On Sunday morning, July 30, 1916, at 2:08 a.m., Jersey City residents were awakened by a major explosion and a succession of explosions. They lasted for several hours, sending shock waves as far as ninety miles away. The explosions occurred at Black Tom "Island"--a misnomer for a mile-long pier on a landfill forming a peninsula that connected the one-time "island" in New York Harbor with the Jersey City waterfront near Greenville. The name "Black Tom" is said to come from a "dark-skinned" fisherman who lived on the island for many years. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company filled in the marshland between Black Tom and the mainland from 1905 to 1916. The island was then used by rail lines and as a work yard where the National Dock and Storage Company had warehouses.
It stood opposite the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and today is in the vicinity of the Park Administration Building and Flag Plaza at Liberty State Park.
Before American entry into World War I, war materiel manufactured in the northeastern states was sent to Black Tom for transport to the Allied Powers of England, France, Italy, and Russia. The Allies were engaged in World War I against the Central Powers, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. President Woodrow Wilson had declared neutrality, but American rights to "freedom of the seas" were affected by British naval control of the Atlantic sea-lanes. According to Jules Witcover in Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917, this situation resulted in the work of German saboteurs to prevent British receipt of munitions from the US (257, 266-267).
Black Tom was only one of several homeland attacks in retaliation to the British naval blockade of Germany. In New Jersey, on January 1, 1915, a fire took place at the Roebling Steel foundry in Trenton. After the Black Tom incident, on January 11, 1917, a fire took place at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Kingsland. These facilities had contracts for goods being sent to the Allies. After numerous claims of German espionage and violations of American neutrality, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917.
On the evening of the Black Tom incident, barges and freight cars at the depot were reportedly filled with over two million pounds of ammunition waiting to be shipped overseas. The munitions at the depot included shrapnel, black powder, TNT, and dynamite. The Johnson Barge No.17, for example, held some 100,000 pounds of TNT. Given these incendiary devices, the Black Tom facility was not securely gated to safeguard the nearby civilian population from the potential of foul play.
Shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, small fires on the pier were discovered and the eight guards on duty gave flight. One of the guards, however, sounded the fire alarm alerting the Jersey City Fire Department. The fires gradually set off a succession of exploding shrapnel shells. After the terrifying 2:08 a.m. blast, the well-stocked arsenal was ablaze, casting the barges at Black Tom afloat in New York Harbor. Pieces of metal from the explosion struck the Jersey Journal building clock tower at Journal Square, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m.
During the explosion, Jersey City residents took to the streets and gathered at the waterfront to witness the fireworks. Emergency vehicles in the city responded to alarms without full comprehension of the emergency. Disruption in telephone service created an information blackout. Witcover reports: "The blast jolted the Hudson Tubes [PATH system] under the river connecting Lower Manhattan with Hoboken and Jersey City . . . . in the Bay View and New York Bay cemeteries monuments and tombstones toppled and some vaults were jolted askew" (13). A larger than a usual number of worshippers headed for the six o'clock morning mass at the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary (today Holy Rosary Church at Sixth Street).
Witcover also writes that Frank Hague, the Jersey City commissioner of public safety, was informed that Barge Johnson 17 "had tied up at Black Tom to avoid a twenty-five dollar towing charge--false economy, he noted . . ." (22). Hague and Hudson County prosecutor Robert S. Hudspeth agreed that the presidents of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and the Central Railroad of New Jersey had violated the twenty-four-hour time limit for storing dynamite and for keeping railroad cars with explosives at the terminal. The conditions at Black Tom had placed the civilian population in Jersey City and elsewhere in immediate danger.
Accounts of the total number of fatalities differ, but it is known that Jersey City Patrolman James F. Doherty, a guard at Black Tom, and the barge captain of the Johnson Barge No.19 were killed. A ten-week-old infant was thrown from his crib. Hundreds of individuals were injured. The reported property damage was over $20 million. The Black Tom depot, its freight cars, warehouses, barges, tugboats, and piers, was destroyed. In the nearby harbor, the Statue of Liberty sustained $100,000 in damages from the spray of shrapnel. Newly-arrived immigrants at Ellis Island had to be evacuated and processed at the Immigration Bureau at the Battery in New York City. Some five hundred people living on houseboats and barges in the harbor also required evacuation.
Across the river, windows blew out in lower Manhattan, and window panes were shattered in the Times Square area. Repercussions from the explosions were reported from Hoboken to Bayonne, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and as far away as Philadelphia.
After World War I, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned Black Tom, and others, brought charges of German sabotage before the Mixed Claims Commission under the 1921 Treaty of Berlin between the United States and Germany. The commission questioned the origins of the Black Tom explosion. Had the fire begun as a result of "spontaneous combustion," carelessness of one of the employees or guards, or German sabotage?
A suspect in the incident was Michael Kristoff, a 23-year old immigrant living with relatives in nearby Bayonne and a former employer at the Tidewater Oil Company. Kristoff is said to have started the fires at Black Tom with incendiary devices in exchange for five hundred dollars. Kristoff died in a Staten Island hospital in 1928. On one side, officials at Black Tom were charged with "criminal and gross negligence" and, on the other, documentation was found regarding German espionage in the case. No one, however, was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1939, after seventeen years of deliberation, the German-American Mixed Claims Commission claimed that Germany was responsible for the sabotage. Germany was ordered to pay reparations of $50 million to all claimants, but the restitution was not paid due to the intervention of World War II. After the war, Germany agreed to settle on outstanding war claims that included those related to the Black Tom explosion. They were paid in 1979.
On the 100th anniversary of the explosion in 2016, Liberty State Park, with the National Park Service and the Hudson County History Advocates, hosted a commemorative program. Speakers recalled the background leading to the tragic event and its historic significance from the World War I era to the present.
Family members of two Jersey City responders killed that day--Jersey City Police Officer James F. Doherty and Cornelius Joseph Leyden, police chief of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Police Department--were in attendance. A new wayside panel marking the explosion at the site of the park was unveiled.
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