The night the world exploded

JERSEY CITY —

In Liberty State Park, with its views across New York Harbor to where the Twin Towers once stood, there is a plaque that reads: “You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.”

It is not referring to Sept. 11, 2001.

Decades before 9/11, Hudson County was the scene of lethal sabotage that was felt, literally, as far away as Baltimore, and figuratively, all the way across the Atlantic, where World War I was raging. Indeed, this was one of the acts of sabotage linked to America’s eventually abandoning its isolationist stance.

Here is the story:

At 2:08 a.m. on a sultry summer’s night, millions of pounds, thousands of tons, of ammunition stored on an island just off the Jersey City shoreline began exploding — and the earth began quaking (at an estimated 5.5 on the modern Richter scale). So massive were the chain-reaction blasts, there were reports of people being thrown from their beds. Windows in a 25-mile radius were shattered.

Throughout the metropolitan area, people rushed into the streets in terror.  Shrapnel struck buildings throughout Jersey City, and the sky above the harbor was filled with “bombs bursting in air.”

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According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “. . . falling shards of glass preceded a mist of ash from the fire that followed the explosion.” (A mist of ash. Yet more echoes of 9/11.)

The site of the holocaust was Black Tom Island, a bit west of Liberty Island. And the date was July 30, 1916. This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Black Tom, reportedly named for a fisherman who had lived there in more bucolic times, was by 1916 connected to the Jersey City mainland by a pier.

Although then-neutral America had avoided joining the World War I combatants, “it was no secret that the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British,” the Smithsonian notes. And Black Tom was a major munitions depot.

On a regular basis, freight trains full of dynamite and ammunition were arriving, some to sit on the pier sidings until they could be unloaded. There were also barges and boats full of armaments, awaiting shipment to England or the battlefields of France.

In the August 1964 edition of The American Legion Magazine, authors H.R. Balkhage and A.A. Hahling wrote that, on the night of the explosion, “somewhere between 2 million and 4 million pounds of explosives” were sitting in those freight cars, barges and ships.

“There were all types,” the article continued, “from small arms ammunition to deadly TNT in bulk. No one ever knew exactly how much ammunition or the types of ammunition that were stored at Black Tom at any given moment.”

According to the authors, one of the barges, “moored tight against the pier, in blatant violation of safety laws” contained 100,000 pounds of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses.

We leave to your imagination the sights and sounds — and panic — of that night. Suffice it to say, by the time the detonations stopped and the resultant fires were quenched, there was not much left of the island’s warehouses, rail cars, barges, etc. — or of Black Tom Island itself. Today, its remnants are actually part of Liberty State Park, joined to it by landfill.

The exact death/injury toll is still being debated and may never be known. Injuries were estimated in the hundreds, but early reports of 50 dead were later reduced to seven.  It was likely that low because the detonations occurred in the middle of the night, long after the munitions workers and longshoremen had gone home.

Among the fatalities officially recorded were Jersey City Patrolman James F. Doherty and Chief Cornelius J. Leyden of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Police.

Reportedly, a 10-week-old infant died after being thrown from his crib by the blast.

As for property damage, that was estimated at $20 million (in 1916 dollars). The 2016 equivalent is about a half-billion. And among the “property” damaged was the nearby Statue of Liberty.

Ever wonder why visitors are not permitted to climb the staircase in the arm up to the torch, as they once could? Blame the Black Tom explosion. Immediate repairs were made to the shrapnel-damaged torch, but even after the 1984-’86 centennial refurbishing, that part of the statue is still off-limits to the public.

Initially, it was thought that the explosion had been ignited by smudge pots some island guards had lit to ward off the swarms of mosquitoes that plagued the swampy area. Two guards were even arrested — and then released. Sabotage by German agents was deemed more likely.

The investigation continued for years. It was not until 1939 — when the Lehigh Valley Railroad won the suit it had filed — that Imperial Germany was judged responsible. However, as noted by Wikipedia, it took until 1953 for a reparations figure of $50 million to be reached, and “the final payment was made in 1979.”

This Saturday, July 30, at 10 a.m., a ceremony to honor the Black Tom victims will take place at Liberty State Park. It will be held at the Flag Plaza, which is where that plaque citing “one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history” is located.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent