New York City, NY…My most enjoyed annual excursion is the one I make with my children. Now that they are adults the
scope has expanded beyond amusement parks and their interests extend beyond playing video games. The only problem was recognizing we always journeyed to a destination I proposed. So before the 2019 trip I kept my mouth shut and forced them to pick. When my daughter mentioned she had never been to New York City, it was a moment of travel serendipity. The monumental task immediately came to mind as the biggest cluster of US National Monuments is a group of five, all within two miles of one another in the heart of downtown NYC! Thanks to my daughter I could finally dismiss regrets about missing Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty was at the top of my National Monuments list and researching particulars was eye opening. You need to grab a ferry from either Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan or from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ. These are short boat rides, but you will endure a security screening much like boarding an airplane. When you are dropped off at Liberty Island you may gaze upon the monument from a walkway circling the island’s perimeter. Without a Pedestal or Crown ticket, however, you have no other access beyond a gift shop and pricey cafeteria.
There is a limited quantity of Pedestal and Crown tickets, which become available for purchase six months in advance but sell out quickly. I learned this the hard way because my investigation only began after we were within this window. Although we did manage to score Pedestal tickets, I was disappointed to forfeit making it to the top. Should you succeed, there will be a 154 step climb from Pedestal to Crown, although there is an elevator to the top of the Pedestal which allows you to forfeit an additional 200 steps. Half of the structure’s height is in the Pedestal and we were pleased with splendid views from this perch. The sole downside from entering the inner sanctum with your Pedestal or Crown pass is a second security screening which will require you to stow daypacks in coin operated lockers just outside the gates. Once beyond this last threshold you have the bonus opportunity to check out the well done Statue of Liberty Museum.
Miss Liberty is a magnificent solo act, but National Monument grounds include Ellis Island and both ferry routes stop here as well. Ellis Island is the well-known point of entry for countless immigrants into the United States. Well, not countless, but twelve million future citizens began their processing here and the magnitude of Ellis Island’s impact may be summarized by sharing 40% of US citizens can trace at least one ancestor entering the country through this portal. The newcomer’s first glimpse of the new land would be the Statue of Liberty — she looks out towards ships coming in from the sea, rather than towards NYC.
Your drop off is just outside the Main Building which houses the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. I found this to be a wonderfully done affair. We took advantage of an audio tour included with our ferry ticket and it was very informative. There are three floors to the Main Building and the audio tour conducts you through the various checkpoints new arrivals needed to clear on the first two floors. The top floor is a repository of records, the American Family Immigration History Center, where you are welcome to scan ship manifests for predecessors. Of those millions who landed during the peak years (1892-1924), this library is much broader: containing crew and passenger lists from 1820-1957, the (thankfully digitized) volume of arrivals exceeds 65 million.
The grandest space is the Registry Room on the second floor, where as many as 5,000 per day would be herded through in their attempt to qualify for admission. Also known as the Grand Hall for good reason (there was the intent to humble arrivals so they would abide the arduous process); this has been gloriously restored to how it appeared around 1920. Masses of tense immigrants have been replaced by a morass of fidgety tourists, but the dazzling architecture still made me feel a bit submissive. Beyond the Registry Room are numerous smaller spaces specializing on medical, legal and a host of other concerns. Each room is packed with compelling displays documenting what happened there, allowing one to appreciate the enormous span of details tended to within these walls.
There is a pleasant cafeteria on the first floor where we paused for a surprisingly tasty lunch, enjoyed outside on one of the plentiful picnic tables spread about the beautiful grounds. Our meal afforded a good opportunity to reflect on all we had seen and learned today, especially as we could view Lady Liberty during our meal. There were so many fascinating tidbits about this icon and the laborious task of processing immigrants that I could easily pen several addendums, but I will wrap this up with the astonishing story that blew my mind.
I have shared expectations this monumental task would combat personal ignorance, but am amazed how unknown this sensational story is – quizzing many friends since my revelation has revealed zero awareness. If you catch the ferry from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, it is attached to a man-made island known as Black Tom. The “island” was originally nothing more than a rock which caused difficulties for ships in New York Harbor. The rock was surrounded by landfill and eventually grew large enough for warehouses to be built. Presenting a convenient spot for servicing nautical traffic, a causeway was added to extend railway service.
Most storage was for munitions sold internationally, but when WWI began sales to Germany were suspended. Early on the morning of July 30, 1916 something triggered detonation of tons of ammunition waiting to be delivered to Russia and Great Britain. This was a horrific explosion, registering 5.3 on the Richter scale and causing a half a billion US$ (2019 dollars) in damages. Window panes in Times Square and stained glass windows in St. Patrick’s Church shattered and the rumbling was felt in Philadelphia. The Statue of Liberty’s arm was damaged and until the explosion visitors could walk stairs to parade around the base of her torch. That opportunity has been foregone ever since.
There was never a satisfactory finding of what caused the catastrophe, but this prodded the United States to launch their first intelligence agency. Ultimately attributed to German espionage, it may have been unrelated terrorist activity (domestic labor unions and unfriendly elements of foreign protest movements were all suspected), or simply an accident. The legacy was profound and swayed multitudes into supporting US entry into WWI. In 1939 a commission under the Treaty of Berlin convicted Imperial Germany and assessed $50 million in damages, which Hitler refused to pay. After WWII the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to pay $95 million, with final payment being made to close the case in 1979.
How incredible to learn about such a significant episode in my country’s history. It is beyond my comprehension this could be so alien, but once again travel comes through to educate. My consternation is aggravated by how there seems to be no book or movie capitalizing upon this great intrigue? Seems like a huge opportunity missed.
Sadly, this article was penned just before the COVID lockdowns swept our planet. I debated whether or not to submit, given the misery New York City has endured during the crisis; ultimately deciding to move forward. Travel has proven to be an effective tool for encouraging cultures to work together, a benefit that has been largely ignored. The relevance of that lesson should become more apparent, because we all need to work together to get past this horrible disease. , It is my sincere hope everyone will unite to minimize the suffering and gain appreciation for our commonality, allowing travel to survive and thrive in the future. On that note, I will focus on New York, confident she will once again tower above, like the Statue of Liberty.