As the clock struck eight minutes past two in the morning of 30 July 1916, a huge explosion woke the people nearby the New York Harbor. Just 40 minutes later, another smaller explosion occurred, detonating an estimated two million pounds (910,000 kilograms) of small arms and artillery ammunition stored at depots on the island formerly known as “Black Tom.”

Black Tom Island Bombing of 30 July 1916

The first tremendous explosion shattered glass windows throughout Jersey City, lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn, even jolting the massive Brooklyn Bridge. People as far away as Maryland and Philadelphia felt the blast, which would have been recorded as a modern earthquake on the Ritcher scale between 5- and 5.5-magnitude. Some window panes in Times Square and stained glass windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral were also shattered, but perhaps the most significant damage done was on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Soaring shards of shrapnel pockmarked the torch, effectively closing it from visiting tourists for good. Yes. Before the 1916 attack, you could climb the very top of the Statue of Liberty. It’s been well over 100 years now.

Boston Daily 1916
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Property damage from the explosion amounted to some $20,000,000, which equates to over half a billion in 2023 dollars and another $100,000 (nearly three million in 2023 dollars) worth of damage to the Statue of Liberty alone. Four people were reported dead, including the barge captain, two police officers, and a ten-week-old baby thrown out of the crib due to the blast wave. However, some speculated that the actual number of fatalities was much higher as many destroyed barges anchored around the pier served as shelters for vagrants and immigrants.

Either way, the incident shocked the nation. Many see this as a terrible accident caused by gross negligence rather than a deliberate attack. Meanwhile, a few others had rousing suspicions, particularly toward bitter Germans, who had trouble getting munitions from neutral America due to the British naval blockade. This is the World War I era, after all.

It’s just that, without concrete evidence, this suspicion remains a baseless hunch.

Packed With Explosives

The man-made island of Black Tom was home to America’s largest munition depot, with dozens of warehouses storing thousands of tons of munitions, explosives, and black powder from New York and New Jersey factories. It was where military goods were being kept before being shipped to customers across the Atlantic, which at that time was the First World War belligerents.

Despite environmental hazards and a previous fire accident that likewise caused an explosion in 1875, the island was bustling and thriving. Later, adding a railbed directly connected the island to Jersey City.

At first, as European countries began tearing each other apart, America refused to get involved and stuck to its guns by staying neutral. Instead, we focused on making a profit off the war by selling munitions to whoever would buy them. That means either the Allied or Central Powers could procure munitions from us. Regardless of this fact, the blockade of the Royal Navy caused Germans to be unable to transport its purchased military supplies from America to its troops—leading the Central Powers to opt for Plan B: Sabotage.