Friday, May 23, 2014

The Statue of Liberty (VI)

Location:   New York Harbor
Year:   1886

The Statue of Liberty has been witness to some of the most wondrous moments in American history, and to some of the most awful.

Immigrants getting their first view of Lady Liberty

Who knows precisely how many immigrant ships passed under her welcoming gaze? What is universal is the reaction of the immigrants to seeing her --- awe and gladness and joy, mixed with a healthy dose of fear of the unknown in the New World.  Millions of New Americans came through the Golden Door where she so zealously stands sentinel. 

But she has seen other things.

From 1886 to 1916, the entirety of the interior of the statue was accessible to the public. Crowds could visit, and still visit  at a rate of 2.5 million per year, the head of the statue where they can gaze down upon New York Harbor through the 25 small windows set in her crown. Visitors to the torch had to be a bit braver, climbing a nearly vertical platform to emerge on a small balcony under the flame of the torch (which acted as a lighthouse for many years). Although vertiginous, the open-air view from 300 feet over the harbor was said to be awe-inspiring. 

Inside the crown

So glad to see you!

The ladder inside the torch-arm

The dizzying view from the torch
The first recorded terrorist act in U.S. history closed access to the torch, seemingly permanently.

In 1916, the United States was maintaining an uneasy neutrality in World War I. The Kaiser's government, however, seemed hell-bent on bringing the United States into the war through a series of truly stupid acts designed, ironically, to keep America out of the war. 

Although the U.S. was officially neutral, its neutrality was heavily canted toward the Allies, specifically Britain and France. The Germans were convinced that the United States was secretly shipping arms to the Allies (which was in fact the truth, through a complex net of private arms dealers and shippers). These shipments provided the Germans  a motive to sink the Lusitania in 1915, which cost 128 American lives.  After the sinking of the Lusitania, American neutrality became even more gossamer-like.

By the summer of 1916, one of the largest dumps for munitions destined to reach the Allies was on Black Tom Island, in New York Harbor, a few hundred feet off the Jersey shore, and connected to the mainland by a causeway. Black Tom Island was a literal powder keg, with millions of rounds of ammo, mortar shells, howitzer ordnance, torpedoes, grenades, rockets, and every sort of explosive imaginable stored there. Black Tom Island lay a few hundred yards due west of Bedloe's Island and the Statue of Liberty, and about an equal distance from Ellis Island with its thousands of immigrants waiting to be processed into the country. 


On the night of July 31st 1916, Black Tom Island exploded. German sabotage was suspected but not proved until the 1930s. Several ships at the island's wharves were vaporized, as were the people onboard and on the island (only about 25 people were killed, fortunately). Bullets, rockets, and all sorts of munitions began popping off randomly, making the island and its environs a very dangerous place. Emergency workers were forced to let the fire burn itself out. The explosion measured 5.5 on the Richter Scale and set the Brooklyn Bridge to swaying. Windows in New Jersey, Manhattan and Brooklyn were shattered for miles around. The roar was heard in Philadelphia. Ellis Island had to be evacuated. And Miss Liberty, closest of all, suffered structural damage (and a few dings from bullets) when the main brace upholding her torch arm was wrenched nearly off its anchors. After the chaos abated, repair crews repaired the ironwork supporting the arm, but suggested that the torch be put off limits to the public, which it was. It has never been reopened. During the 1984-1986 restoration for the statue's centennial it was decided that the internal structure of the arm was in such poor condition that it was replaced by a newly-constructed arm and torch. Where the old torch was lit from within, the new torch is gold leaf illuminated from below by powerful floodlights. 

The old torch, which is now on display inside the Liberty Island Museum
The new torch

Black Tom Island no longer exists as such, having been joined to the New Jersey mainland by landfill. But what was the island is now part of Liberty State Park (N.J.), and a monument marks the event. 

September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001 Miss Liberty had a front row seat to the destruction of the World Trade Center only a thousand yards away across the harbor. The Statue was immediately closed to the public for safety concerns. Access to Liberty Island was reestablished at the beginning of 2002, and the pedestal was reopened only after security improvements in 2004. The Statue itself was not deemed accessible until 2009. The statue was closed again for a year in 2011-2012 to allow for the installation of handicapped-accessible elevators. She reopened on October 28, 2012, but closed the next day for evaluation in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  The Statue of Liberty reopened on July 4, 2013. 

As a symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty has been a prime target of directors of dystopian films. She was first destroyed on celluloid in 1933 in the film Deluge. Since then, she has been inundated, knocked down, blown up, and otherwise violated at least 35 times in films like The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Deep Impact, Meteor, and most famously in The Planet of The Apes (1968). Alfred Hitchcock filmed a fearful scene atop the torch in Saboteur.   

Independence Day

The Day After Tomorrow

Planet of The Apes
Exactly why giving Miss Liberty such a hard time has become a staple of a certain genre of films is unclear; but personally, I think they ought to treat the old girl with more respect.

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