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Black Tom Explosion of 1916

An inside look at the July 30, 1916 explosion on Black Tom Island, New York.

It is midnight on July 30, 1916. Small fires are found on the pier of Black Tom Island, an island half a mile from the Statue of Liberty. The island, owned by Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, is used to store ammunition to be sent to the English, the French, and the Germans during World War I. The U.S. is a large producer of ammo. At 2:08 a.m, an explosion rocks New York Harbor. Shrapnel from the island rains down on Manhattan and the rest of New York City. Lady Liberty’s arm and skirt are badly damaged, and her arm has been closed to visitors since. At least six people are killed. Hundreds of immigrants living in boats on the harbor are hurt or killed. Twenty-five miles away, as far as Lower Manhattan, windows broke, shattering glass onto the city. Tremors were felt as far away as New Jersey, Maryland and Philadelphia, and the explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale. Property damage was estimated to be worth the equivalent of 390 million US dollars today.Who was behind this massive terror attack?

The truth did not come out until eight years after the attack. The explosion was an act of German sabotage. The U.S. was neutral in WWI, but this was not the first attack from the Germans during the war. Earlier a boat was sunk by a submarine, killing 100 Americans and many others. The Black Tom blast was traced to a Slovak immigrant by the name of Michael Kristoff. He served in the U.S. Army, but said that he carried suitcases for the Germans before the U.S entered WWI. He admitted that two of the guards were German agents.  The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company eventually received the 50 million US dollars from Germany that they sought. In 1953 they settled on the price, and the final payment was made in 1979.

Because of the Black Tom Explosion, the FBI(Federal Bureau of Investigation) was founded. This blast is one of the three worst terrorist or covert attacks on mainland US in the last century. The other two are the September 11 attacks and the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma.

Image via Wikipedia , of a melted bottle from Black Tom

You can visit the location of Black Tom Island, part of Liberty State Park. The exact location is at the end of Morris Pesin Drive in the southeastern corner of the park, and a plaque marks the spot of the explosion. It reads,

Explosion at Liberty! On July 30, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot exploded rocking New York Harbor and sending residents tumbling from their beds. The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. On Ellis Island, terrified immigrants were evacuated by ferry to the Battery. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty (the arm of the Statue was closed to visitors after this). Property damage was estimated at $20 million. It is not known how many died. Why the explosion? Was it an accident or planned? According to historians, the Germans sabotaged the Lehigh Valley munitions depot in order to stop deliveries being made to the British who had blockaded the Germans in Europe. You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.”

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