This week marks the 100th anniversary of an interesting but little known event in American history; a devastating catastrophe that was arguably the first major act of foreign terrorism in our nation. On the assumption you’re probably sick of 2016 presidential politics already, let me take you back to 1916 and tell you the story of the Black Tom Explosion.
Black Tom Island, named either for an early African-American resident or because the island’s profile vaguely resembled a black cat with an arched back, was a small mound of earth jutting out of New York Harbor, a stone’s throw from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
By 1916, it had been connected to the Jersey City coast by a landfilled causeway, and was used as a pier by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Most notably, munitions, dynamite and gun powder often passed through Black Tom Island on the way to the warzone in Europe. Though the U.S. was still officially neutral in the Great War, it was no great secret that we supplied the Allies, especially Great Britain, with materiel to carry on the fight.
On July 30, 1916 guards at the Black Tom pier discovered several fires burning near the barges and warehouses storing munitions. Some guards prudently hit the road, guessing what a fire there would mean, but others raised the alarm. Jersey City fire crews soon responded, but it was too late. A little after 2 a.m. slumbering residents of New York and New Jersey were jolted from sleep by a cataclysmic explosion.
It’s been estimated that it would have registered 5.5 on the Richter Scale had such a thing existed then. Windows were broken in Manhattan by the shock wave; the blast was heard in Philadelphia and Maryland.
Reports on the number of deaths seem to vary, but usually from five to 10 fatalities. Some $20 million in damage — nearly half a billion today — was reported. Six piers, 13 warehouses and numerous railcars were simply gone. Ellis Island was evacuated; the Statue of Liberty was riddled with shrapnel.
(In fact, have you ever seen early photos of tourists to Lady Liberty standing up at the torch? A hundred years ago you could climb a precarious ladder in her arm to enjoy the view from the torch. That practice was ended because of the Black Tom explosion).
The U.S. was still a neutral in WWI at that point, so enemy sabotage was not immediately suspected. Guards using smudge pots to ward off mosquitoes were investigated; officials of the Lehigh Valley Railroad were briefly investigated for manslaughter on the assumption explosives had been mishandled.
When the U.S. entered WWI less than a year later, the Black Tom incident faded into the background. Only years later did more of the truth come out: that the likely culprit in the explosion was German sabotage.
While to this day there are competing theories and no one knows (or will ever know) the full story, subsequent investigations over ensuing years pieced together strong evidence that German spies were behind the fires.
A group called the Mixed Claims Commission, set up after the war to handle damage claims attributable to German sabotage, awarded $50 million to plaintiffs in the Black Tom explosion — the largest damage claim of any in the war. Germany, however, soon was mired in Nazism and an even bigger war, paid no damages. It’s interesting to note, however, that Hitler could not pull off any sort of similar attack in the U.S. during his brief reign of terror.
Little is left of Black Tom Island today. Additional landfill projects over the last century pretty much brought the island to the mainland — now Liberty State Park. Only a commemorative plaque today marks the site of the devastating explosion a century ago, a blast that rocked the nation and could have led us into war a year earlier had the facts been fully ascertained.
Only pretty diligent history buffs today know the name and significance of Black Tom Island. But with a century’s hindsight, we see a precursor of modern terrorism. Such attacks, and worse, remain a legitimate threat. Threats must be met with eyes wide open, including some historical context.
After all, terrorism is not merely a minor annoyance. World War I, the most devastating conflict ever seen up to that point, and the event which shaped so much of what came afterwards, started with an act of terror (a political assassination). I fear it won’t be the last such outcome.
Long is the education director for the National D-Day Memorial.