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Enemy Agents Strike New York—In 1916

Ever since July 1916, visitors have been prohibited from climbing up into the torch in Miss Liberty’s hand. They can stand inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty (reopened in 2009), but the arm and its torch have been off-limits since they were damaged by agents of the German Kaiser.

On July 30, 1916, saboteurs working for the Imperial German Army blew up a munitions plant on the New Jersey shore, directly across from Liberty Island and Ellis Island. The blast, which was felt throughout New York, had the equivalent force of a 5.0 Richter-scale earthquake. It knocked sleepers out of their beds in Manhattan and rained debris for a two-mile radius. The shock of its force drove shrapnel into Miss Liberty’s gown and weakened the structure of her arm.

Incredibly, German agents caused this damage—estimated at half a billion dollars in 2010 currency—eight months before they were at war with the United States.

According to a 1940 article, the explosion on Black Tom peninsula might have served several purposes for the Central Powers. The author, Emanuel Voska, was a Czech spy living in New York who provided intelligence to the British government. In 1916, as he learned that German agents were tampering with munitions intended for Czarist Russia, which was then fighting for the Allies.

Cases labeled and listed as ammunition, but really containing scrap iron, old lead, or anything else heavy and useless, were being sent to Russia. This was not only sabotage but graft on a large scale. The men back of this were undoubtedly Russians collaborating with Germans. They made the Russian government pay for this junk as ammunition, and pocketed the money.

By the middle of July, thousands of cases of this stuff, together with enormous quantities of genuine ammunition, had piled up in warehouses, barges and freight cars at the Black Tom terminal of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

This extraordinary accumulation of explosives worried me. It seemed like an invitation to the German dynamiters.

Allied Intelligence was already increasing the number of inspectors munitions factories. According to Voska, he ordered a dozen men specifically to guard the approaches to the Black Tom peninsula. He then informed the head of Russian intelligence in New York about his suspicions. Before any action could be taken, though, the saboteurs struck. Shortly after 2:00 AM, on July 30—

I woke in the small hours of the morning in terror. My stout brick house was shivering, my bed was swaying, the windows were rattling. I jumped up, fully awake, and ran to a window facing south. The distant skyscrapers rose black against a sky that seemed all aflame. My mind jumped to the explanation. The worst had happened! Someone had blown up Black Tom.

The phone rang. The jerky, excited voice of one of my guards on the Jersey shore reported, “Everything is blown up—everything! Black Tom is just one big flame!”…

I took the subway to South Ferry. The port of Manhattan Island, usually deserted at that hour, boiled with activity. Police reserves were pushing back crowds to make way for fire engines. My feet crunched on glass—the explosions seemed to have smashed every window around. Southward, huge geysers of flame showed where burning barges were loose from their moorings. Now and then, a dull explosion would precede the appearance of a gigantic moon in the southern sky. A sickening odor of burning chemicals filled the air.

I crowded onto a ferryboat for New Jersey. By enthusiastic shoving, I managed to land ahead of the others. For a fare amounting to a bribe, I got a taxicab. We made slow progress—all New Jersey seemed to be rushing toward Black Tom. When I posted my guards, I had selected a little all-night beer joint as a rendezvous. I found that although the explosion had smashed all its windows and blown its door off its hinges, the bartender was still doing business.

Live shells lay on a deck.

These live shells were salvaged by workers after most of the vast store of ammunitions at Black Tom had been destroyed in the blast.

Machachek, commander of our patrol on Black Tom, was waiting for me. He gave a quick account.

At a little before one o’clock in the morning a sudden fire broke out in a freight car. Near it were dozens of cars filled with shells and raw explosives. Sensibly and prudently, the watchmen gave an alarm and ran. At eight minutes past one, the barge, tied to a wharf more than a hundred yards from the fire, blew up. It was half an hour later before the fire in the freight car reached the other cars on the tracks, bringing the second explosion.

Only one detail of his story has any special interest after all these years. “The first explosion,” he said, “was on a barge tied up to the pier. A few minutes before the barge went up, I saw a rowboat approaching it. I could make out the figures of two men aboard. After that, everything blazed, bright as day. I saw no boat come away.”

By now, the German agents were not working in one tight organization, but in groups. Jealousy and the secretiveness of men engaged in a trade, which endangered their necks kept them from confiding in one another. Probably, the cause of the fire in the freight car was one of those time bombs, which the Germans had used to burn ships at sea. But the men in the boat? Machachek saw them approach the barge; he did not see them come away. It is possible that the directors of the plot worked a diabolical trick on their own dynamiters. This affair was so dangerous that they wished to take no chances with an operative who might be caught and confess. The man who ordered the job may have handed the perpetrators an apparatus which he described as a time bomb, but which, actually, would go off when it was set.

Ultimately, Germany accepted responsibility for the destruction and paid reparations to the United States. To Voska, though, the responsibility lay elsewhere.

As I went home that night, I kept repeating to myself, “It was the Russians—it was the Russians!” Even after all these years of reflection, I cannot get that thought out of my head.

He was convinced that Black Tom was destroyed by Russian double agents. They had accepted money from the Kaiser’s government to keep munitions from reaching the Russian army. They were also probably working for the Bolshevik forces who hoped a Russian defeat would speed the revolution (which it did). And they were lining their own pockets by selling the same withheld munitions time and again. And, most likely, they were directed by the head of Russian intelligence in New York—the same man Voska had informed of his suspicions.

For more information, you should check out the original Post article, “‘Canadian Invasion’ and Black Tom” [PDF], published in 1940.

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  • gene upton

    very good story

  • Kay Knapp

    Intriguing story. I never knew this was why we cannot access the torch and that the reason dated back to 1916! The story was eerily similar to 9/11.

  • Frank James Davis

    What an odd account of a monumental infamy commited on U.S. soil! Germans, Czechs and Russians have all the input; American officials are virtually unmentioned! They apparently played only a minor part in this drama–despite the fact, of course, that it was their country that was blown up!
    Were our representatives too busy–too absent–to comment, act or care?
    Not on our worst day.