This is one of those places you wouldn’t believe how it looked before.
In our time the southern tip of Liberty State Park is a tranquil family-friendly place. Benches stand in the shadows of trees. Charcoal grills are available for picnics. A food stand at the visitor’s center serves soda and snacks. A grassy lawn extends far into the Hudson River. Visitors sunbathe on blankets. Other visitors toss Frisbees and play catch with rubber balls. Assisted by gravity, toddlers practice maneuvering on two legs. Couples and want-to-be couples make small talk. Radios play in several languages. Flags of many nations lazily wave in the sea breeze. The views of New York Harbor, of Ellis Island and of the Statue of Liberty, are unsurpassed.
I spent many happy afternoons there with my Mom and Dad. They rested on the benches at the entrance of the park. I hiked the half mile to the former terminal of the Central Railroad of New Jersey at the northern tip of the park. The terminal is a kind of museum now, but in its heyday it served as the origin of countless treks westward. It was the station where immigrants boarded trains for their trips inland. Thousands of people a day left the terminal to start their lives in Middle America. I made the hikes on a breakwater that paralleled the river. The breakwater was always crowded with fishermen and with photographers. The former tried to catch dinner. The latter tried to catch the best views of the spectacular Manhattan skyline.
The site looked very different a century previously. Locally, the area was called “Black Tom.” Originally, Black Tom was a small island located in the Hudson approximately where the visitor’s center now stands. By 1916 the island had been connected to the mainland by landfill. The site included a number of warehouses and a vast reticulation of train tracks. The warehouses belonged to the National Docks and Storage Co. The tracks belonged to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
In 1916 the “War to End Wars” relentlessly continued in blood-soaked savagery in Europe. America had remained neutral—technically neutral, although the Wilson Administration provided massive amounts of munitions to Britain and her allies. If America was the self-proclaimed “arsenal of democracy,” Black Tom was the depot. It was the main loading site for war materials sailing to Europe. In July 1916 there were as much as two million pounds of artillery and small arms ammunition in the vicinity. Estimates placed more than 600,000 pounds of TNT and 59,000 pounds of black powder in the freight cars in the Lehigh Valley terminal. An additional 2.7 million pounds of TNT laid in the holds of barges owned by the Johnson Lighterage and Towing Co. There were other goods in the vicinity of Black Tom beside explosives—40,000 pounds of sugar sat in tankers waiting to be loaded on ships.
In the early morning of Sunday, July 30, 1916, all of this disappeared.
At about 12:40 AM workers noticed fires in the rail yard. The Jersey City Fire Dept. was called. Workers hurried to pull trains out of the yard. Crews hurried to release the barges into the river. Their efforts were to no avail. At 2:08 AM cars on track 16 detonated, causing a gargantuan explosion. At 2:38 AM Johnson barge #17 detonated, causing a second massive explosion. Secondary explosions followed for hours. Fires burned for days.
Estimated at 5.5 on the Richter Scale, the initial explosion may have been the loudest sound that ever occurred in New Jersey. The blast was heard as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware.
The explosions produced immense roundhouses of power propelled in every direction for miles. The shock waves were atmospheric tsunamis that carried the strength of airborne locomotives catapulting at maximum velocity. Most famously, the shock waves punched out windows for miles. Shattered glass and empty window frames are what people remembered about the explosions at Black Tom.
Any window facing the river was at risk of shattering—this is “shattering” in the strictest definition of the word, as in breaking into innumerable needle-sized shards. Shatterproof glass, now standard in windshields and public buildings, was serendipitously discovered in 1903, but was not used in cities until after the World War.
Windows in nearby factories shattered. Windows in tenements and in stores throughout Lower Jersey City shattered. (This is the section of Jersey City that runs along the Hudson.) Windows on Ellis Island shattered—500 immigrants and sick people had to be evacuated by boat. Miles away, windows in the tenements and stores in the Jersey City Heights shattered. (This is the inland section of Jersey City atop the Palisades cliffs.) A man was seriously cut in Christ Hospital in the Heights when the blast blew out the window where he stood. Windows shattered in the tenements and stores in nearby Bayonne and Hoboken. The Hudson Dispatch reported that the shopping district on Washington St. in Hoboken was a “sea of broken glass.” A boy at Fifth St. in Hoboken was seriously cut by flying glass. Windows across Manhattan Island and in Brooklyn Heights shattered. Windows in the New York City Public Library at 42nd St. and Fifth Ave. shattered.
The wicked winds were no respecter of religion. Stained glass windows throughout churches in Hudson County shattered. St. Patrick’s Church, the house of worship nearest to Black Tom, suffered $20,000 worth of damage. Stained glass in churches as far away as St. Joseph’s in Hoboken and St. Paul of the Cross in the Jersey City Heights blew out.
The shock waves blew windows out of their frames. They also blew people off their feet. Two policemen were rendered temporarily unconscious when they were knocked to the pavement. A man walking near Dickinson High School in the Heights was smacked to the sidewalk and seriously injured. People in Midtown Manhattan were knocked off their feet. People were shoved out of their beds. Pleasant dreams concluded on scatter rugs. On Central Ave. in the Heights an infant died when the blast flung him out of his crib.
The shock waves opened unlocked doors. Probably, the shock waves opened locked doors. Phones started ringing. Other phones went dead. The blast triggered burglar alarms and car horns in two states. Statues in parks toppled. Headstones in cemeteries collapsed. Garbage cans bounced like bowling balls. Unsecured objects on the sidewalks skipped to new locations.
Segments of the roof of the Montgomery St. post office collapsed—if the blast occurred during the workday, there would have been fatalities. Shrapnel scarred the walls of Jersey City Hall. Four miles distant, the clock at the Jersey Journal building at Journal Square in the Heights stopped at 2:12 AM when it was struck by shrapnel. The Brooklyn Bridge swayed. The Statue of Liberty was scarred and damaged. It’s on account of the explosions at Black Tom that the raised arm and torch of the Statue is inaccessible to visitors. We’re lucky Lady Liberty didn’t become an amputee.
Not knowing what was happening, people stepped into the chaos. The Jersey Journal noted on July 31, “From every section of the city scenes of the panic were reported. Women and children who had been thrown out of their beds by the force of the concussion ran into the street in their night clothes crying piteously. Men cowed by the terrific explosions and not knowing the real cause of their rude awakening became panicky also.” As the night sky turned red many people dropped to their knees in fear that Armageddon had arrived.