Day 847: Tales From Liberty Island

originally published April 26, 2014

If I were to brainstorm everything I know about the Statue of Liberty it would look like this:

  • The French donated it as a gift to mark the United States’ centennial (and probably as a thank-you for having whomped their perpetual enemy, the British, in the Revolutionary War).
  • It blows up in every disaster movie.

Not much history there. I almost visited Liberty Island once, but I opted to stay on the ferry back to New Jersey. I’d left my phone at the station, probably when I put it down to clap along with the chorus of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” (a temptation I can never resist), which was playing on the speakers at the station. Our time was tight that day, and we’d have only had enough time to walk around the island and try to look up Lady Liberty’s dress until the next ferry, but I still consider it a lost opportunity.

That significant little slab of land has a history to it – one that stretches long beyond the 1886 unveiling of the grand statue. One that also features a phenomenal explosion. Like any amateur historian, I’ll pull at any thread that might result in an exciting kaboom.

That appetizing slab of muck is actually an oyster bed. The tidal flats in Upper New York Bay used to be filled with these tasty little creatures, and they washed up en masse on the shores of the three islands that would later be known as Ellis, Black Tom and Liberty Islands. The trio were known as the Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Amsterdam, and they’d continue to supply non-Kosher goodness to folks in the region for centuries before landfilling expanded the islands’ footprints and messed with the natural coastlines.

Once the British moved in, taking over from the Dutch in 1664, Captain Robert Needham was allowed to set up his home on the island that would one day prop up Lady Liberty. He sold it to Isaac Bedlow a few years later and the island earned its first proper name: Bedloe’s Island. Spelling consistency wasn’t a big thing in the 17th century.

After a brief tenure as a smallpox quarantine station, Bedloe’s Island was put up for rental. An ad in 1753 indicated that Bedloe’s Island, “alias Love Island” (which is totally hot), was set up with a dwelling house, a lighthouse, and a heap of oysters and English bunnies frolicking about for slaughter and export. Three years later the place was used as a smallpox outpost again, and the city of New York bought the island outright in 1758 to house people with grotesque diseases that they didn’t want spreading to the general population.

The British took over during the Revolutionary War, but before they could get comfortable their buildings were burned to the ground by the rebels. Once the Americans had the site back they decided to take steps to ensure New York’s safety. A massive land battery in the shape of an 11-point star was constructed on the island and named Fort Hood after army officer Eleazer Derby Wood, who was killed in the War of 1812. This gorgeous building inspired Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who would eventually sculpt the Statue of Liberty, and it still forms the base of the landmark.

There still remained some friction over who actually owned the island though. When the Province of New Jersey had split from New York in 1674 they wanted it. They also wanted Staten Island. Historic tradition dictates that two regions separated by a river would have their boundaries drawn down the middle of the water, and splitting the Hudson in half would plunk every island in the harbor (except for Governor’s Island) in Jersey. But Jersey City was New York’s pouty little brother, and big brother makes the rules.

Governor Edmund Andros (or maybe it was the Duke of York) decreed that any island in the bay that could be circumnavigated within twenty-four hours would belong to the city of New York. That made for an easy score of the little islands, but Captain Christopher Billopp had to get a little funky and fill his ship with empty barrels to harness some extra wind in order to swoop around Staten Island in just over 23 hours.

Congress made the split-the-river policy official in 1834, leading to more claims by New Jersey that those islands belong to them. US Representative Frank J. Guarini and Gerald McCann (Jersey City’s mayor) actually filed suit to reclaim those islands in 1987, insisting that the Congressional decision rightfully plopped them into New Jersey. The court, perhaps deciding they had better things to do, refused to hear the case. As such, the actual land parts of the islands belong to New York, but the water around them belong to New Jersey.

In 1956 Congress officially rechristened Bedloe’s Island as Liberty Island. Along with Ellis Island, Staten Island and Black Tom Island, the entire fleet of land-chunks off the New Jersey coast belonged to New York.

Wait… what’s Black Tom Island, you ask? Here’s where the explosion comes in.

Just to the west of Liberty Island was a smaller heap of dirt known as Black Tom Island, named literally after a black guy named Tom. The Lehigh Valley Railroad expanded the causeway that had been built to the island and with landfill the place had become infused with Jersey City. A massive munitions depot was built on the land, and in 1916 most of those munitions were being sold to England and her allies for that pesky war they were fighting. The Germans, eager to disrupt this particular business arrangement, sabotaged the depot late one night.

In what remains one of the most astounding acts of terrorism ever committed on American soil, the munitions depot on Black Tom Island – which contained 100,000 pounds of TNT and roughly a kiloton of ammo – blew up. It was the equivalent of a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. It was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Connecticut, shattered thousands of windows in lower Manhattan, rocked the Brooklyn Bridge and sent fragments flying over a mile in every direction. It’s a miracle only seven people were killed.

What does this have to do with the subject at hand?

The $100,000 damage (that’s about $2.2 million in today’s money) to the Statue of Liberty took a while to repair. It also necessitated the shutdown of public access to her torch, access which has not been re-opened to the unwashed masses in the 98 years since.

Lady Liberty’s island has grown over the last century, doing its best to accommodate the scores of tourists who long to enter her (ouch – sorry, that was dirty). Of course because New Jersey is notoriously picky about claiming as much land as possible the acts of landfill that have expanded the island’s real estate technically belong to New Jersey, while only the original footprint of Liberty Island rests in New York.

So unless you’re actually inside the walls of Fort Wood, you really don’t know which state you’re standing in. Confusing as shit, isn’t it? All I know is that next time I get the chance, I’ll get off the boat and soak in the history.

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