Destruction Comes to New York Harbor
In July 1916 as World War I raged in Europe, the Black Tom Island loading facility in Jersey City was a major military target. While the United States claimed neutrality, hundreds of tons of munitions were being produced along the East Coast, and most of it was loaded at Black Tom onto ships bound for the Allies. Because of this, on the night of July 30, German agents rowed across New York harbor and placed incendiary devices at key points inside the facility.
The New York Times explained, “Yesterday six freight cars had been run upon the company’s property with goods that were to be loaded on ships. The fourteen barges with the dynamite were tied up to piers.
“The Fire Departments of Jersey City and nearby towns were notified when the freight cars caught fire, and all the men available for fire fighting were sent to the docks.
“The firemen had several lines of hose playing on the fire when the first explosion occurred.”
Then the unthinkable happened.
“A series of explosions, beginning with a terrifying one at 2:08 o’clock this morning, shook New York and New Jersey and spread panic and destruction throughout the city and suburbs.
“The explosions occurred on fourteen barges, stored with high explosives, at the piers of the National Storage Company on Black Tom Island.”
The explosion was felt as far away as Baltimore, Md., and registered as an earthquake on the Richter scale; shell holes were blown into the Statue of Liberty and so weakened the arm that access to the torch has never been reopened. John Kilfoyle was on a harbor tugboat.
“We were docked at Pier A in the gap about 12:30, when we received orders to go to Black Tom to the fire. We arrived at the grain docks, and seeing we could be of no assistance there, we pulled around to Pier 7, where the fire was, and where the ammunition lighters were tied up. When we arrived there freight cars were on fire and we hooked on to two ammunition barges to tow out into the stream. When we were getting away from the pier sparks from the burning freight cars ignited the barges, and there was an explosion. One of our crew cut the tow lines and we left the barges and went up to the Standard Oil pier.
“I am positive that it was sparks from the freight cars on the pier that caused the explosion.”
“How did you know the barges you were towing were ammunition barges?” Kilfoyle was asked.
“They had red lights and red flags flying, which is the signal for boats carrying explosives.”
John Gallo was an engineer on another nearby tug.
“I never believed such a thing could be. … It rained fire all about us. Cartridge cases went up in the air and fell red hot on the decks, and had to be knocked overboard to keep from setting fire to the tug.”
As most fled for their lives, some headed toward the fire in Jersey City. A patrolman told his story.
“Soon after the alarm of fire came in from Black Tom the Sergeant sent me out with the wagon. I picked up several policemen on the way. It was shortly before 2 o’clock when I got the wagon down to the end of the row of warehouses. There was a brisk fire burning about a hundred yards farther down. I started to turn around, but couldn’t do it.
“I was standing about ten feet from Patrolman Daugherty, who is in a hospital now, and we were dodging cartridge cases. They shot from the fire in all directions, up in the air, and all about us. The things were red hot when they fell, and we had a lively time keeping out of their way.
“All at once everything turned black. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The last thing I knew I was lifted up and thrown away. When I came to it was raining steel and bricks and shells and shrapnel. I started to walk and found I had only one shoe on. I got to the wagon and started to call for the other policemen when I saw six children and two women who had escaped from burning grain barges running from the scene. I told them to climb in the wagon. Then I (tried) to turn around and found I would have to go a considerable distance toward the fire. I backed as well as I could for half a mile and up the hill with the women and children. I put them off in the road and went back after the policemen. I brought some away. I don’t know how many.”
Others weren’t as lucky. Capt. Charles Wilson of Barge number 20 had left his wife and two children on board while he went into Jersey City for supplies. He told the Times that when he returned, “At the Lehigh Valley railroad gate the man on duty refused to allow me to go down the pier. Other lightermen had been treated in the same manner and stood about trying to find out what was the matter. There was a smell of smoke, and it looked to me as if one of the big grain elevators was on fire about 600 feet from where the cars were standing, loaded with dynamite and shells. I spoke to the gatekeeper, but he would not give any satisfactory answer.
“I went away to see if I could get down to the barge any other way, but everything was closed tight. When I returned at 1 o’clock the yard was in full blaze, and there was no way to get to the water through the Lehigh Valley yards.
“Captain Wilson, with his brother-in-law Frederick Nelson, of 538 Forty-third Street, Brooklyn, spent all yesterday making inquiries to find out what had become of the barge. The Fire department informed him that barge 20, it was believed, had drifted away on fire with another barge and sunk 200 feet from Ellis Island. They only took off one man from the two barges the firemen said, and did not remember seeing anything of a woman with two children.”
A priest, Father A.J. Grogan, was one of the first to arrive to the scene.
“The shock of the explosion not only woke me up but practically shook me out of bed. At first I thought it was an earthquake and then I realized it was another powder explosion similar to the one which occurred at Communipaw (a nearby dock). When I looked out it seemed as if Ellis Island were on fire. Sparks were falling on the water in myriads in all directions like a fiery rain. It seemed as if they came from the big red balls which shot up into the air and then burst with a muffled report, which added to the tenseness of the scene.”
The next day the Asbury Park Press reported, “Nowhere did the great blast cause such a wild panic as on Ellis Island, where more than 700 immigrants, 200 of them patients in the island hospital, were hurled out of their cots, falling on top of each other. The shrieks of women and children fairly rivalled the continuous boom of bursting shrapnel that followed the first big explosion for six hours. Scores of immigrants were stricken unconscious and some of the hospital patients tonight were reported to be in a precarious condition.”
The Press tried to explain what had happened.
“Two of the barges were loaded with hundreds of thousand(s) of three inch shells. One floated north and ran aground 20 feet from shore. Another barge drifted perilously close to Bedloe’s Island and then struck some abandoned piles. Held fast by the submerged poles, for four hours it fired its exploding shrapnel in all directions. Like a hail storm the shrapnel bullets rained on Bedloe’s Island.
“The wives and children of the army officers on the reservation shrieked with fear while the bombardment continued. Police boats and other craft took them off as the shot and shell rained among them and transported them to Governor’s Island. … How the onlookers who swarmed the Bayfront escaped injury cannot be explained.”
And what was left of the Black Tom loading facility?
“A reporter who managed to evade the police traversed this territory to the end of the flat dock. His investigation disclosed the fact that at a point a short distance west from the float on solid land one of the explosions had torn a crater into the earth and ripped out all the land which was made years ago, leaving a hole clean to the rock formation under that section of the bay.
“Into the hole were carried portions of many freight cars, other fragments being scattered widely in the bay and upon adjacent territory. It was apparent that the explosion did the greatest damage in the freight cars. It is said 87 of them were blown up while standing on the tracks on this stretch, which was once solid land and is now a vast pond.”
The explosion had damaged buildings far from the harbor.
“The terrific explosion which occurred early Sunday morning was not only very plainly heard in Keyport but did considerable damage in the boro, wrecking several large plate glass windows as well as several smaller glasses. When the first report was heard the large window in the Norris furniture store on Front street at the corner of Division street was shattered.”
The hotel that three weeks before had one of its bellboys killed by a shark on its beach also suffered from the explosion.
“Members of New York society who are spending the weekend at the New Essex and Sussex hotel were almost thrown from their beds this morning by the force of the Communipaw explosion, which forced open over 50 French windows in the garden grill of the hotel.
“Fashionable women rushed from their suites into the hall, while the men hurried to the ground floor in order to ascertain the cause of the detonation, which at first was supposed to be the rumble of an earthquake. So many inquiries were made at the desk that the entire force of telephone and telegraph operatives had to be summoned from their rooms.”
The German agents who had rowed to Black Tom had done more damage to the Allied war effort than a fleet of U-boats. But there was a problem: 1916 was an election year, and President Woodrow Wilson was running on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” If the story of the German attack on Black Tom got out, public opinion would demand action – and that would mean the United States would have to enter the war.
Next Week: The blame game.