Black Tom Island was located at the southernmost portion of Liberty State Island, roughly where the picnic area and monument to World War II are now located behind the Statue of Liberty.
In the midst of World War I, German saboteurs, including one from Bayonne, destroyed a huge railroad munitions depot, killing four, injuring hundreds, panicking millions on both sides of the river, and causing damage estimated at a half-billion dollars in today’s money.
Black Tom served as storage for about two million pounds of ammunition and small arms, and the explosion completely destroyed the island, and shattered thousands of windows in Manhattan, including the stained glass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Fragments from the explosion slammed into the Statue of Liberty, forcing the permanent closure of the arm.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary a year late, the Jersey City Council brought two authors whose works deal with the events of that fateful day to City Hall to honor them and to keep the memory of the historic event alive.
“The Black Tom Explosion is an important event in the history of Jersey City and the world,” said a resolution passed by the council. “This act of sabotage involved America’s entry into World War I.”
Heard for miles
On July 30, 1916 at 2:08 a.m., many Jersey City residents were awakened by a major explosion followed by a succession of explosions that lasted for several hours, sending shock waves as far as 90 miles away.
Although often referred to as an island, Black Tom was actually a mile-long pier on landfill that formed a peninsula that was connected to the Greenville section of Jersey City.
Prior to entering the war, materials manufactured in the U.S. were sent to Black Tom for eventual transport to England, France, Italy and Russia, similar to some of the functions done by the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne for later conflicts.
The explosion at Black Tom was one of a number of homeland attacks conducted by German nationals in retaliation for the British naval blockade of Germany and is historically considered the first act of international terrorism conducted against the United States. The attack on the World Trade Center in 1994 was considered the second. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 are considered the third.
Both authors are local
Authors Ron Semple and Patrice Hannon have both published novels that tell the tale of sabotage, subterfuge and political shenanigans set in the colorful, raucous place that was Jersey City in 1916.
Both authors were raised in The Heights section of Jersey City. Ward D Councilman Michael Yun celebrated this fact and that two authors raised in his ward had gone on to make a contribution to highlighting a largely-forgotten moment in American history.
Semple is a fifth generation Jersey City native and a longtime newspaperman. He was a reporter for the old Hudson Dispatch and city editor for another local newspaper before heading west to become editor, general manager, or publisher for four other newspapers during a 30-year career.
Hannon has a B.A. from Saint Peter’s College and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University, both in English. She has taught English full-time at Stockton University, Rutgers University, and Vassar College.
Semple’s novel “Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson” was published in 2015. Hannon’s novel, “Black Tom: A Novel of Sabotage in New York Harbor,” was published in 2016.
Semple’s novel deals with events surrounding the 1916 terrorist attack. Much of the action takes place in Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Weehawken, and Union City, and involves the rise of the Hague organization, which dominated New Jersey Democratic politics for more than a generation, and the intertwined lives of the ordinary people of immigrant Jersey City in those extraordinary times.
While he noted his novel is set against the backdrop of the disaster, “my novel is really about the people of Jersey City,” he said. “My grandparents’ generation, the old immigrants and blacks that helped build this city. It was my intent to honor them as best I could. I’m working on another novel dealing with the same characters.”
For several years, many considered the explosion an accident, but a suit filed by one of the rail road companies that eventually came to a ruling that Germany was responsible. Semple’s novel is full of intrigue, and suggests there was a cover up by Jersey City and the federal government to assure the reelection of Woodrow Wilson as president.
Hannon said she grew up listening to her father’s stories about Black Tom.
Her father was five years old when Black Tom exploded. Yet the memory clung to him.
“These stories inspired me to write a novel based on the sabotage of the munitions depot in New York Harbor one hundred years ago,” she said.
While she was fascinated by the event, she was also surprised to learn that many people were unaware of it.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.