The Black Tom Island Explosion

Hannah Murray summarizes the terrorist attack on Liberty Park (formerly known as Black Tom Island), the Black Tom Island Explosion on 30 July 1916.

The land was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, and housed several warehouses containing ammunition, particularly during World War One. The day before the attack, over two million pounds (907,200 kg) of munitions were being held in the harbor, due to be shipped to the Allies in Europe. Between midnight and two in the morning, fires began to erupt around the pier, eventually leading to the first explosion which caused shrapnel to blast from the island and hit the Statue of Liberty. Windows over 25 miles away were smashed, immigrants from Ellis Island were evacuated, the Brooklyn Bridge trembled, and people from Maryland and Philadelphia felt the shockwaves.

It was estimated that over $20 million in damage had been caused, equivalent in today’s money of over $402 million. Repairs on the torch and Liberty’s dress totaled over $100,000; Liberty’s torch was closed, and has not reopened since. Over forty people were killed and several hundred were injured.


Initially, two watchmen were arrested by the New Jersey Police who believed they had accidentally started the fires, but eventually they identified an arsonist – Michael Kristoff, an immigrant from Slovakia. Kristoff confessed to smuggling suitcases onto the island for the Germans, but was released later as many believed him to be insane. When the case was re-opened after the war, Kristoff was questioned again before his untimely death.

The plot thickened, however, as two German agents in the 1930s confessed to starting the fires, although further investigations proved inconclusive. Ultimately, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company believed the German government to be responsible, arguing that German terrorism was to blame and they should pay reparations. In 1953, the German government agreed to pay $50 million in damages over a twenty year period.

Taken from the Statue of Liberty Tour, the travel app for history lovers.

Hannah Murray