Who won the battle of New York in World War One?

On 30 July 1916 titanic explosions shook the US east coast: it seemed the battlefields of Europe had reached New York City.

Black Tom island storage depot for US weaponry headed for Britain in WW1

During the First World War, an ocean away from the Western Front, a series of titanic explosions shook cities up and down the US east coast when two million pounds of explosives set off in the New York harbour on 30 July 1916.

The blasts shattered every window. Shop windows fell into the street. The battlefields of Europe had reached New York City it seemed.

Buildings trembled; some of the inhabitants were thrown from their beds; and the population, panic-stricken, emptied itself out into the streets. For hours the sky was lit up by the fierce fire which raged…and for three hours a steady stream of high explosives and shrapnel shells were hurled from the conflagration as they exploded…1

The blast’s epicentre was a supersized cache of explosives on Black Tom, a former island joined to mainland New Jersey in the New York harbour south of Manhattan. Black Tom served as a resting place for the US to store weaponry headed for Britain to boost its firepower in the war.

Floating bomb
A jigsaw of transport docks, freight cars and warehouses scored by miles of railroad track, Black Tom was an ideal setting for receiving rail deliveries of munitions. Freight cars transferred the weapons and supplies to barges. And barges unloaded their cargo onto Britain-bound steamers.

On 30 July thirty-four freight cars laden with 2 million pounds of explosives stored shells, nitro-cellulose, TNT and fuses. Ten floating bombs sat tranquilly along the north pier, as 100,000 pounds of TNT and 25,000 detonators filled additional barges.

Overnight, reports came through about a fire, followed by an explosion, and in half an hour, another explosion. Like dominoes, barges and freight cars went off one after another.

Seven died and hundreds suffered injuries. One of the injuries included the Statue of Liberty’s arm that holds her iconic torch. Who torched Black Tom remains a mystery.

German agents
The DOJ and local authorities conducted unsuccessful investigations. The railroad company was investigated and ruled out. Spontaneous combustion—impossible. The incendiaries could not be found. If they used cigar bombs, made from corrosive acids and lead that melted away in the heat of an explosion, the culprits would have left no trace.
A later theory blamed the explosion on future German chancellor, Franz von Papen. He was linked with the arming of Irish Volunteers in the Easter Rising and aiding Indian nationalists against British rule. But von Papen was already expelled from the US at the time, under indictment for plotting to blow up sites in the US and Canada.

Despite a lack of hard evidence, the consensus was that German agents acted in retaliation for the British naval blockade of Germany. This heightened suspicion of German-Americans, especially in New York.

Alien city 
Historian, Ross J Wilson, explains how a diverse, multicultural, multiethnic city transformed into an all-American city. European immigration at the turn of the century made New York a city of ‘foreign villages’. In 1900, it had 300,000 German-born residents, 275,000 Irish, 155,000 Russians, 145,000 Italians, 117,000 Austro-Hungarians and 30,000 Polish.2

New York mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, demanded the city’s immigrant population express loyalty to the US. In October 1915 Mitchel formed the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense “concerned with the patriotism of ‘foreign’ sections of New York” and “the loyalty of an ‘alien city’.”

All citizens were divided into two classes, Mitchel told Russian-American New Yorkers in March 1917—‘Americans and traitors’.3 After the US declared war in April 1917, it isn’t surprising that many German-American New Yorkers denounced their country of origin and German businesses changed their trading names. The city of foreign villages became the city of Americans and traitors.

Espionage Act of 1917
Multiple cases of German espionage led Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 two months after the declaration of war. The original aim was to intercept German plots to blow up munitions depots and railroads. The same Espionage Act is used in the twenty-first century in a way it was never intended by Congress. Black Tom wasn’t the sole impetus for passing the Espionage Act, but a centenary look at the Black Tom explosion today contextualizes those security concerns of a century ago.

1 Henry Landau’s The Enemy Within


3 When news came of the Russian revolution.

Source: No Glory in War

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