Sunday, October 23, 2011

9/11, Just Another Terrorist Attack in the History of NYC

That's right, Islamic extremists weren't the first terrorist to attack the great City of New York. So who could have been? And more importantly, why would they? Well, it all took place during the early parts of World War I, and I think we all know who is responsible for it, well except for maybe those who slept through US History II. Those crafty Germans made their way onto American soil and targeted a military depot in Jersey City, New Jersey known as Black Tom Island. Now why there? I mean New Jersey? What could be so special about this depot? Well lets just jump right into it and take a look at the first major terrorist attack on New York City.


Ok, so here is the background on Black Tom Island. The island sat off the shore of Jersey City, NJ. Now as for the name, local legend has it a freed slave by the name of Tom lived on the island, hence the name of the island. Now how did a military depot find it's way to this small island? Well, Fort Gibson (now, Ellis Island) was home to one of New York City's harbor defense installations. In the late 1800s there was a growing need for a new immigration center and the location of the Fort came under fire. The main claim was a "fear" of it's proximity to Manhattan and the possibility of an attack and damage to not just to New York City but the shipyards in Brooklyn. So the powers that be moved the munitions depot a few hundred feet south to Black Tom Island and as we will see it it wasn't far enough.


Just like on 9/11 people asked, "how could this have happened?" Well sit tight, I am about to explain that. So by the 1916, Black Tom Island was now connected to the mainland by railways used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Black Tom Island was home to several warehouses, piers and railway tracks. Black Tom really met it highest capacity in 1915 due to the British blockade of Europe, American's had no place to sell the overstock of military supplies, so they kind of just sat there as one big target. But on the night of July 29, 1916 a barge was docked at Black Tom with some special contents. What were they? Well it contained two million pounds of various ammunition and over one hundred pounds of TNT. Why? Well the barge was waiting to be loaded and sent off to England, the following day. But why was it there? Well according to New Jersey City University, it was to avoid a towing charge of $25...seriously the U.S. government could pay a $25 towing charge? As we will see the location of Black Tom, the cheapness of the government and as we will see the lack of security at the depot led to the first terrorist attack on New York City. 


So lets recap. World War I is raging in Europe (check!). England has blockaded the axis from buying American weapons (check!). There is a barge loaded with explosives less then half a mile from New York City (check!). The Americans are on the brink of joining the war in support of the allies (check!). Poor security watching over a military depot (check!). Ok, so what are we missing? Oh I know, German saboteurs. The attack on Black Tom started with a Slovak immigrant by the name of Michael Kristoff. Kristoff served in the U.S. Army but was turned by German agents. Kristoff claims the night of July 30, 1916, two of the guards working at Black Tom were also German agents which allowed him to slip in undetected with a briefcase of explosives. Now why would Kristoff need more explosives? Well I guess every bit counts when you're trying to blow up a military depot. So what happened? Kristoff planted the bomb and bailed. He got away because all the other guards were also running for their lives. The two German agents disguised at guards lit two small fires which would guarantee the explosion. At 2:08am the entire area was awoken by the explosion. The explosion was felt in Journal Square which was 5 miles away. Ok, 5 miles not a big deal but in lower Manhattan windows were blown out, Times Square windows were shattered, and the surrounding area reported felling an earthquake. It was also reported the following morning that the Philadelphia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and Maryland were rocked by the blast and recorded a 5.5 earthquake of the Richter Scale. The blast also halted the immigration process of Ellis Island and the arm of the Statue of Liberty was damaged (which is why we are not allowed in the torch of Lady Liberty.) So the first terrorist attack on New York City didn't just affect the city but almost the whole Northeast. In the wake of the explosion there were several related deaths. First, and most obvious, is the barge's captain which gives a whole new meaning to going down with the ship. Second, are two responding police officers, one from the Jersey City Police Department and another from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The last was a 10 month old infant that was thrown from her crib (I think that one might be thrown in there as a little propaganda.) Aside from the few unfortunate deaths, several hundred people where injured. After the initial blast a few smaller explosions continued the next few days.


 So obviously an investigation ensued. Michael Kristoff was the first to get nailed. Kristoff was found out and admitted to planting the explosives and being paid $500 by those dastardly Huns. The two German agents were never found. But several agents in the German Embassy were looked at and even German Ambassador Count Johann Heinrich van Bernstoff, and honestly how could they not suspect him just look at that name, it screams bad guy. Also famous German insurgents were looked at like Kurt Jahnke, Lothar Witzke and Franz von Papen were all suspected of playing a role in the attack. However, no one was ever really punished or prosecuted. Actually the payments for damages to the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company were not fully reimbursed until 1979, really? 63 years later? Come on Germany. Aside from the LVRR pretty much everyone else has forgotten about the Black Tom Explosion, even you.


There it is, the only reminder of the Black Tom Explosion. I am willing to bet that visitors to Liberty State Park automatically assume that this display of patriotism is linked to the 9/11 attacks, but you're wrong (so haha, and in your face!) The flags actually mark the site of the explosion on 7/30. That and a small plaque that maybe a few joggers have read. But why is Black Tom important? Well it is the first time the U.S. faced a terrorist attack. Second, this was not an act of war but terrorism. The U.S. was not involved in WWI and the Germans went after them unprovoked. Third, it is important because of the affects of it. It rocked the northeast and would ultimately be a factor in the U.S.'s entry into the war. So there are three solid reasons for it's importance and significance in American history. Oh, and one more reason... it is a great story, espionage, the greatest city in the world and explosions. I mean someone should write a movie about this. In the end the Black Tom Explosion is another piece of history lost to time, hopefully I could bring it to some kind of light and share this interesting part of American History with you.

1 comment:

  1. We are in the process of making a public television series to commemorate the US involvement in WWI. We plan to feature this act of terrorism in our first episode and would like to discuss our plans with you. Please contact us at