Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lost in History vol. 69: Torch No More!

In our last Lost in History, we discussed why Congressman Anthony Weiner’s proposal to reopen the Statue of Liberty’s Crown and viewing station is a poor idea. To recap, she’s a fire and safety hazard, and any minor malady suffered by an unsuspecting tourist would have enormous and unfortunate ramifications on the multitudes standing in a three-hour line to get to her head. But little attention is paid to the Statue of Liberty’s torch and its viewing platform, and there’s a good reason for that.

Yes indeed, the torch at the tippy-top of the beautiful Statue of Liberty (official name: Liberty Enlightening the World) once had a viewing station, which was basically a circular walkway surrounding the torch and provided spectacular views of the harbor, the skyline and the Atlantic Ocean. Three hundred and one feet up with nothing surrounding you can be a pretty phenomenal experience, and a fellow tour guide friend who shall rename nameless once flirted her way up there with a fellow Parks Service employee. They snuck up at sunrise because he thought he was gonna get lucky. (Did he? No way.)

When the Statue opened to the public in 1886, anybody could head up to the crown. The way up to the torch was only open by special request for dignitaries (although all sorts of people abused this privilege) via a rickety ladder that ran up the length of the armature. With so many pedestrians going up and coming down, the various nuts and bolts in the armature fell loose and the structure weakened. Then came the Black Tom Island Explosion of July 30th, 1916.
Black Tom Island used to exist in New Jersey’s harbor, at the southern point of Liberty State Park. It ceased being an island just before the start of the first World War, once the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, which owned the pier and the island, connected it by landfill to the rest of Jersey. The island got its name from a black fisherman named (surprise!) Tom, who lived on the island in the 1800s. By the 1910s, the island was being used as an ammunitions depot, supplying the Allied powers with shrapnel, black powder, TNT and dynamite. And in the early morning of July 30th 1916, the various barges tied up at the island, carrying (by some estimates) over 2 million pounds of ammo, were set alight. The residents of Jersey City were rocked by a series of ginormous explosions — shrapnel hit the Statue of Liberty, windows were blown out in Times Square and repercussions were felt as far away as Philly. No one could ever ascertain the official cause of the explosion — whether it was a security lapse on the part of the guards, a “spontaneous combustion” event, or German sabotage. The only person accused of the event was Michael Kristoff , a 23 year old Slovak immigrant; it was said he accepted $500 in exchange for starting the small fires that rocked Black Tom off the map. He died in a peasant and was buried in a potter’s field in Staten Island, without ever admitting to the crime.
When the island blew up, it blew out all the nuts and bolts in the Statue of Liberty’s arm, and caused $100,000 worth of damager ($1.9 million today) to her infrastructure. The War Department (which had owned and cared for Miss Liberty since 1901) used the explosion as an excuse to close down the Torch to the public, citing terrorism concerns. This is fascinating: the very same thing happened post-9/11. The National Parks Service was looking for reasons to close the Statue to the public, but the outcry would have been too great. So after 9/11 happened, the NPS said “Whoa! Terrorism! No more go up in here.” (We’re paraphrasing, but yeah, that’s basically what happened.) So, Congressman Weiner we implore you: Don’t open that crown!

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