There are two memorials for the Black Tom explosion - one at Liberty State Park in NY Harbor; the other, a stained glass window at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in Jersey City.
Black Tom was an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island, that received its name from an early African American resident. By 1880, a railroad connected it to Jersey City & it began its use as a shipping depot. By 1916, its mile-long pier housed a depot and warehouses for the National Dock & Storage Company.
In 1914 Imperial Germany sent Count Johann von Bernstorff to be its new ambassador in Washington D.C. But von Bernstorff's staff of diplomats were not all as they seemed for these bureaucrats were a veritable army of undercover spies and saboteurs, arriving with millions of dollars to aid the German war effort by sabotage and illicit destruction.
Among their principal targets were the endless supplies of munitions that the neutral US was selling to Great Britain and France. In 1916, over 2,000,000 tons of explosives were in storage on Black Tom, ready to sail across the Atlantic. The island soon caught the attentions of von Bernstorff and his saboteurs.
On the night of July 30, 1916, Black Tom island disappeared. Just after 2 am, slow burning pencil bombs planted by the German agents ignited an explosion so colossal it registered 5.5 on the Richter scale. As glass windows shattered in Times Square and St.Patrick's Cathedral, the blast shook the Brooklyn Bridge and was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland. The Statue of Liberty felt the full blast and was showered with shrapnel, exploding bullets and shells.
Federal investigations named two guards at Black Tom as the likely culprits; the guards turned out to be German agents Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke, but both escaped. An explosion in 1917 at the Mare Island naval shipyard in Vallejo, CA was also attributed to them. When the US finally responded to German's secret war of attrition by declaring war in 1917, Jahnke and Witzke fled to Mexico.
Black Tom Island was reconstructed with landfill and is today the southeastern part of Jersey City's Liberty State Park. Today the park is a popular recreation area, with families taking advantage of the close up views of the Statue of Liberty. But in the corner of the picnic area is a simple plaque, often passed by, which reads, "You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history."
It is not known exactly how many people died or were injured in the explosion. Possibly, the congregation of Our Lady of Czestochowa were hit hard, which led to the commemorating of the attack with their stained glass window memorial.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad who owned Black Tom Island sought compensation against Germany, who settled on a payment of $50 million which was finally paid as recently as 1979.
The attack may be long forgotten and little known, but it has an ongoing repercussion. Structural damage caused by the explosion is the reason today's visitors to the Statue of Liberty are prohibited from going up into the torch. It has been closed to the public since that fiery evening.
Narrative adapted from Atlas Obscura website.
Photos courtesy of:
Memorials - Luke J. Spencer, Atlas Obscura
Vintage photos - NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks & Forestry