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Black Tom Explosion

Woodrow Wilson

Black Tom Explosion: Woodrow Wilson was the 28th American President who served in office from March 4, 1913 to March 4, 1921. One of the important events during his presidency was the Black Tom Explosion.

Definition and Summary of the Black Tom Explosion
Summary and definition:
The Black Tom Explosion was an act of German sabotage in New York Harbor during World War One. The incident took place at on Black Tom Island, between New Jersey and Liberty Island on July 30, 1916, at 2:08 am. The area was targeted by WW1 saboteurs because it was the location of a major munitions depot, containing tons of ammunition awaiting shipment to Britain and France during WW1.

Black Tom Explosion Facts for kids: Fast Fact Sheet
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) about the Black Tom Explosion.

What was the Black Tom Explosion? The Black Tom Explosion was perpetrated by German saboteurs during WW1. Black Tom Island was the location of a major munitions depot, with several large "powder piers" that contained more than a thousand tons of ammunition awaiting shipment to Britain and France during WW1.

What date was the Black Tom Explosion? The date of the Black Tom Explosion was on Sunday morning, July 30, 1916, at 2:08 am

Where was the Black Tom Explosion? The Black Tom Explosion took place on Black Tom Island, between New Jersey and Liberty Island. The island is situated in New York Harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty. The 'island' was in fact a mile-long pier on landfill that connected the one-time island with the Jersey City waterfront near Greenville, New York.

Facts about Black Tom Explosion
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Black Tom Explosion.

Statue of Liberty Torch: The Black Tom Explosion rattled the Statue of Liberty so badly that the torch, which had been open to the public for 30 years, had to be closed.

The Black Tom Explosion explosion  was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring up to 5.5 on the Richter scale. The ladder to the Statue of Liberty torch is still is closed today, as it has been since 1916.

America adopted the policy of neutrality during the first two years of World War I but the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British. Refer to American Entry into WW1

The Lehigh Valley Railroad expanded Black Tom Island with landfill and built a jetty from the mainland to Black Tom Island as a terminal for its rail line to docks which was utilized as a munitions shipping depot.

Two million pounds of ammunition, including TNT and dynamite and shrapnel, was stored at the depot in freight cars and barges on the night of the explosion.

On July 30, 1916 small fires were set on railroad cars that resulted in a series of massive explosions. The initial explosion began aboard the Johnson Barge 17, a ship carrying explosives and fuel that was docked near the pier

The security at the depot was totally inadequate. There were only 8 security guards and all of these fled from the scene when they spotted small fires which they knew could detonate the munitions and cause a colossal explosion

One of the security guards did however raise the fire alarm alerting the Jersey City Fire Department. The JCFD did their best to fight the fire but it soon became beyond their control

The initial blast of the explosion is estimated to have been such to register a 5.0 to 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Smaller blasts and explosions continued to occur for hours after the initial detonation

The Statue of Liberty was damaged, the Brooklyn Bridge shook, tombstones were toppled in graveyards, building walls cracked in Manhattan and windows, some as 25 miles away and many in Times Square, were shattered by the explosion.

The damage to the Statue of Liberty was valued at $100,000 ($2 million dollars today) and included the skirt and the torch.

Immigrants at Ellis Island immigration center in New York Harbor also had to be evacuated to lower Manhattan.

Almost everyone in Manhattan was awoken by the strength of the blast. The fires set off the shrapnel and people, awoken by the loud bangs and fear of an earthquake, made their way to the waterfront to see the 'firework display'.

A rumor soon started to circulate that a German warship was firing its guns at Sandy Hook at the southern entrance of Lower New York Bay south of New York

The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut.

It is believed that the explosion resulted in the death of 8 people including a policeman, a security guard at Black Tom, and the barge captain of the Johnson Barge No.19 were killed. There were hundreds of minor injuries.

A stained glass window at Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic church commemorates the victims of the Black Tom Explosion

The Black Tom depot with its piers, freight cars, barges, tugboats and warehouses was completely destroyed.

The damage to property was estimated at over $20 million ($377 million today).

The Black Tom incident was only one of a number attacks on the of homeland on facilities had contracts for goods being sent to the Allies. On January 1, 1915 a fire was started at the Roebling Steel foundry in Trenton. And after the Black Tom incident, on January 11, 1917, the Kingsland Explosion took place at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Kingsland (now Lyndhurst), Bergen County, New Jersey. On April 10, 1917, 4 days following the U. S. declaration of war on Germany, a fire at the Hercules Powder Company in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, killed over 100 employees.

Spies, Agents and Saboteurs: In 1914 Imperial Germany sent Count Johann Von Bernstorff as the German ambassador in Washington DC. Von Bernstoff had been ordered to assist the German war effort by any means necessary. An army of undercover spies, agents and saboteurs were recruited to aid the German war effort by sabotage and illicit destruction in the United States.

The Black Tom Explosion was the most devastating of the sabotage operations organized by the undercover spies, agents and saboteurs employed by Count Johann Von Bernstorff

A suspect in the Black Tom incident was Michael Kristoff, a 23-year old immigrant living in nearby Bayonne who is said to have started the fires with incendiary devices in exchange for $500. Although  Michael Kristoff was suspected of acting as an agent of the German Government there was not enough the evidence to establish the fact.

After the end of WW1 Charges of German sabotage were brought before the Mixed Claims Commission, consisting of a German, an American, and a neutral representative, under the 1921 Treaty of Berlin.

The Mixed Claims Commission decided that Germany was responsible for the sabotage. Germany was ordered to pay reparations of $50 million to all claimants, but the compensation was not paid due to the outbreak of World War II.

After WW2, Germany agreed to settle outstanding war claims that included those related to the Black Tom explosion and the reparations were paid in 1979.

The site of the Black Tom railroad yard is now a part of Liberty State Park where a plaque in the southeast corner of Liberty Park marks the spot.

As a direct result of the Black Tom Explosion, the United States passed the Espionage Act of 1917

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition
1920 Wall Street bombing
America in World War 1

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