Danger in the Harbor: World War I and the Black Tom Explosion of 1916

PODCAST The tale of the Black Tom Explosion which sent shrapnel into the Statue of Liberty and rocked the region around New York harbor. 

On July 30, 1916, at just after 2 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped apart the island of Black Tom on the shoreline near Jersey City, sending a shockwave through the region and thousands of pounds of wartime shrapnel into the neighboring Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island (home to the Statue of Liberty).

Thousands of windows were shattered in the region, and millions woke up wondering what horrible thing had just happened.

The terrifying disaster was no accident; this was the sabotage of German agents, bent on eliminating tons of munitions that were being sent to the Allied powers during World War I.  Although America had not yet entered the war, the United States was considered an enemy combatant thanks to weapons manufactures in the New York region and around the country.

But the surprising epicenter of German spy activity was in a simple townhouse in the neighborhood of Chelsea.

ALSO: New Yorkers still feel the ramifications of the Black Tom Explosion today at one of America’s top tourist attractions.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #197: DANGER IN THE HARBOR: THE BLACK TOM EXPLOSION

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The location of Black Tom Island in relation to Jersey City, circa 1880.

Courtesy New Jersey City University
Courtesy New Jersey City University/ Prepared for the National Board of Health, Washington, D.C.(Hoboken, N.J.: Spielmann & Brush, 1880)

 

The Statue of Liberty in relation to Black Tom (situated in the background) in 1912

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

The view of Jersey City from a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, 1918.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Images of the grim aftermath of the explosion (courtesy Liberty State Park):

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corbis

 

Associated Press
Associated Press

 

This series of photos (courtesy Library of Congress) shows the efforts of divers and salvagers looking for remaining munitions that had sunk into the harbor!

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5

The front page of the New York Tribune the following day:

trib

 

The Kingsland munitions explosion of January 11, 1917, caused millions of dollars in damage, but no lives were lost thanks to the efforts of a single switchboard operator named Tessie McNamara who stayed at her post throughout the disaster.

tessie

 

To give you some idea of the size of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, here’s a picture of its replacement during the 1984 renovation. It can only be accessed via a very narrow stairway.

pic