The terrorist attack no one remembers
There are moments in history that forever live in the culture. Likewise, there are those moments regardless of their immediate significance that dissolve quickly from the cluttered pages of history. The Black Tom Munitions Explosions are a case of the latter…
The world may have been a very different place in 1916, but nefarious undertakings were still much in the news. On a warm and muggy July 30th of that year, one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in history was detonated in New York Harbor. It would destroy over $20 million in U.S. munitions bound for Europe. It was the work of a group of German spies and saboteurs…and it would not be their last.
The United States had not yet entered the war and many thought this act would speed up the process. The German thinking was that these arms destined for Europe would weaken the allies, and perhaps stop the U.S. from entering into a losing cause. Fortunately for the Allied cause, both of these assumptions were wrong.
Days after the explosion, in an attempt to pacify a nervous public, the government claimed that it was actually mosquitoes that were to blame. According to Ervin J. Smith, the first vice president of the International Secret Service, “The watchmen employed to guard the millions of dollars-worth of war materials were bothered by mosquitoes, and built a smudge to drive them away. A spark from this fire ignited some excelsior under a boxcar loaded with small shells. These exploded and the rest is history.”
The government cover up was soon laughed out of existence.
Black Tom Island sits just off the coast of New Jersey. It was until the later part of the 18th century a large rock that hindered navigation through the channel. Later land fill was added and a small island was created. By the late 19th century the small island had been transformed into a 25 acre promontory, where a causeway and a rail line were built to connect it with the mainland. By the early 20th century the Rail line had enlarged the island again and it was now to be annexed by Jersey City.
The small island now boasted a depot and warehouses on a mile long pier.
On July 30th, a few minutes past midnight, small fires were seen throughout the pier. At 2 o’clock, small explosions were heard, and then at 2:08 am, the largest of the explosions took place, the second and smaller explosion occurring around 2:40 am.
A notable location for one of the first major explosions was around the Johnson Barge, which contained 50 tons of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses. That explosion created a detonation wave that traveled at 24,000 feet per second with enough force to lift firefighters out of their boots and into the air. The shock wave traveled as far as Philadelphia, and shattered windows in lower Manhattan. Shrapnel damaged the Statue of Liberty. The explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter scale. On the island, the explosion destroyed more than one hundred railroad cars, thirteen warehouses, and left a 375-foot-by-175-foot crater at the source. The damage to the Statue of Liberty was estimated to be $100,000. (That translates to about two and a half million dollars in 2022 money).
At the time, the New York Times confirmed the death of at least 5 men.
The investigation took on all comers. Many thought there were German agents inside the island’s security, and one man admitted he had carried “suitcases” for the Germans in 1915-1916, at a time when the United States was not yet in the war. There seemed to be links to an Irish gang, the Clan na Gael, to the Indian Ghadar Party, and of course there were suspected ties to Communist sympathizers. There was even a theory that the Germans had managed this using their newly developed ‘cigar bombs’.
As devastating as the explosions were, they did help to create the United States’ first intelligence agency that would and could keep track of many of these anti-American Activities. It brought together the police and the military in an effort to stop these atrocities before they began.
With the loss of life, the loss of munitions, and the tremendous cost of all this, Black Tom was front page news. It was the first time a foreign nation had advanced to our shores and perpetrated a disaster of this magnitude. It was an historical event that led to many security changes in the early part of the 20th century. It was an explosion that literally rocked our Nation.
As we know it would not be the last…