Sunday, April 28, 2013

Everybody Get The Hell Outta Building 30!!!

When you think of Lyndhurst, New Jersey (if you ever do) you think of good schools, quiet neighborhoods and high taxes. Two things you wouldn't think of is that Lyndhurst was once the town of Kingsland, and second,  Lyndhurst is home to a World War I era mystery. On January 11th, 1917, a fire broke out and spread through the Canadian Car and Foundry Company's factory. The housed almost 500,000 pieces of 75mm, all of which exploded and leveled the factory. Ok, I'll admit, that doesn't sound that much like a mystery. But trust me there were some unknowns about the fire than and even 'til this day.

January 11th, 1917 started out like every other cold winter day in New Jersey, however, it didn't end like a typical day. Now just some quick background stuff. WWI started in March of 1916 and the U.S. tried to keep Americans out of the war for as long as they could. However, American industry was not prohibited from supplying America's European allies. That being said, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company was one of those companies looking to make a buck or two off the war. At their Lyndhurst location, the factory's main objective was to assemble munitions for the Russians and British; 75mm ammunition to be exact. The factory produced about three million shells a month, so needless to say the Germans could have painted a metaphorical big red bulls eye right on the building.

The fire started in Building 30. The main job of those working in Building 30 was finishing of the munitions, cleaning them up before shipping them out, and being a general quality control department. It was in Building 30, amongst 48 work benches, and all the supplies to build munitions & run a war factory that a fire was somehow sparked and would ultimately lead to the factory being blown to smithereens. Surprisingly, not one person died in the explosion and that is all thanks to Tessie McNamara. As the fire spread she stayed posted at her switchboard and warned every building "Get out or Go up!" Thanks to her warning the 1,400 employees at the factory all safely left the complex. But lets get back to this explosion and who and how it started.

Today, it is pretty well accepted that the Kingsland Explosion was purely an accident. The reason is because the main suspect disappeared. Here is how the Germans "supposedly" sabotaged the factory. A German operative by the name of Frederick Hinsch was the brains behind the operation. Hinsch recruited German immigrant Carl Thummel (Thorne was the Americanized last name he went by). Thorne would get a job at the factory as assistant employment manager, simply the guy who hired everyone. He would work and wait for instructions from Hinsch on who to hire so an attack on the factory could take place. Hinsch would send Austrian immigrant Theodore Wozniak to Thorne and the plan was underway. Wozniak himself was former Austrian military, and would be more sympathetic to the German cause than the American and her allies'. It is believed that the fire was started by Wozniak as there are several reports from eyewitnesses about his work station on the day and his behavior leading up to the explosion. To point the finger even more at Wozniak, during the investigation he disappeared and was never head from again.

So what happened? Well, nothing really. The explosion was soon overshadowed by the attack on Black Tom Island and the sinking of the Lusitania. Today, Tessie McNamara is a local legend/heroine. Theodore Wozniak is a long forgotten name. The Germans would eventually pay reparations for the explosion in the 1950s to the tune of about fifty million dollars, even though they never claimed responsibility for it. And only a smokestack and a small plaque are left as reminders of what could have been the first attack on American soil by the Germans during WWI. The WWI era is an often overlooked time in American History, and because of that we miss out on great pieces of history like the Kingsland Explosion. So if you ever happen to be in Lyndhurst, NJ stop by the small park on Clay Street and visit the site memorializing the explosion and heroism of the day. Or if WWI ever comes up in conversation feel free to bring up this piece of history.


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