On 30 July 1916, just after 2 AM, a New Jersey munitions depot exploded in what many consider the first major terrorist attack on American soil.
Around midnight, a few small fires were noticed on the pier of the munitions depot at Black Tom Island. The fire department deemed them too dangerous to fight–and rightly so: there was more than a thousand tons of explosives (including TNT, gunpowder, and dynamite) being stored in freight cars at the depot, awaiting shipment across the Atlantic to the Allies, who were enmeshed in World War I. After a few small explosions, a massive one rocked the area.
The explosion registered like a 5.5-magnitude earthquake and could be felt as far away as Philadelphia. Windows shattered for 25 miles around. Shrapnel flew fast and far, forcing an evacuation of Ellis Island and seriously damaging the Statue of Liberty (the arm and torch of the statue have been closed to the public ever since). There were 7 documented deaths—a number kept low by the explosion happening on a weekend night, when the depot and surrounding streets were essentially empty. It caused $20 million worth of damage at the time—equivalent to $427 million today (one professor estimates that taking into account the size of the economy at the time, the damages were actually equivalent to over $4 billion today).
Even today, most of the details of the plot behind the explosion remain unknown. Railroad and storage officials were initially held responsible for improper storing of explosive materials and were charged with manslaughter. It was also speculated that the explosion was caused by smudge pots the watchmen had lit to keep away mosquitoes, but they were cleared. It wasn’t until years later that other pieces of the puzzle came together to form a different picture: German sabotage.
The Germans wanted to stop American munitions shipments to the Allies, so they set off explosions in a few different factories, mostly around New York—the Black Tom explosion just happened to be the biggest one. Since no Germans were ever specifically convicted for their role in the explosion, it’s mostly theory at this point who was involved. But it is generally believed that the incendiary devices were planted by Slovak Michael Kristoff, along with two Germans, Lothar Witzke and Kurt Jahnke, possibly under orders from German ambassador Johann Von Bernstorff.
In 1924, Lehigh Valley Railroad pressed charges against Germany for damages, and finally, in 1939, a commission decided that Germany was to pay reparations. But World War II delayed the settlement, and it wasn’t until 1979 that the final payment of the $50 million was made.
Find out more about the Black Tom explosion at blogs.smithsonianmag.com or washingtonpost.com. Or read a transcript of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives about the explosion. You can also watch original footage of the enormous fire that followed the explosion. Or find contemporary news articles about the explosion in Fold3′s collection of historical Newspapers.