Black Tom explosion
The Black Tom explosion on July 30, 1916 in Jersey City, New Jersey
Jersey City, New Jersey
Jersey City is the seat of Hudson County, New Jersey, United States.Part of the New York metropolitan area, Jersey City lies between the Hudson River and Upper New York Bay across from Lower Manhattan and the Hackensack River and Newark Bay...

 was an act of sabotage
Sabotage is a deliberate action aimed at weakening another entity through subversion, obstruction, disruption, or destruction. In a workplace setting, sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency generally directed at causing some change in workplace conditions. One who engages in sabotage is...

 on American ammunition
Ammunition is a generic term derived from the French language la munition which embraced all material used for war , but which in time came to refer specifically to gunpowder and artillery. The collective term for all types of ammunition is munitions...

 supplies by German
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

 agents to prevent the materiel
Materiel is a term used in English to refer to the equipment and supplies in military and commercial supply chain management....

 from being used by the Allies
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

 in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...


Black Tom Island

The term "Black Tom" originally referred to an island in New York Harbor
Port of New York and New Jersey
The Port of New York and New Jersey comprises the waterways in the estuary of the New York-Newark metropolitan area with a port district encompassing an approximate area within a radius of the Statue of Liberty National Monument...

 next to Liberty Island
Liberty Island
Liberty Island is a small uninhabited island in New York Harbor in the United States, best known as the location of the Statue of Liberty. Though so called since the turn of the century, the name did not become official until 1956. In 1937, by proclamation 2250, President Franklin D...

. The island received its name from a local legend of an African American resident named Tom. By 1880, a causeway
In modern usage, a causeway is a road or railway elevated, usually across a broad body of water or wetland.- Etymology :When first used, the word appeared in a form such as “causey way” making clear its derivation from the earlier form “causey”. This word seems to have come from the same source by...

 and railroad had been built connecting it to the mainland for use as a shipping depot
Transportation hub
A transport hub is a place where passengers and cargo are exchanged between vehicles or between transport modes. Public transport hubs include train stations, rapid transit stations, bus stops, tram stop, airports and ferry slips. Freight hubs include classification yards, seaports and truck...

. Sometime between 1905 and 1916, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company
Lehigh Valley Railroad
The Lehigh Valley Railroad was one of a number of railroads built in the northeastern United States primarily to haul anthracite coal.It was authorized April 21, 1846 in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and incorporated September 20, 1847 as the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad...

, which owned the island and causeway, expanded the island with landfill
A landfill site , is a site for the disposal of waste materials by burial and is the oldest form of waste treatment...

, resulting in the addition of the entire area to the limits of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier
A pier is a raised structure, including bridge and building supports and walkways, over water, typically supported by widely spread piles or pillars...

 that housed the depot as well as warehouse
A warehouse is a commercial building for storage of goods. Warehouses are used by manufacturers, importers, exporters, wholesalers, transport businesses, customs, etc. They are usually large plain buildings in industrial areas of cities and towns. They usually have loading docks to load and unload...

s for the National Dock and Storage Company.

Black Tom was a major munitions depot for materials manufactured in the northeast. Prior to a 1915 blockade of the Central Powers
Central Powers
The Central Powers were one of the two warring factions in World War I , composed of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria...

 by the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

, American industries were free to sell their materials to any buyer, but by this time the Allies were the only possible customers. It was reported that on the night of the attack, two million pounds (1 kiloton) of ammunition were being stored at the depot in freight cars
Railroad car
A railroad car or railway vehicle , also known as a bogie in Indian English, is a vehicle on a rail transport system that is used for the carrying of cargo or passengers. Cars can be coupled together into a train and hauled by one or more locomotives...

, including one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on the Johnson Barge No.17, all awaiting eventual shipment to Britain
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the formal name of the United Kingdom during the period when what is now the Republic of Ireland formed a part of it....

 and France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

. Jersey City's Commissioner of Public Safety, Frank Hague
Frank Hague
Frank Hague was an American Democratic Party politician who served as the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey from 1917 to 1947, Democratic National Committeeman from New Jersey from 1922 until 1949, and Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1924 until 1949.Hague has a widely-known...

, reported he had been told the barge had been "tied up at Black Tom to avoid a twenty-five dollar towing charge" (US$ in ).


After midnight, a series of small fires were discovered on the pier. Some guards fled, fearing an explosion
An explosion is a rapid increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner, usually with the generation of high temperatures and the release of gases. An explosion creates a shock wave. If the shock wave is a supersonic detonation, then the source of the blast is called a "high explosive"...

. Others attempted to fight the fires and eventually called the Jersey City Fire Department.

At 2:08 a.m. (6:08 GMT
Greenwich Mean Time
Greenwich Mean Time is a term originally referring to mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. It is arguably the same as Coordinated Universal Time and when this is viewed as a time zone the name Greenwich Mean Time is especially used by bodies connected with the United...

), the first and largest of the explosions took place. Fragments from the explosion traveled long distances, some lodging in the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, designed by Frédéric Bartholdi and dedicated on October 28, 1886...

 and some in the clock tower of the Jersey Journal
Jersey Journal
The Jersey Journal is a newspaper published from Monday through Saturday, covering news and events throughout Hudson County, New Jersey. The headquarters in Jersey City are at Journal Square which was named after the newspaper...

 building in Journal Square
Journal Square
Journal Square is a business district, residential area, and transportation hub in Jersey City, New Jersey, which takes its name from the newspaper Jersey Journal whose headquarters are located there. The "square" itself is at the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Bergen Avenues...

, over a mile away, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m. The explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter Scale and was felt as far away as Philadelphia. Windows broke as far as 25 miles (40.2 km) away, including thousands in lower Manhattan
Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. Located primarily on the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River, the boundaries of the borough are identical to those of New York County, an original county of the state of New York...

. Some window panes in Times Square
Times Square
Times Square is a major commercial intersection in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue and stretching from West 42nd to West 47th Streets...

 were completely shattered. The outer wall of Jersey City's City Hall was cracked and the Brooklyn Bridge was shaken. People as far away as Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

 were awakened by what they thought was an earthquake.

Property damage from the attack was estimated at $20 million (US$ million in ). The damage to the Statue of Liberty was valued at $100,000 (US$ in ) and included the skirt and the torch.

Immigrants being processed at Ellis Island
Ellis Island
Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States. It was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. The island was greatly expanded with landfill between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the...

 had to be evacuated to lower Manhattan. Reports vary, but as many as seven people may have been killed, including:
  • a Jersey City policeman
  • a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief Of Police
  • a ten week old infant
  • the barge captain

Injuries numbered in the hundreds. Smaller explosions continued to occur for hours after the initial blast.


Two of the watchmen who had lit smudge pot
Smudge pot
A smudge pot is an oil-burning device used to prevent frost on fruit trees. Condensation of water vapor on particulate soot prevents condensation on plants and raises air temperature very slightly. Usually a smudge pot has a large round base with a chimney coming out of the middle of the base...

s to keep away mosquitoes on their watch were immediately arrested. It soon became clear that the fires of the smudge pots had not caused the fire and that the blast had not been an accident. It was traced to a Slovak
The Slovaks, Slovak people, or Slovakians are a West Slavic people that primarily inhabit Slovakia and speak the Slovak language, which is closely related to the Czech language.Most Slovaks today live within the borders of the independent Slovakia...

 immigrant named Michael Kristoff, who had served in the U.S. Army, but admitted to carrying suitcases for the Germans before America entered World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. According to him, two of the guards were German agents. It is likely that the bombing involved some of the techniques developed by a group of German agents surrounding German ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff
Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff
Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff was a German politician and the ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 1908 to 1917.- Early life :...

, probably using the pencil bomb
Pencil bomb
A pencil bomb was a type of time bomb with a timer that could be set to detonate any given time. It was designed by German chemist, Dr. Scheele and used by German spy Franz von Rintelen during World War I.-Design:...

s developed by Captain Franz von Rintelen
Franz von Rintelen
Captain Franz Dagobert Johannes von Rintelen was a German Naval Intelligence officer in the United States during World War I....

. Although suspicion at the time fell solely on German saboteurs like Kurt Jahnke
Kurt Jahnke
Kurt Albert Jahnke was a German-American intelligence agent and saboteur active both during World War I and World War II.Born in Gnesen, Jahnke immigrated to the United States in 1899, became a naturalized citizen, and served in the U.S. Marines in the Philippines...

 and his assistant Lothar Witzke
Lothar Witzke
Lothar Witzke was a German spy and saboteur active in the United States and Mexico during World War I.- Naval career :Born in Posen , Witzke was educated at Posen Academy then entered the German Naval Academy as a seventeen-year-old cadet. By the beginning of the war he was a lieutenant in the...

, still judged as "likely" responsible by some, later investigations in the aftermath of the Annie Larsen affair
Annie Larsen affair
The Annie Larsen affair was a gun-running plot in the United States during World War I. The plot, involving India's Ghadar Party, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the German Foreign office, was a part of the larger Hindu German Conspiracy, and it was the prime offence cited in the 1917 Hindu...

 unearthed links between the Ghadar conspiracy
Ghadar Conspiracy
The Ghadar Conspiracy was a conspiracy for a pan-Indian mutiny in the British Indian Army in February 1915 formulated by the Ghadar Party...

 and the Black Tom explosion. Franz von Papen
Franz von Papen
Lieutenant-Colonel Franz Joseph Hermann Michael Maria von Papen zu Köningen was a German nobleman, Roman Catholic monarchist politician, General Staff officer, and diplomat, who served as Chancellor of Germany in 1932 and as Vice-Chancellor under Adolf Hitler in 1933–1934...

 is known to have also been involved in both.

Later investigations by the Directorate of Naval Intelligence are known to have found links to some members of the Irish "Clan na Gael
Clan na Gael
The Clan na Gael was an Irish republican organization in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries, successor to the Fenian Brotherhood and a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood...

" group, the Indian "Ghadar Party
Ghadar Party
The Ghadar Party was an organization founded by Punjabi Indians, in the United States and Canada with the aim to liberate India from British rule...

", and Communist elements. The Irish socialist James Larkin
James Larkin
James Larkin was an Irish trade union leader and socialist activist, born to Irish parents in Liverpool, England. He and his family later moved to a small cottage in Burren, southern County Down. Growing up in poverty, he received little formal education and began working in a variety of jobs...

 gave a supportive affidavit to McCloy in 1934.

The Statue of Liberty's torch was closed to tourist traffic, according to a U.S. Park Service Officer.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company
Lehigh Valley Railroad
The Lehigh Valley Railroad was one of a number of railroads built in the northeastern United States primarily to haul anthracite coal.It was authorized April 21, 1846 in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and incorporated September 20, 1847 as the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad...

, advised by John J. McCloy
John J. McCloy
John Jay McCloy was a lawyer and banker who served as Assistant Secretary of War during World War II, president of the World Bank and U.S. High Commissioner for Germany...

, sought damages against Germany under the Treaty of Berlin
Treaty of Berlin, 1921
The Treaty of Peace with Germany or the Treaty of Berlin in 1921, are terms used to describe the separate post-World War I peace treaty between the United States and Germany, signed on August 25, 1921. It followed the U.S. Senate's rejection of parts of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, based on the...

 from the German-American Mixed Claims Commission. The commission declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had been responsible and ordered damages. The two sides finally settled on $50 million in 1953 (US$ in ). The final payment was made in 1979.

Black Tom today

Landfill projects later made Black Tom Island part of the mainland and it was incorporated into Liberty State Park
Liberty State Park
Liberty State Park is located on Upper New York Bay in Jersey City, New Jersey, opposite the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The park opened in 1976 to coincide with bicentennial celebrations and is operated and maintained by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry.-Geography and...

. The former Black Tom Island is located at the end of Morris Pesin Drive in the southeastern corner of the park, where a plaque marks the spot of the explosion. A circle of American flags complement the plaque, which stands just a bit east of the visitors' center.

The inscription on the plaque reads

Explosion at Liberty!

On July 30, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot exploded rocking New York Harbor and sending residents tumbling from their beds.

The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. On Ellis Island, terrified immigrants were evacuated by ferry to the Battery. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty (the arm of the Statue was closed to visitors after this). Property damage was estimated at $20 million. It is not known how many died.

Why the explosion? Was it an accident or planned? According to historians, the Germans sabotaged the Lehigh Valley munitions depot in order to stop deliveries being made to the British who had blockaded the Germans in Europe.

You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.

A stained glass window at Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic church memorialized the victims of the attack.

External links

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