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Jersey City, New Jersey

The Black Tom Explosion Memorial

A simple plaque remembers an act of WWI terrorism that obliterated an island and forever scarred the Statue of Liberty. 

This story begins with a chance discovery in a small Catholic church in Jersey City, New Jersey. Situated near the waterfront in the old part of town, Our Lady of Czestochowa has been ministering to the Polish community since 1870. In the western apse is a traditional stained glass window depicting a funeral scene. Written in the glass are the words “Hojnoscia Parafian Po Explozyi 1916 Ufundowane”, meaning “Funded by the Parishioners after the explosion of 1916.” Given its date and country of origin, it would appear to be a war memorial remembering some event in Europe during the First World War.

However the story behind the stained glass is a chilling one, that occurred much closer to home involving German saboteurs, the largest terrorism act on U.S. soil prior to the September 11th attacks, and damage to America’s preeminent national landmark with repercussions which are still felt today.

In 1914 Imperial Germany sent Count Johann Von Bernstorff to be its new ambassador in Washington D.C. But Von Bernstoff’s staff of diplomats were not all as they seemed for these bureaucrats were a veritable army of undercover spies and saboteurs, arriving with millions of dollars to aid the German war effort by sabotage and illicit destruction.

Among their principal targets were the endless supplies of munitions that the neutral U.S. was selling to Great Britain and France. In 1916 over 2,000,000 tons of explosives were in storage on an island called Black Tom, ready to sail across the Atlantic. Lying in New York harbour, Black Tom was a small island in between New Jersey and Liberty Island, and soon caught the attentions of Von Bernstorff and his saboteurs.

On the night of July 30th 1916, Black Tom island disappeared. Just after 2:00 am, slow burning pencil bombs planted by the German agents ignited an explosion so colossal it registered 5.5 on the Richter scale. As glass windows shattered in Times Square and St.Patrick’s cathedral, the blast shook the Brooklyn Bridge and was felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland. The statue of Liberty felt the full blast and was showered with shrapnel and exploding bullets and shells.  

FBI investigations named two guards at Black Tom as the likely culprits; the guards turned out to be German agents Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke, but both escaped. An explosion in 1917 at the Mare Island naval shipyard in Vallejo, CA was also attributed to them. When the U.S. finally responded to German’s secret war of attrition by declaring war in 1917, Jahnke and Witzke fled to Mexico.

Black Tom Island was reconstructed with landfill and is today the southeastern part of Jersey City’s Liberty State Park. Today the park is a popular picnic spot in the summer, with families taking advantage of the  close up views of the Statue of Liberty. But in the corner of the picnic area is a simple plaque, often passed by, which reads, “You are walking on a site which saw one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history.”

It is not known how many people died or were injured in the explosion. Presumably the congregation of Our Lady of Czestochowa were hit hardest, which led to the commemorating of the attack with the stained glass memorial. The Lehigh Valley Railroad who owned Black Tom Island sought compensation against Germany, who settled on a payment of $50 million which was finally paid as recently as 1979. 

The attack may be long forgotten and little known, but it had a repercussion which is still ongoing; visitors to the Statue of Liberty today can walk around the outside, climb the pedestal and make the journey into the crown to take advantage of the spectacular views of Manhattan. At one time, you were even allowed to climb a ladder up into the torch as well; but since the night of July 30th 1916, the damage caused by the German saboteurs caused the torch to become off limits, and it has been closed ever since.