Black Tom Island: The Explosive New Jersey Terrorism Event You Never Heard Of 

Everett Collection /
Everett Collection /

At 2:08 a.m. on July 30, 1916, Black Tom Island was rocked by a cataclysmic explosion that reverberated through the sleeping cities of New York and New Jersey like a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.  

Black Tom Island, nestled in New York Harbor near Jersey City, New Jersey, was once a rocky landfill transformed into an artificial island. No longer an island, it is now a part of Liberty State Park. 

But in 1916, Black Tom Island served as America’s largest munitions depot. It stored freight cars and barges full of munitions and had warehouses brimming with explosives, and it was an obvious target for Germans, who devised a plan to infiltrate the island and blow it up. 

In the early morning hours of that fateful summer morning, the island was blown apart by German agents. 

The damage was staggering. Approximately $20,000,000 worth of military goods, equivalent to $540 million today, went up in flames. The explosion destroyed over one hundred railroad cars and thirteen warehouses, leaving behind a crater measuring 375 by 175 feet at the blast’s epicenter. Four workers died in the inferno. 

Shockwaves reached the Statue of Liberty, some 2100 feet away, showering her with shrapnel and exploding bullets that permanently scarred her skirt and torch. Her damages were estimated at $100,000, or $2.7 million today.  

While the details of how the bombs were planted on Black Tom Island are not fully documented, historical accounts suggest that Germans smuggled them onto the island with the assistance of sympathetic Americans. 

The explosives used were cigar bombs, a two-part bomb containing separate chemicals divided by a thin piece of metal. The caustic chemicals mixed and exploded when they eroded the metal barrier.  

President Woodrow Wilson feared acknowledging the sabotage would pull America into World War 1. Closer to home, it was feared that the actual cause of the explosion would cause panic and spark an anti-German sentiment. The truth was eventually revealed, and the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. 

The Black Tom Island explosion of 1916 and the September 11 attacks of 2001 were significant acts of terrorism on American soil, albeit in different historical contexts. Despite occurring almost a century apart, both were devastating blows to New York City, leaving lasting scars on its collective memory.