Monday, July 31, 2006

Happy Black Tom Explosion Day!

I have had a recurring dream in which I come to discover the existence of a Beatles album that I'd never heard of before. I'll be yakking along with somebody when they mention, I dunno, "Hungagunga" or something. I stop 'em: Sorry, say what?

Yeah, you know, "Hungagunga," the album that came between "Revolver" and "Sergeant Pepper"? He'll pull out the LP, and bing, there it is: A whole Beatles album that I've never heard of.

I don't know American history to the same nearly autistic extent that I know BeatleTrivia, but I do pride myself on knowing the Broad Outlines. Which is why I feel a mortification not at all dissimilar to the one in my dream, when an enormous gap in my knowledge is suddenly, embarrassingly, revealed to me. I was passing time at Fark this afternoon, and I stumbled across an article that noted that yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the Black Tom Explosion -- something that I had never heard of in my life! From the linked article, in Newsday:
The sound of the blast was unearthly, and the tremor was felt 100 miles away in Philadelphia. The night sky over New York Harbor turned orange. From Bayonne to Brooklyn and beyond, people were jolted from bed as windows shattered within a radius of 25 miles.

The Statue of Liberty, less than a mile from the epicenter, was damaged by a rain of red-hot shards of steel. On Ellis Island, frightened immigrants were hastily evacuated to Manhattan.

Ground zero itself - a small island called Black Tom - all but disappeared, "as if an atomic bomb fell on it," says historian John Gomez.

It was 2:08 a.m. on Sunday, July 30, 1916, when what was then the largest explosion ever in the United States erupted. It destroyed an estimated 2,000 tons of munitions awaiting transfer to ships destined for Britain and ultimately, the World War I battlefields of France.

Evidence pointed to German sabotage, and some historians regard it as the first major terrorist attack on the United States by a foreign party.
"Terrorist attack" is not quite the mot juste here -- "wartime sabotage" would be more accurate -- but let's not quibble over semantics. I lived in New York City (Red Hook, Brooklyn, to be precise) from 1982 to 1987, and had the explosion happened during my time there, it's quite possible my home might have been rained upon by shrapnel from the blast. The Statue of Liberty was badly damaged -- according to Wikipedia, the damage is part of the reason the statue's torch is inaccessible to visitors today.

And yet I'd never heard of the damned thing!

Well, I have now. And so have you.

More info is available at the Wikipedia entry.


Mike said...

Funny you mention Revolver. This week is the anniversary of its release in '66. Also the 35th anniversary of the Concert for Bangledesh.

tpxulwo - elvis's hometown

Devil's Rancher said...

You describe just about how I felt when I first heard about the the Johnstown Flood about 6 weeks ago.

caryica: One of Paul's best love songs, from Hungagunga.

treepeony said...

The Black Tom Explosion is new to me, too. Here's another one, the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in January, 1919. A 50-foot high tank of molasses that was 90 feet in diameter and was located on a rise near the Charles River burst as it was being filled. More than 2 million gallons of molasses spilled, moving at a speed of 35 mph and a height of 8 to 15 feet.

What's funny at a distance was not such a joke at the time. The wave carried horses and wagons away; it killed 21 people and injured 150; it destroyed several buildings, moved a train off the tracks, and knocked over the El. People who survived the flood or aided in the rescue and cleanup boarded the Boston streetcars and transferred the molasses all over town to everything their hands and shoes and clothing touched. All of Boston was sticky for six months. According to one account, the flood's high-syrup mark is still visible on the exterior walls of some buildings, and people still smell molasses occasionally in the neighborhood. The water in the harbor was brown until summer.

There's a flimsy connection with the Black Tom Explosion. Molasses was used in the manufacture of not only alcohol but also munitions.

And about munitions explosions: in either Working or The Good War, Studs Terkel included an interview with a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, who said that munitions even then were so unstable that the men who loaded ordnance aboard ships in California never knew whether they would survive a day of work. The sailors typically assigned to this hazardous labor were black men.

Kevin Wolf said...

The Black Tom Explosion is new to me, as well, though I did see something on the anniversary in yesterday's Boston Globe.

The Johnstown Flood is familiar and, of course, there are songs about it too.

Being a Boston area resident for more than 10 years now, I do indeed know of the Molasses Flood.

Ben said...

Funny story: just last night I was walking in the East Village at 4 in the morning (geez, can't a guy get mugged in New York anymore?) when I came across a plaque commemorating the "General Slocum Disaster," which I had never heard of, although over a thousand people died. Since it took place on June 15, 1904, moreover, it gets alluded to in Ulysses. Crazy, huh?

As for the Studs Terkel thing about munitions explosions, I'm pretty sure it's in The Good War and not Working, though I mix up what's in which too.

Will Divide said...

Speaking of black men loading munitions, there were 320 men killed July 17, 1944 in Port Chicago, Calf., most of them black.

Navy, of course, blamed them.

Tom said...

Now-unknown disasters abound. Some of the ones that I've found out about because I lived in or near their locations include the explosion of the Sultana near Memphis, and the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin. Both were overshadowed by better-known events; the Sultana by the killing, the previous day, of John Wilkes Booth, and the Peshtigo Fire by another conflagration that occurred the same day, even though the latter holocaust was much smaller in scope, with far fewer casualties.

My favorite--if that's the right word for morbid fascination; maybe the word I'm looking for is "zeirrxuy"?--NYC disaster was the Malbone Street Wreck, both because I lived close to its location during my own time in Brooklyn (in one of the cheaper parts of Park Slope), and because I took the subway to work each day. The carnage was so horrific that the city changed the name of the street to Empire Boulevard because of the association in people's minds. Interestingly, the last lethal section of track is still in use, but it no longer terminates in the deadly S-curve.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Texas City in 1947.