Historical Events  General
Black Tom


The Statue of Liberty in 1916

The first terrorist attack on US soil was?

Ask people what was the first terrorist attack against the US and you'll hear various answers including 9/11, the 1993 WTC bombing or maybe even Pearl Harbour, but in fact it was a German attack against a munitions supply dump which caused a huge explosion and actually damaged the Statue of Liberty.

Amazingly, only 7 people were killed.

There is no significant memorial of this event - just a small plaque on-site.

It's because of this attack that the torch in the statue is closed off to visitors.

There may be a reason so few people are aware of this. At the time, Woodrow Wilson was running for election and had promised to keep the US out of the war, so news of the attack was suppressed in order for him to not appear to have broken it.

Black Tom

The cost of the damage was $20m, an astronomical figure for 1916. Because it was a munitions dump, the explosion was massive, and is classed as one of the largest man-made explosions ever, excepting nuclear detonations. Black Tom was the name given to what amounted to an artificial island situated next to Liberty Island, hence the damage to the nearby Status of Liberty. It  had been created by dumping landfill around an existing rock, which was called Black Tom prior to this, hence the island's name.

The explosions were caused by one of several small fires which were lit around the island, and due to the explosive nature of the munitions stored there, only required one to detonate in order to cause the chain reaction which ultimately blew everything up.

At the time of the explosion, the US had not yet entered World War 1 but it was widely know they were likely to soon, and the munitions at Black Tom. were bound for the allies in Europe. Several incidents concerning German agents had already been reported in the weeks running up to the explosion, and many more acts of sabotage were carried out subsequently.


Despite such devastation, the Black Tom explosion is not widely known about. There is a plaque on site:

On July 30, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot exploded rocking New York Harbor and sending residents tumbling from their beds.

The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. On Ellis Island, terrified immigrants were evacuated by ferry to the Battery. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty (the arm of the Statue was closed to visitors after this). Property damage was estimated at $20 million. It is not known how many died.

Why the explosion? Was it an accident or planned? According to historians, the Germans sabotaged the Lehigh Valley munitions depot in order to stop deliveries being made to the British who had blockaded the Germans in Europe.

You are walking on a site which saw one of the worse acts of terrorism in American history.