industrial waterfront. When the railroad station closed and these industries declined, the area was derelict and abandoned. The park was finally opened in 1976 and is now comprised of an incredible 1,122 acres.

The park takes you by the bridge to Ellis Island, which is quite close. We could see some of the off limits areas which I would love to someday be able to visit.

You can also get the closest to the Statue of Liberty without taking the ferry.

Getting back to the aforementioned Black Tom Explosion, the marker for it is at the very end of the park, after the skyline of Manhattan has become more distant. Back in 1916 in the middle of World War I, Black Tom island, which was near Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands, was used as a depot for thousands of tons of munitions that were destined for the Allies in Europe. (Origins of the island’s name are vague, but some attribute it to coming from an African American fisherman who lived there at one time.) On July 31 of 1916, a fire broke out on the island and a little after 2 in the morning it all began to explode with a force that is estimated to have been a 5.5 on the Richter Scale.

From 25 miles away in five states, people could feel the massive explosion and windows were shattered in buildings everywhere. Debris and schrapnel shot through the night, some into the State of Liberty, and the heat melted objects like the above bottle. The Jersey Journal had its clocktower stopped by schrapnel at 2:12 am, a wall of City Hall in Jersey City was cracked, the Brooklyn Bridge was rattled, and the State of Liberty’s shaken torch had to be closed and has in fact remained closed ever since. (The torch, like the rest of the statue, was never actually designed for so many visitors, and the ascent to the top of it had to be done in almost pitch black darkness, but the heavy explosion and destabilization of the arm made it even more impossible.) Immigrants who were on Ellis Island were all quickly transported to Manhattan, where people had awoken across the city among the sounds of shattering glass.

The explosion was later found to be the work of German agents, and Germany had to pay $50 million dollars for the explosion, which they finally completed in 1979.

I assumed that the grand circle of flags shown above were a memorial for the seven people killed in the explosion and the hundreds injured, but it turns out that I was wrong. They do allow you to take the most patriotic photo ever, sort of like combining all the postage stamps into one grand shot.

This is as close as it gets to an official commemoration of the explosion on the New York Harbor, a faded informational plaque bordering the picnic tables under some shady trees. Black Tom island was almost completely destroyed, and you won’t find it on any current map. All that remains of it has been incorporated into this picnic ground at f Liberty State Park.

I’ll leave you with some historic photos from the explosion:

And here is the view from the Statue of Liberty’s torch taken around 1910, six years before it was closed. Although you probably won’t be able to see this in person unless you are a very important person, you can view the National Parks Service torch cams online.

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