Black Tom Explosion, 1916
This memorial for the Black Tom explosion can be viewed at the Liberty State Park, opened in 1976. The memorial preserves the history of Black Tom, a small island adjacent to Liberty Island in the New York Harbor that was completed obliterated by an explosion that occurred during World War I. The mile-long island was connected to Jersey City via the Greenville waterfront. On the night of July 30th, 1916, a series of enormous explosions erupted on the island. Due to America's involvement in shipping munitions to France and England during World War I, there were over two million pounds of explosives on Black Tom Island at the time. The initial explosion caused extensive damage in the immediate vicinity and resulted in shockwaves measuring up to 5.5 on the Richter scale. The explosions rocked nearby buildings and could be felt up to ninety miles away. Windows in buildings up to twenty-five miles away were shattered. The Jersey City Hall was among the buildings that were badly damaged from the explosion. Pieces of metal from the island were later found embedded in the Jersey Journal Building clock tower. In fact, the shrapnel from the explosion caused the clock to stop at 2:12 a.m., shortly after the time of the main explosion. The most significant damage was to the Statue of Liberty. Owing to the structural damage caused by the explosion and the resulting shockwaves, visitors were no longer admitted inside the statue's torch, which remains closed to visitors to this day.
Backstory and Context
The island’s name came from a “dark skinned” fisherman who lived on it in the early 19th century. During the 1960s, the island was the property of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, who operated a freight facility on the mainland. It was covered in work yards and warehouses, and prior to America’s entry into the First World War, it was being used to store munitions, TNT, and dynamite.
During the War, weapons and ammunition manufactured in the northern states were sent to the island before being distributed to the Allied armies in Europe. Although American was neutral at first, a British blockade prevented the Germans and Austro-Hungarians from being able to purchase American munitions. For this reason, and through documents found pointing blame to German spies, Germany was immediately blamed for orchestrating the explosion.
The island was completely obliterated by the explosion, yet miraculously only seven people died in the incident. Immigrants from Europe who were arriving on Ellis Island were evacuated to the Immigration Bureau in New York City. The estimated cost of damages caused by the explosion was $20 million. A Slovakian immigrant, Michael Kristoff, was arrested as a suspect but was later released as being “insane, but harmless.” The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company sought restitution from the German government following the end of the First World War, yet the Second World War caused these negotiations to come to a standstill. More than $50 million dollars was sought by the American Mixed Claims Commission. Germany eventually paid $95 million to America in 1979.
Meier, Allison C. "Liberty State Park and the Black Tom Explosion." Allez, Allie!. 9/30/12. Accessed Web, 7/2/17. https://allezallie.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/liberty-state-park-the-black-tom-explosion/.
Castagnera, James O. "The Black Tom Island Story." Jersey City Online. Accessed Web, 7/2/17. http://www.jerseycityonline.com/stories/black_tom_island_story_eighty.htm.