JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) - Two German spies crossed New York Harbor at midnight, making the journey in a rowboat loaded with dynamite. Their destination: Jersey City’s Black Tom Island, at the time the largest ammunition depot in America.
A third man, a drifter, entered the depot on foot. No guards stopped him, and no one noticed his pockets, which bulged with bombs shaped like cigars.
What followed in the early hours of July 30, 1916, was the most powerful terrorist bombing in American history. Bombs laid by the saboteurs ignited a kiloton of ammunition, causing two massive explosions that shook Manhattan, and jolted people from their beds all the way to Maryland, according to newspaper reports at the time.
The blast force equaled an earthquake registering 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“From all accounts it was a massive explosion,” said Jonathan Luk, deputy superintendent of Liberty State Park, which now incorporates the land that once was Black Tom Island. It sits across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of the attack, Luk and a number of historians will gather at the site. They will commemorate the five people known to have died at Black Tom.
They’ll talk about the mystery of Black Tom, the terror attack that America forgot.
“I’m a fifth-generation Jersey City guy, and I worked there as a newspaperman. Who knew Jersey City better than me?” said Ron Semple, 82, a former editor at the Jersey Journal. “Growing up, we never heard about Black Tom.”
The sheer magnitude of the explosions at Black Tom is difficult to fathom. The first blast started inside Johnson 17, a barge tied to the pier that contained 100,000 pounds of TNT and 25,000 detonators, according to research by Carmela Karnoutsos, a professor emeritus of history at New Jersey City University.
The shockwave broke water mains in Times Square, flooding four city blocks, according to newspaper stories from that day. It broke nearly every window in lower Manhattan, and left a trail of broken glass in the streets from the Battery north to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.
The Brooklyn Bridge shook. So did the tunnels that today carry PATH trains under the Hudson River. A cigar store in Brooklyn collapsed, the main building on Ellis Island was knocked off its foundation, and every building in Jersey City within a mile radius was blown to bits.
People panicked. Across Manhattan, hotel guests rushed outside wearing only their pajamas, cutting their bare feet on broken glass from shop windows. Police officers flooded the streets, looking for the looters who were breaking all the windows. Finding none, they turned to the Battery and saw fire in the southern sky.
Firefighters in Jersey City were blown out of their shoes. Others in the harbor hid behind the steel rail of their fireboat to avoid flying shrapnel, and pointed their hoses blindly in the direction of the heat.
Michael Kristoff, the drifter who helped place the bombs, ran to his aunt’s house in Bayonne, according to documents found by Chad Millman, who authored a book called “The Detonators” about the attack.
“What did I do?” Kristoff yelled, according to the account. “Oh, my God, what did I do?”
Blame for the explosions fell almost immediately on managers of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Co., which ran the depot, and the Johnson Lighterage and Storage Co., which owned the Johnson 17 barge. Both companies had violated rules banning overnight storage of explosive materials.
“It was a different time,” said Semple, who recently published the novel “Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson,” which includes facts about the bombing. “We had never been attacked, so we didn’t have very good defenses.”
From the beginning, however, many people suspected German agents were responsible. Hours after the blasts, with the Black Tom fires still burning out of control, The New York Times printed a story listing 42 explosions at American munitions and chemical facilities since war broke out between the Germans and the Allies, including a large explosion at the Anderson Chemical Co. in Wallington in 1915 and one at a DuPont plant in Wayne in 1916, which together killed four people.
Most of those munitions had been purchased by the British and French militaries to fight the Germans. To President Woodrow Wilson’s advisers, the pattern was clear.
“Everyone in the Wilson administration was fully aware of the German efforts to stop the flow of munitions to the front,” Millman said. “This was not a surprise to them.”
Talk of a German conspiracy died down when the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner to the FBI, called the explosion an accident. Wilson, who was about to seek re-election on a platform of avoiding war with Germany, described Black Tom as a “regrettable incident at a private railroad terminal,” Millman found.
Between its relatively small death toll, no obvious villains and with government leaders including Wilson calling it an accident, the Black Tom incident receded quickly from view.
“Wilson was not particularly interested in investigating these facts or in anyone forcing the U.S. into war,” Millman said, “even though there were front-page stories showing the Germans were planning attacks like this.”
The public may have forgotten about Black Tom, but U.S. leaders did not. After World War I, the Lehigh Valley Railroad sued Germany for $20 million in damages. The company, represented by the U.S. government, finally won in international court in 1939 by proving the German government had planned the attack. Documents discovered by Millman also prove the plot benefited from financing help donated by members of the German-American community.
Germany didn’t agree to pay restitution until 1953. By that time the settlement amount had risen to $50 million with interest, or about $450 million in today’s dollars. The railroad received its final payment in 1979.
The government’s lead attorney in the case was John McCloy, whose experience uncovering the German espionage ring led President Franklin Roosevelt to name him assistant secretary of war, Millman said. In a meeting in the Oval Office in 1942, Roosevelt announced to McCloy his decision to force more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
“We don’t want any more Black Toms,” Roosevelt said, according to a history of the incident by the CIA.
Shrapnel from Black Tom punctured the Statue of Liberty in her chest. To this day, the public is barred from climbing the stairs to the statue’s torch due to damage caused by Black Tom, said Luk of Liberty State Park.
All the while, Black Tom remains as unknown today as it was during Ron Semple’s childhood, a generation after the attacks.
“It was a surprise to me that here I lived in the center of Manhattan, and had lived through 9/11, and I had never heard that this happened,” said Millman, editorial director for digital content in the U.S. for ESPN. “It’s crazy.”
Today, Semple and a few local historians hope to remind people about it. At 10 a.m., a hundred years and eight hours after the first explosion, Liberty State Park will host a ceremony at the site. On hand will be descendants of James Doherty, a Jersey City police officer who died at Black Tom.
“I’ve lived in Jersey City all my life, and this is the first I’m hearing of it,” Darlene Hodges, 53, said on Wednesday, sitting on a park bench 10 feet from a historical sign marking the site of the explosions. “It’s kind of haunting.”
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com
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