flash from the past: Sabotage at Black Tom Island

A hundred years ago today, two million pounds of munitions exploded in New York Harbor on July 30, 1916, killing five people, jostling the Brooklyn Bridge, shattering plate-glass windows six miles away and shaking building foundations in five states by terrorist attack by Germans part of the preclude to the US Entry to WWI.

The explosion on Black Tom Island, a 25-acre promontory jutting from Jersey City that was built from New Yorkers’ garbage, registered an estimated 5.5 on the Richter scale — 30 times more powerful than the collapse of the World Trade Center 85 years later. It was considered the most destructive terrorist attack in America until Sept. 11, 2001.

The blast occurred the day before Charles Evans Hughes, a former governor of New York, was to formally accept the Republican presidential nomination in a speech at Carnegie Hall and confront Woodrow Wilson, whose reelection campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” would be abrogated the following April when Congress declared war on the German Empire.

Black Tom Island was where Lehigh Valley Railroad tracks connected to National Dock and Storage Company warehouses bulging with munitions and armaments to be barged to Gravesend Bay and loaded aboard ships bound for Europe. While the United States was officially neutral in 1916, most of the arms were destined for Britain, France, Russia and Japan because Germany could not afford to buy them.

On July 30, two explosions, one at 2:08 a.m. and another at 2:40, destroyed more than 100 railroad cars and 13 warehouses, leaving a 375-foot-by-175-foot crater. One blast was touched off on a barge moored illegally to avoid a $25 docking fee. Shockwaves broke thousands of windows from Downtown Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan. At least five people were killed, including a 10-week-old baby thrown from his crib in Jersey City.

Hundreds of immigrants were evacuated from Ellis Island. “The shells intended to make the world safe for democracy when fired through the cannon of the czar and the mikado,” A.J. Liebling later wrote in The New York World-Telegram, “were knocking chips out of the Goddess of Liberty on her island in the harbor.” Yet most law enforcement officials concurred that the blast “cannot be charged to the account of alien plotters against the neutrality of the United States,” The New York Times reported, “although it is admitted that the destruction of so large a quantity of allied war material must prove cheering news to Berlin and Vienna.”