In 1916 the British had implemented a naval blockade against Germany. German was starving. America’s declared “neutrality” was a sham. Munitions were regularly being sent overseas to the allied powers. To counteract, German saboteurs were employed in the northeastern United States.
Black Tom was a mile-long pier and railhead that connected a small island (Black Tom) to the Jersey City waterfront. It was regularly used to ship explosives and other war material to Europe. On the night of July 29, 1916 the pier was loaded with two million pounds of munitions: shrapnel, black powder, TNT and dynamite.
Around midnight, several small fires were discovered on the pier and the guards promptly ran away, although one had the composure to call the fire department. By the time the Jersey City Fire Department arrived the air was filled with shrapnel. Explosions were cascading and the storage arsenal was ablaze. At 2:08 a.m. an enormous explosion rocked New York harbor. The barrage continued for several hours. Barges were set adrift. Shrapnel raked the rear of the Statue of Liberty. Tombstones were toppled in graveyards and windows shattered in Manhattan. Freight cars, barges, tugboats, storage depots were completely destroyed along with the pier itself. Some people were killed, hundreds were injured. Damages were estimated at $20 million. Relative to inflation and the sizes of the US economy at that time and today, the cost of the Black Tom disaster was the equivalent to the monetary damages of the World Trade Center collapse.
The German-American Mixed Claims Commission opined that the explosion was a result of German sabotage. Reparations of $50 million were demanded. Restitution was not made until 1979. Black Tom pier no longer exists.
1905 Map of Jersey City, New Jersey
New York Tribune, July 31, 1916
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