The Black Tom Explosion
An American munitions depot that supplied artillery for allies in World War I on July 30, 1916, in New Jersey was sabotaged. It would take investigators years to determine that operatives working for Germany were to blame.
The depot was located on Black Tom Island, which jutted into New York Harbor. Around three-quarters of the ammunition manufactured in the United States and destined for the Allied armies on the Western Front shipped from there. Which made it a top priority for Germans to destroy.
A series of small fires were discovered on the pier and at 2:08 AM, a large explosion sent fragments in all directions. Some would lodged in the Statue of Liberty and in the clock tower of The Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away, stopping the clock at 2:12 a.m. The explosion felt like an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter scale and could be felt as far away as Maryland. Windows were broken as far as 25 miles away, including thousands in lower Manhattan. Some window panes in Times Square were completely shattered. The stained glass windows in St. Patrick’s Church were destroyed. The outer wall of Jersey City’s City Hall was cracked and the Brooklyn Bridge was shaken.
Property damage from the attack was estimated at $20 million. The damage to the Statue of Liberty was estimated to be $100,000 and included damage to the skirt and torch. Reports vary, but as many as seven people may have been killed, including a Jersey City policeman, the barge captain, Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief Of Police, and a ten-week-old infant who was thrown from his crib more than a mile from the blast. Injuries numbered in the hundreds.
Some of the guards at the pier were taken in for questioning because they had lit smudge pots to keep mosquitoes away, and their carelessness with the pots was believed to have started the fires. But federal authorities could not trace the fire to the pots. Investigators started to realize that this was no accident because the fire had started at the far end of the terminal, the perfect spot to both escape detection and set off a chain reaction.
Around 1930, Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant admitted to working for German agents and claimed two of the guards at Black Tom were German agents. The exact identities of the bombers were never uncovered. But its believed the explosion was caused by German spies living in America at the time. Enough evidence that Germany was responsible for the sabotage caused Lehigh Valley Railroad, who was advised by John J. McCloy, to seek damages from Germany under the Treaty of Berlin from the German-American Mixed Claims Commission (created after WWI). The commission declared in 1939 that Germany was responsible and ordered damages. The two sides finally settled on $50 million in 1953. The final payment was made in 1979.
The management of the Statue of Liberty decided that statues arm was weakened by the explosion and unsafe for tourists and the torch was never reopened. After the explosion 6 piers, 13 warehouses and dozens of railcars had simply vanished from Black Tom and the only evidence left was a crater. Today, a plaque is left in memoriam and the site is now incorporated into Liberty State Park.