First published in The Record on Jan. 11, 2017
Remembering a Forgotten Sabotage that shook manhattan
Tessie McNamara’s office was on fire when the first artillery shell crashed through the wall. The shell passed 5 feet from her head, but McNamara did not move. Instead she stayed seated at her telephone switchboard and called every building inside the big ammunition factory in the Meadowlands, urging everyone to flee.
“Get out or go up!” McNamara screamed into the receiver, as the world around her began to explode.
A century later, McNamara is remembered as the hero of the Kingsland explosion, one of the largest acts of foreign sabotage ever committed on American soil. The attack was orchestrated by German spies on Jan. 11, 1917. It flattened a massive ammunition depot, ignited fires across the town of Kingsland — later renamed Lyndhurst — and sent terrified workers fleeing across the frozen Hackensack River.
Thanks to McNamara’s bravery, no one died.
“We really want to remember Tessie,” said Bryan Hennig, 55, a lifelong Lyndhurst resident who is planning a ceremony on Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of the explosion, to celebrate McNamara’s bravery. “She saved everybody.”
The bombing at the edge of the Meadowlands came six months after a massive explosion on Black Tom Island in Jersey City. Both attacks were part of a campaign of covert bombings at chemical factories and ammunition depots across the United States organized by the German government to slow American arms shipments to Russia and Great Britain.
The attacks, combined with Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania ocean liner in 1915, eventually forced President Woodrow Wilson to end America’s position of neutrality and enter World War I on the side of the Allies.
Few Americans alive today know about the Kingsland explosion. But the attack still resonates in Lyndhurst, where memories of the event are passed from generation to generation.
“Every fire department has a big one,” said Hennig, a 35-year veteran of Lyndhurst’s volunteer Fire Department whose grandfather responded to the Kingsland explosion as a firefighter for the neighboring town of Rutherford. “A hundred years later, this is still our big one.”
It was a cold and windy morning when Theodore Wozniak entered the Canadian Car and Foundry plant at the edge of the Meadowlands on Jan. 11, 1917. He walked into Building 30, where he cleaned empty artillery shells using rags wetted with gasoline.
He also was receiving $40 a week from Frederick Hinsch, a German spymaster who ran a network of saboteurs along the East Coast, according to documents unearthed by the U.S. government decades later.
Around 3:40 p.m., a fire broke out in a large pile of rags next to Wozniak’s work bench. Wozniak responded by pouring clear liquid onto the fire. His boss, Morris Chester Musson, witnessed this and found it extremely suspicious; all fires in Building 30 were to be extinguished using buckets of sand.
“Whatever the liquid was, it caused the fire to spread very rapidly,” Musson said in an affidavit. “It was my firm conviction from what I saw, and I stated, that the place was set on fire purposely.”
The fire quickly grew out of control, and high winds carried it to nearby buildings. The factory, built to manufacture arms for the Russian military, contained stockpiles of gunpowder and TNT, plus half a million artillery shells, scattered across 40 buildings.
The fires quickly burned the buildings’ wooden walls, and the exploding shells pierced the corrugated aluminum roofs. It all converged in a towering black cloud that was visible from Manhattan as explosions rocked the ground from Yonkers to Staten Island.
About 1,400 people were working at the plant that day. They panicked. Hundreds rushed for the main gate. When they found it clogged with people, they put their shoulders to the metal fence that surrounded the factory and toppled it, clambering over barbed wire.
Some workers ran up the hill into what is now downtown Lyndhurst. This didn’t seem like much of an improvement, as artillery shells fell into homes and businesses and ignited fires all over town. More shells destroyed the Lackawanna Railroad’s Boonton Line, which ran within 300 feet of the plant.
“We were all bundled up and left the house, but my mother didn’t know where to go,” Grace Roeschke, a longtime Lyndhurst resident who grew up on the hill overlooking the plant, said in a video made by the Lyndhurst Historical Society in 1995. “The shells were going off all around us.”
Others ran the opposite way, east into the frozen swamp. When they hit the Hackensack River they kept going, sliding across the ice until they reached Snake Hill in Secaucus.
The scene was captured by a reporter from The New York Times:
“Thousands of these missiles were flung aloft and for minute after minute the sky rained red and golden fire, illuminating the darkening meadows with a weird glare that threw into relief the tiny figures of fugitives racing, tumbling, falling across the marshes in a mad scramble to get from beneath the hail of molten metal.”
The inmates living in the prisons, hospitals and sanitariums on Snake Hill also responded to the explosion with terror. Many inside the Hudson County Hospital for the Insane believed the towering black cloud rising over their heads signaled the beginning of the Rapture.
Fearing a riot, leaders of the hospital threw a party. They ushered the inmates into a lecture hall, produced candy and large tubs of ice cream and explained that the explosions across the river were merely fireworks to celebrate the end of the Great War.
The lie worked and the residents were calmed, according to The Times. Fires and explosions raged all night and into the morning.
“It was the most wonderful, but also the most terrifying, spectacle I have even seen,” said James J. Kelly, warden of the county penitentiary on Snake Hill, told The Times. “I don’t want to see any more fireworks as long as I live.”
After Tessie McNamara made her calls to alert workers and firefighters to the emergency, she turned to leave without pausing to put on her coat. She fainted on her way out the door. Firefighters wrapped her in one of their own jackets and carried her from the burning building, she later said.
Aftershocks Last for Decades
Recognition for McNamara’s heroism came immediately. She was praised by newspapers around the country, and received a check from the National Special Aid Society. The foundry’s insurer, the Maryland Casualty Co., sent her a gold watch.
Establishing who planned the attack took quite a bit longer. Statements by Musson and other workers immediately drew suspicion to Wozniak, who denied any plot and then disappeared for several decades.
After World War I, the peace agreement between the United States and Germany created a Mixed Claims Commission to settle financial disputes between the two countries. The U.S. government sought $50 million as compensation for the Kingsland and Black Tom explosions, but the German government denied any involvement.
It wasn’t until 1935 that the American government produced proof that the Germans had destroyed and altered evidence establishing its plans for the attacks, according to a history of the commission written in 2012 by Timothy G. Nelson, an expert in international litigation. Investigators obtained a written statement by Wozniak in which he admitted that he had been paid and trained by German spies.
In August 1942, FBI agents tracked down and arrested Wozniak, who was working as a grocery store clerk and living on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
The German government never admitted responsibility for the attacks, but in 1953 it agreed to pay the United States $50 million, or about $455 million in today’s dollars. The Germans made their last payment in 1979.
In Lyndhurst, memories of the Kingsland explosion faded but never died. The old-timers on the volunteer Fire Department were still talking about “The Big One” when Hennig joined the force in 1981, he said.
Now, as one of the old-timers himself, he keeps the tradition alive.
“The fact that my grandfather was there and helped respond to this as a firefighter himself makes me proud,” Hennig said. “But, then, I don’t know how much firefighting they could do with everything blowing up around them.”
North of Valley Brook Avenue, just inside the Meadowlands, a smokestack and a squat concrete outhouse surrounded by swamp and reeds are the only pieces of the old factory still standing. Every so often, workers digging basements and foundations in Lyndhurst or elsewhere in the Meadowlands come across unexploded shells left over from the Kingsland attack.
At the eastern edge of the swamp, on Clay Avenue between Wall Street West and Valley Brook Avenue, is a stone marker and a small wooden platform, built in memory of Tessie McNamara.