The Black Tom Island Site is located along the southern shore of Liberty State Park, from the public boat launch to the south lawn, including the 3 jetties in between. During the early years of World War I, the munitions depot there provided crucial support to France and Britain. The explosions that destroyed much of Black Tom Island in 1916 were a significant event in American history. This act of German sabotage showed that the U.S. was not neutral in the European war, and that U.S. isolationist policies were not keeping Americans safe.
Last December I was surprised to learn that despite its significant history, Black Tom Island had never been registered as a historic place. So I prepared a preliminary application for the registration of Black Tom Island as a historic place, and submitted it to the NJ Historic Preservation Office (HPO), a branch of the NJDEP. In May I was notified by the HPO that my preliminary application was approved, and received their Certification of Eligibility (COE) for the listing of the Black Tom Island Site on both the NJ and National Registers of Historic Places. The COE is an important first step, and clearly indicates that the HPO strongly believes in the preservation of the Black Tom Island Site.
The next step toward historic registration of the site is the formal nomination, which must be approved by both the HPO and the National Park Service in Washington DC. The preparation of a National Register Nomination is a complex and lengthy process, and can be quite expensive if a professional consulting firm is required. The nomination of the Black Tom Island Site will be unusually complex, and should be done by a qualified historian, which I am not. Currently, it’s uncertain if the nomination of this state-owned property will be facilitated and funded by the private sector, or if the DEP will step up and take care of it.
In the meantime, by virtue of its Certification of Eligibility, the Black Tom Island Site now has protections in place that never before existed. The National Historic Preservation Act requires that if a federal or federally-assisted project has the potential to adversely affect a property that’s listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register, a Section 106 Review will take place. If any alterations to the site are proposed by the state, the COE would likely trigger a Land Use Review within the DEP and involve a public process.
While it’s without question that Black Tom Island is worthy of historic designation, its intrinsic value to Liberty State Park is priceless. The LSP website notes that in 1965, Jersey City gave the State of New Jersey 156 acres, including Black Tom, which became the nucleus of Liberty State Park. Black Tom Island is literally the cornerstone of LSP, and must be preserved as open space for all people to enjoy for generations to come.