In the summer of 1916, saboteurs loyal to the German government blew up tons of munitions stored at the Black Tom railroad yard in New Jersey to prevent the United States from supplying Allied countries in Europe with the firepower they needed to defeat their adversaries in World War I. The event is regarded by some historians as the first major terrorist attack on the United States by a foreign party.
The Black Tom rail yard was located on what was originally a small island in New York Harbor, not far from Liberty Island, that the Lehigh Valley Railroad had connected to the mainland as part of its facility in Jersey City. At the time of the explosion, it held more than two million pounds (907,185 kilograms) of ammunition, including black powder and dynamite, for shipment overseas.
Sometime after midnight on July 30, a guard discovered several small fires in buildings on the Black Tom pier, and pulled the fire alarm, alerting the Jersey City Fire Department. Cartridge casings began shooting from the fire in all directions. “The things were red-hot when they fell, and we had a lively time keeping out of their way,” a police driver told The New York Times.
Shortly before 2 a.m., the first in a series of enormous detonations occurred as the fire reached the heart of the munitions store. “All at once, everything turned black,” the police driver recalled. “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.”
The driver only sustained bruises, but seven others died in the explosions, which lasted several hours and were felt as far as 90 miles (145 kilometers) away. According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the explosions, which were recently determined to have been equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5 to 5.5 on the Richter scale, cracked windows within a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) radius and damaged a wall of Jersey City’s City Hall. Barges that had been tied up at the pier were cast into the harbor, and the explosions jolted the subway that ran beneath the river connecting Manhattan with Hoboken and Jersey City. Newly arrived immigrants had to be evacuated from Ellis Island to the Battery, as did about 500 people living on boats in the harbor. Shrapnel even struck the Statue of Liberty’s skirt and damaged the arm holding the torch, to an extent that it has never been reopened to the public. In all, the explosions did $20 million in damage.
Although the culprits were never identified beyond a reasonable doubt, the Lehigh Valley Railroad brought charges of sabotage after the war before the Mixed Claims Commission under the Treaty of Berlin. Seventeen years later, the commission held Germany responsible for sabotage and ordered it to pay $50 million in reparations. The onset of World War II delayed payment, but the claim was eventually settled in 1979.