Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Attack on New York decades before 9/11

We are all unfortunately quite familiar with the tragic 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001. However, few know about a massive attack that took place near the city roughly 85 years before. In its "Jersey City: Past and Present" webpage, Carmela Karnoutsos with New Jersey City University provides a thorough description:

"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 that 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 landfill that connected the one-time island 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. Owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, it filled in the marshland between Black Tom and the mainland; it was then used as a work yard where the National Dock and Storage Company had warehouses.

The pier stood opposite the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor in the Greenville section of Jersey City and today is along Morris Pesin Drive at Liberty State Park in the vicinity of the Park Administration Building and Flag Plaza.

Prior to 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 a number of 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. And 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. The US entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, after numerous claims of German espionage and violations to American neutrality.

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 one hundred thousand 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, even 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 ongoing fire works. Emergency vehicles in the city responded to alarms without full comprehension of the emergency and a 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 usual number of worshippers had turned out 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 commissioner of public safety in Jersey City, 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 a policeman, 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 with its freight cars, warehouses, barges, tugboats and piers was completely destroyed. In the nearby harbor, the Statue of Liberty sustained $100,000 in damages from the spray of shrapnel, and newly-arrived immigrants at Ellis Island had to be evacuated for processing 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 windows panes shattered in the Times Square area. Repercussions from the explosions were reported along the Jersey shoreline from Hoboken to Bayonne and over to Staten Island and Brooklyn and from as far away as Philadelphia.

After World War I, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, who 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 at the time, but no one was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1939 after seventeen years of deliberation, the German-American Mixed Claims Commission claimed Germany responsible of 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 and they were paid in 1979."


"Black Tom Blasts of 1916 Recalled." New York Times 31 July 1966.
Lender, Mark E. One State In Arms. Trenton, NJ: The New Jersey Historical Commission, 1991.
Wagen, Irv. "Black Tom--The Blast That Made History." Jersey Journal 18 April 1978.

Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914-1917. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1989.


By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub

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