An Explosion Long Ago

The New York Times had an article today with a good capsule history of the Black Tom explosion, a huge event 100 years ago this coming Saturday. Informed opinion on the explosion has gone from “it must be German sabotage” in 1916 to “it was mishandling of explosives and coal dust” for most of the twentieth century and now back to “it was sabotage.”

Photo showing the platforms and the Bush shed roof, from the HABS survey of the CRRNJ Jersey City Terminal.

I was unfamiliar with the explosion until I started work some years ago investigating the condition of the train shed of the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Jersey City terminal. The train shed has been abandoned since 1967 (and, unfortunately, will probably never be repaired) and I expected the investigation to show primarily weathering damage to the steel beams and concrete folded-plate slabs that make up its patented roof system (called a Bush shed.) We did find that damage but we also found something odd: nearly every cast-iron column in the shed was fractured.

Typical fracture in a cast-iron column.

That damage was odd in itself – usually cast iron column fail completely when they break, so we don’t usually see a lot of fractures in standing columns – but even odder was that all of the fractures pointed in the same direction. The train shed is very large, and at first we couldn’t imagine what had pushed it sideways with sufficient force to break hundreds of columns. Eventually, historic research pointed us in the right direction. The shed was well under a mile from Black Tom, and the fractures were perfectly aligned with the direction between the two buildings. The shock wave of the blast broke the columns in 1916, when the train shed was about two years old, and the structure has remained standing with that damage ever since.

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