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1930s & Earlier / Black Tom Explosion 1916
Even though the United States was neutral nation in 1916, it was still occasionally affected by acts of war. The most notable to happen on land was the Black Tom explosion on July 30, 1916, in Jersey City, NJ. It was an act of sabotage by German agents to destroy American-made munitions that were to be supplied to the Allies in the First World War. Black Tom was originally a man-made island constructed around a large black rock in New York Harbor that was a well-known hazard to naval navigation. It was eventually connected by the Lehigh Valley Railroad to the mainland and was absorbed into Jersey City. It became a major munitions depot even before the war. Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1916, a series of small fires was discovered on the pier. Some guards tried to fight the fires while others fled, fearing an explosion. They had good reason to fear such a calamity as 2 million pounds of explosives and small arms were stored on Black Tom Island awaiting shipment to Czarist Russia. The feared explosion came; actually there were several explosions. The first and biggest occurred at 2:08 a.m. It had the force of an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale. Flying fragments caused more than $100,000 in damages to the Statue of Liberty on its gown and torch. (To date, the torch has never been reopened to the public.) Windows 25 miles were shattered and the explosion was felt as far away as Philadelphia. Four people were definitely killed by the blast--including an infant. Some sources claim the fatality total was seven. Blame originally was directed at Black Tom Island watchmen who had lit small smudge-pot fires to drive away mosquitoes, but they were quickly absolved of blame when the true nature of the fires showed obvious evidence of arson. German saboteurs were blamed for the incident which caused $20 million in damages. The Leigh Valley Railroad successfully sued the German government after the war but had no success in collecting any compensation until 1953 when the West German government agreed to pay $95 million. The final payment was made in 1979.