Photograph taken from the torch, before the explosion sealed it for good.

The Statue of Liberty is perhaps America’s most iconic monument. Thousands come everyday to walk around the outside, climb the pedestal and make the long ascent into the crown to enjoy the spectacular views of Manhattan. What most people don’t know, is that once you were able to climb even higher, into the torch itself. But the entrance to the torch has been closed off for over a century, due, quite incredibly, to a German bomb attack.

The explosion at Black Tom Island was felt as far away as Philadelphia.

For on the night of July 30th, 1916, German saboteurs detonated a colossal explosion at a nearby munitions dump, that forever damaged the Statue of Liberty, making the ladder up in the torch off limits. It was the largest act of terrorism on American soil prior to 9/11 and is little known about today. 

We only heard about the story after a chance discovery in a small Catholic church in Jersey City. Situated near the waterfront in the old part of town, Our Lady of Czestochowa has been ministering to the Polish community since 1870.

©Luke J Spencer

In the western apse is a traditional stained glass window depicting a funeral scene. Written in the glass are the words “Hojnoscia Parafian Po Explozyi 1916 Ufundowane”, meaning “Funded by the Parishioners after the explosion of 1916.”

©Luke J Spencer

Given its date and country of origin, it would at first appear to be a war memorial remembering some event in Europe during the First World War. However the story behind the stained glass is much more chilling one, as it commemorates those who died in the forgotten German terrorist attacks on the Eastern Seaboard.

©Luke J Spencer

In 1914 Imperial Germany sent Count Johann Von Bernstorff to be its new ambassador in Washington D.C. But Von Bernstoff’s staff of staid diplomats were not all as they seemed, for these bureaucrats were an army of undercover spies and saboteurs, arriving with millions of dollars to aid the German war effort by sabotage and illicit destruction.

Von Bernstoff: ambassador to the United States and spymaster.

Chief amongst the spies was Captain Franz Rintelen, an intelligence officer in the German navy. So skilled was Rintelen with hard to detect pencil bombs, each the size of a small cigar that could detonate days after being placed, he was known in espionage circles as ‘the Dark Invader.’

Captain Rintelen, the Dark Invader; the pencil bombs he developed wreaked havoc with munitions ships bound for Europe.

Among Rintelen’s principal targets were the endless supplies of munitions that the neutral U.S. was selling to Great Britain and France. In 1916 over 2,000,000 tons of explosives were in storage on an island called Black Tom, ready to sail across the Atlantic. Black Tom was a small island located in between New Jersey and Liberty Island, and soon caught the attentions of Rintelen and his saboteurs.

Black Tom Island, today connected to New Jersey by landfill.

On the night of July 30th 1916, Black Tom island disappeared. Just after 2:00 am, slow burning pencil bombs planted by the German agents ignited an explosion so colossal it registered 5.5 on the Richter scale. As glass windows shattered in Times Square and St.Patrick’s cathedral, the blast shook the Brooklyn Bridge and was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland. The statue of Liberty felt the full blast and was showered with shrapnel and exploding bullets and shells.  

German pencil bombs captured by the Bureau of Investigation.
The Black Tom explosion was one of the largest on record before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The initial investigation was slow. As recorded in the official FBI history, the response to the case was difficult: “With few national security laws and no real intelligence community to thwart German agents, America was vulnerable. The Secret Service, by presidential order, was able to investigate some German attacks and intrigues. The Bureau of Investigation—the FBI’s predecessor—likewise did what it could, but it was held back by its small size (260 employees in a handful of offices) and lack of jurisdiction. The most successful and experienced anti-sabotage investigators turned out to be the detectives of the New York Police Department’s Bomb Squad—even so, the German agents who blew up Black Tom were not identified at the time.”

The Bureau of Investigation finally named two guards at Black Tom as the likely culprits; the guards turned out to be German agents Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke, but both escaped. An explosion in 1917 at the Mare Island naval shipyard in Vallejo, CA was also attributed to them. When the U.S. finally responded to German’s secret war of attrition by declaring war in 1917, Jahnke and Witzke fled to Mexico.

Kurt Janke; US Marine, German-American intelligence agent and saboteur.

Black Tom Island was reconstructed with landfill and is today the southeastern part of Jersey City’s Liberty State Park. Today the park is a popular picnic spot in the summer, with families taking advantage of the  close up views of the Statue of Liberty. But in the corner of the picnic area is a simple plaque, often passed by, which reads, “You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.”

©Luke J Spencer
©Luke J Spencer

It is not known how many people died or were injured in the explosion. Presumably the congregation of Our Lady of Czestochowa were hit hardest, which led to the commemorating of the attack with the stained glass memorial. The Lehigh Valley Railroad who owned Black Tom Island sought compensation against Germany, who settled on a payment of $50 million which was finally paid as recently as 1979. 

The attack may be long forgotten and little known, but it had a repercussion which is still ongoing today: visitors with tickets to the crown may think they are climbing to the highest point of the Statue of Liberty, but since the night of July 30th, 1916, the damage caused by the German saboteurs to the torch has left if closed ever since. 

©Luke J Spencer