In 1916 one of the “largest non-nuclear artificial explosions” occurred in the United States. An explosion America seems to have forgotten ever happened. The Black Tom Explosion was an act of sabotage made by agents of Imperial Germany.
The saboteurs had a single goal in mind, to destroy U.S. manufactured munitions purchased by the Allies for The Great War. This enormous explosion caused around $20,000,000 ($500 million today) worth of damage, and was a major factor in encouraging the United States to join the Allies in WWI.
Yet The Black Tom Explosion is rarely mentioned in any textbook. Why has it been forgotten so completely?
What Was Black Tom Island?
Black Tom Island was an island located next to Liberty Island in the New York Harbor. The island itself was man-made and was a landfill. The island extended to a 25-acre (10ha) land mass used as a shipping depot. It also had a railroad and causeway built connecting Black Tom Island to the mainland.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company owned the island from 1905 to 1916 and added a mile-long (1.6 km) pier which housed warehouses. At the time of the Black Tom Explosion, the island was one of the major munitions depots in the northeastern United States.
When the Black Tom Explosion occurred, the United States was not yet involved in World War I and was a neutral country. The U.S. was legally permitted to sell munitions and was the source of 75% of the Allies’ weapons.
The United States refused to sell war supplies to the German Navy; only the Allies were being sold munitions. Spies from the German Empire were sent to the U.S. to stop the production and delivery of munitions. These munitions depots and factories were seen as making weapons to kill German soldiers in Europe.
The Black Tom Explosion
On July 29, 1916, freight cars and barges loaded with more than 2 million pounds (910,000kg) of explosives and munitions waited at Black Tom Island. The munitions, all the dynamite, TNT, bullets and shrapnel, were to be shipped out to the Allies in the morning.
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One of the barges that had illegally docked at Black Tom to avoid a $25 fee was loaded with about 100,000lbs (45,359kg) of TNT. Although the depot had this much ammo stored on it, there wasn’t a security gate, and only two watchmen were working that night.
At 2:08 AM on July 30, 1916, the first Black Tom explosion occurred, followed by a second explosion at 2:40 AM. With over two million pounds of munitions stored at the depot, the Black Tom Explosion was massive. 13 warehouses on the island were destroyed, and six piers blew apart. Fires were blazing (believed to have triggered the second explosion at the time), and a 375ft by 175ft (114.3m x 53.34m) crater was blasted out of the harbor.
The Black Tom Explosion created a detonation wave; a supersonic combustion-triggered shock wave, which traveled at a rate of 24,000ft/s (7,300m/s). The detonation wave was strong enough to lift firefighters on the scene out of their boots and into the air.
The force of the wave has been determined to be that of a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. The explosion’s wave was said to reach as far as Maryland and Philadelphia; people were shaken awake in their beds. This was only a small part of the damage caused by the Black Tom Explosion.
The blast sent debris far enough to hit the Statue of Liberty, the reason we can no longer climb to her torch today is because of the damage caused by the explosion. Debris even hit a clock tower a mile (1.6km) away.
Almost all of the windows in Lower Manhattan were blown out. Plates of glass in Time Square shattered, sending shards of glass raining down onto the street. Windows were shattered up to 25 miles (40km) away from Black Tom Island.
Residents of Manhattan and New Jersey were so scared that they ran out of their homes barefoot, in their pajamas, into streets covered in shards of glass. The Black Tom Explosion cracked the wall of Jersey City’s town hall and even shook the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Black Tom Explosion is considered the first major terrorist attack in the United States from a foreign country. While hundreds of people were injured by the explosion, there were only four confirmed deaths. The victims of the Black Tom Explosion were Jersey City Police officer James Doherty, Railroad Chief of Police Joseph Lyden, an unnamed barge captain, and Arthur Tosson. Arthur was a ten-week-old baby who died as a result of being launched out of his crib as he slept.
Theories About The Cause
Police arrested the two depot watchmen and accused them of causing the Black Tom Explosion. The police believed that it was caused when the watchmen lit oil-burning lamps to keep the mosquitoes away.
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It was eventually determined that the oil lamps were not the cause of the fire or explosion. After the watchmen were cleared, the next theory was that the fire and explosion were an accident, not a deliberate act of destruction or terror.
Another theory was tied to a Slovak immigrant, Michael Kristoff. Kristoff was said to have started the fires in exchange for around $500. Kristoff said that two guards at Black Tom Island were secretly German spies.
The Black Tom Explosion was believed to have been triggered by the detonation of cigar bombs. Cigar bombs were thin time bombs designed by Dr. Walter Scheele, a German explosive developer. Allegedly two German spies who worked for the German Ambassador to America, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, were involved. Von Bernstorff was accused of being a spymaster and had help from Captain Franz von Rintelen, a German Imperial Navy intelligence member.
The suspected terrorists were two German spies, Lothar Witzke and Kurt Jahnke; additionally, Michael Kristoff was included. The three men still are considered legally responsible for the Black Tom Explosion.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad Co issued damages against Germany after the Treaty of Berlin was signed. The German-American Mixed Claims Commission ruled in 1939 that Germany was responsible for the Black Tom Explosion and owed the U.S around $50 million as reparations.
The Nazis refused to pay reparations. After WWII, the Germans owed $95 million for the Black Tom Explosion, and the first payment was made in 1953. The debt was finally paid off in 1979.
Following the explosion, several federal and domestic intelligence agencies were founded. An example was Manhattan lawyer J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the deputy of the then Bureau of Investigation, which he overhauled and is now the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Several laws were passed in the U.S, including the Espionage Act, Sabotage Act, and other wartime laws and regulations.
Top Image: Men search through the debris after the Black Tom Explosion. Source: US Government / Public Domain.
By Lauren Dillon
Philip, H.K. 1939. Black Tom explosions by German agents in 1916. University of London School of Advanced Study. Available at: https://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/8044/
Warner, M. 2002. The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Studies in Intelligence 46, 1. Available at: https://www.cia.gov/static/5b90ec45fb53185a0c2e0de82d42c1c5/The-Kaiser-Sows-Destruction.pdf
Schwab, S.I.M. 2012. Sabotage at Black Tom Island: A Wake-Up Call for America. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. 25,2. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08850607.2012.623012
Robison, K. 2014. Looking Back, Big Bang: In 1916, The Great War Arrived on America’s shores with a vengeance. National Fire Protection Association. NFPA Journal. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20160611051132/https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications/NFPA-Journal/2014/May-June-2014/News-and-Analysis/Looking-Back