Most of us will of course be familiar with the Statue of Liberty. But many will not have even been lucky enough to visit the famous monument. However, even those who’ve got up close to the figure of Lady Liberty might be unaware of a secret room hidden within her. And the reason why it’s been off-limits for over a century is very intriguing indeed.
The Statue of Liberty officially opened in October 1886. The monument rises 305 feet above the Upper New York Bay from its pedestal on Liberty Island. It shows a woman raising a torch in her right hand while she carries a tablet inscribed with the date that the Declaration of Independence was adopted – July 4, 1776.
Over the years, the Statue of Liberty has become one of the most famous monuments in New York City and a symbol of the United States as a country. The huge figure has appeared in movies and inspired endless replica souvenirs. Naturally, most of us are familiar with the iconic monument, but it would seem that Lady Liberty still has her secrets.
The Statue of Liberty is undoubtedly an icon of America, but the figure actually has its roots in France. It was there that sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first came up with the idea of creating a monument to the friendship between France and the United States. However, he had never even set foot on U.S. soil by that point.
Bartholdi’s design for the Statue of Liberty was based on a previous idea of his for a monument he’d proposed for the Suez Canal entrance in Egypt. This new design the sculptor planned for the United States was called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” And while Bartholdi had originally eyed up Central Park as a location, he eventually settled on a site that was then known as Bedloe’s Island.
Bartholdi first traveled to the U.S. in 1871 with the hopes of rallying support for his statue. His journey took him from Washington D.C. all the way to Los Angeles. Despite his efforts, though, the sculptor returned to France without government backing for his monument. Nevertheless, Bartholdi refused to give up on his grand idea.
In France, Bartholdi sought the help of his friend Edouard de Laboulaye, who was a proponent of a French-American monument. The latter then created the Franco-American Union in 1875 to raise $250,000 to fund the statue. That way, all the Americans needed to pay for was the base of the monument.
Laboulaye’s motivation for helping to get Bartholdi’s creation off the ground was explained in an episode of the Raising the Torch podcast in 2019. Historian Alan Kraut revealed, “Laboulaye was a very great admirer of the United States. He was particularly excited about the outcome of the American Civil War, the emancipation of four million slaves, and also the long relationship the United States had [enjoyed] with France.”
Work on the monument then began in 1875. Interestingly, it’s been rumored that Bartholdi based the woman’s face on that of his mother. He enlisted the help of the famous French engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel in order to create the framework of his design. The latter in turn created a skeleton that Bartholdi layered copper over to form the figure.
But getting New Yorkers and Americans in general to back the statue wasn’t easy. As a result, Bartholdi decided to exhibit Liberty’s hand and torch at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The sculptor suggested he might place his monument in Philadelphia after receiving skepticism from New York. This, in turn, established a rivalry between the two cities and it led to the torch also being exhibited in Madison Square.
In the 1880s the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty came up with a novel idea to raise funds for the monument’s pedestal. They sold souvenir models of the statue across the United States. These mini icons soon spread throughout the country, and the Statue of Liberty became a symbol of America even before the full-sized one was ever complete.
A final fundraising push for the statue’s pedestal came from Joseph Pulitzer, who published an article in his tabloid newspaper New York World in March 1885. In it, he urged readers to donate towards the cause. The piece pointed out that the statue had been paid for by the people of France, and it suggested that the American’s needed to do their bit to contribute as well.
Pulitzer’s plea to help fund the statue’s construction ultimately paid off. His newspaper helped to raise $100,000 towards the completion of the pedestal – much of it coming in donations of $1 or even less. The monument arrived in New York in 1885, but it took a year to assemble its 350 pieces. Consequently, the Statue of Liberty officially opened in October 1886.
The Statue of Liberty quickly became a popular tourist attraction. However, it also served a more honorable purpose – standing guard over the federal immigration station at nearby Ellis Island which opened in 1892. An incredible 12 million immigrants were processed at the checkpoint between then and 1954 – many of them passing the monument as they arrived for their new life in the U.S.
And the Statue of Liberty has also fulfilled a number of practical purposes over the years, too. The U.S. Lighthouse Board ran the monument until 1901, with its famous torch helping sailors to navigate the New York Harbor. After that, the U.S. War Department took over operations as they ran an army post on the island.
But it wasn’t until 1924 that the Statue of Liberty became a national monument. Nine years later responsibility for the site was given to the National Parks Service. Then in 1956 Bedloe’s Island became known as Liberty Island and in 1965 Ellis Island – which had ceased being a federal immigration station over a decade before – was incorporated into the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
As the years passed, the copper construction of the Statue of Liberty transformed from a dull brown color to the distinctive green we know today. The monument was closed to visitors in 1984 for restoration work ahead of its 100th birthday and also won the title of World Heritage Site. The statue’s centennial was subsequently celebrated in July 1985 as it reopened to the public.
However, the Statue of Liberty was closed once more in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The island the monument sits on was inaccessible to the public for a total of 100 days. Meanwhile, visiting the actual statue was prohibited for three years. Access to the crown wasn’t restored until 2009, and even then, visitors had to reserve a spot to climb up to the crown or the pedestal.
But while the Statue of Liberty had slowly reopened to visitors in the wake of September 11, there was at least one part of the monument that remained off-limits to the public. And – echoing the events of 2001 – the secret room was locked up following a shocking event that had rocked New York City almost a century before.
The incident in question occurred on July 30, 1916. It was then that there was an explosion on Black Tom Island, which – like Liberty Island – is situated in New York Harbor. The blast went off in the dead of night and could be heard from miles around – breaking windows in Manhattan and ending seven lives.
The devastating blast was unprecedented in the city at that time. Kenneth Jackson is an expert on the history of New York and a professor at Columbia University, and he talked to NBC News about the incident in 2018. Jackson explained, “It was a terrific explosion – the worst that had ever happened in New York.”
The blast on Black Tom Island saw two million pounds of munitions go up in smoke and measured 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to The New York Times. That’s a force 30 times greater than the collapse of the World Trade Center. In fact, until September 11 the blast was believed to be the most destructive terrorist attack on American soil.
World War I was in full swing in Europe when the explosion happened. Black Tom was an important location in the transportation of armaments, where the Lehigh Valley Railroad connected with warehouses stocked full of weapons. From there, they were sent to Gravesend Bay then onwards to Europe.
Most of the arms sent forth from Black Tom Island were bought by the British, French, Russians and Japanese. The U.S. was officially neutral at this time, though Germany was mostly excluded from buying Americans weapons as they could not afford them. As Jackson explained to NBC News, “The Germans probably saw that as an act of war.”
Inspector Thomas J. Tunney from the New York Police Department Bomb Squad felt that sabotage was a likely cause of the explosion – given the significance of Black Tom Island. It was suggested that Indian or Irish nationalists who were opposed to British rule may have been responsible. However, there was no evidence to prove either of these theories.
A then-23-year-old German immigrant called Michael Kristoff was also arrested in connection with the blast, but he was later released as a result of insufficient evidence. A German seaman named Lothar Witzke was later implicated in the conspiracy after he was condemned to death in another spy case. But his sentence was eventually commuted.
German terrorism was eventually ruled out at a cause of the explosion. The owners of railroad cars, barges, warehouses and the watchmen on Black Tom Island were instead accused of being negligent. Nevertheless, the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917 – officially entering into World War I.
It wasn’t until the aftermath of WWI that the mystery behind the Black Tom Island bombing was solved. In 1921 lawyers working on a peace treaty between the U.S. and Germany proved that agents from the latter country had indeed been responsible for the attack. Furthermore, they organized their plot from a Manhattan rowhouse belonging to a German-American opera singer.
The owners of the property on Black Tom Island and their insurance companies were awarded $21 million in damages and a further $29 million in interest as part of a peace treaty in 1939. These sums equated to the largest settlement awarded by an international tribunal. As a result, Hitler – the then Chancellor of Germany – felt that it was unreasonable.
The settlement was eventually renegotiated by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1952. An initial payment of $3 million was made in 1953 and the final 26 years later. So, with that, the case seemed largely settled, and before long the Black Tom bombings were largely forgotten about – even in New York.
Jackson speculated to NBC News on why the explosion on Black Tom Island has seemingly fallen from public consciousness. He said, “Black Tom is certainly not well known… I think partly because of the isolation of the explosion. Most people had never heard of that island, they don’t even know where it is.”
But the legacy of the Black Tom blast lives on. The Statue of Liberty was struck with shrapnel in the wake of the explosion, and her extended arm and torch were closed off to visitors. It was deemed unsafe for them to climb a 40-foot ladder to the summit of the monument, which boasted views of New York Harbor.
The military allowed important visitors to ascend to the torch after the Statue of Liberty first opened. But in 2018 superintendent of the Liberty National Monument John Piltzecker told The New York Times that this was a rare privilege only offered to the odd few. He explained, “… You had to be pretty special to do that.”
In 1916 the flame of the torch was altered by Gutzon Borglum – the sculptor behind Mount Rushmore. He added windows to the design, which were attractive but they leaked whenever it rained and subsequently drenched the torch. Then, in July of that year the Black Tom explosion occurred and the weakened torch was ultimately closed to visitors.
The only people who’ve been granted access to the Statue of Liberty’s torch since its closure have been maintenance workers. But that hasn’t stopped some visitors from telling others that they have been up to the top of the monument. Though they are probably getting confused with the crown, which is still open to the public.
Stephen A. Briganti is the chief executive officer and president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. And he told The New York Times, “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I’ve been up to the torch. I say, ‘No, you probably haven’t, unless you’re really old.’”
The Statue of Liberty torch eventually fell into disrepair over the years – despite the decreased footfall. So, when work to restore the monument was carried out in the 1980s it was decided that this section should be replaced. What was at that time the biggest scaffolding to ever be constructed was then put up to get the original part down. And in 1984 the torch was lowered on a crane.
The torch was eventually installed inside of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, where a museum was established. In its new home, visitors were given the chance to see the flame up close for the first time in decades. It would remain there until 2019 when it was moved to another part of Liberty Island to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of visitors to the monument.
The original torch had to be split into two pieces so that it could be transported to its new home. One consisted of the flame and the tube it sits in, while the other was the base of the torch. This latter section was too wide to fit through the door of the pedestal, so it had to be flipped sideways in order to get it out.
The historic move was commemorated in a post on the Statue of Liberty National Monument & Ellis Island Museum of Immigration Instagram page. The caption read, “Today many gathered to watch a colossal event at the Statue of Liberty National Monument where the original torch made its official move from the interior of the monument to the new museum. The torch will soon be displayed so millions can continue to be inspired and enlightened by Liberty and its story.”