New Jersey has a reputation for many things. They filmed The Sopranos here. We’re home to Princeton University. The taxes are high, but the beaches are decent. What is less well known is the town that blew up 100 years ago. Even among locals, the explosion is not common knowledge. I grew up a few miles from where it happened and never heard about it until I was well into my 20s.
July 10, 1926 was an especially hot and humid day. The recorded temperature in nearby New York City reached 80°F by early morning and did not let up for most of the day. At this time, refrigeration was still something of a novelty and private use of indoor air conditioning was unheard of.
Some thirty miles west of the City, workers at Picatinny Arsenal were relieved to end their shift at noon, just as the heat started to become unbearable. Powder mixing, electroplating, and munitions production operations finished early on Saturdays, expecting to resume first thing Monday. Saturdays would remain a work day for another 14 years.
Even a decade after the Armistice of the Great War, many at the Arsenal remembered the long hours and demanding quotas characteristic of the home front effort. There were, however, other relics from that time, which hitherto had fallen beneath notice.
The Naval Powder Depot – adjacent to the Arsenal and separated by a stone and iron gate – was home to a number of ordnance magazines. Ostensibly temporary, their purpose was to house and store thousands upon thousands of high explosive artillery shells. Familiarity may breed complacency with almost anything and having been part of the background for so long, there were few who gave them more than a passing thought.
With the weekend shift over, the civilian workers left to be with their families. Others joined friends for a drink. The Volstead Act may have prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol, but it was effectively impossible to root out each and every person who knew how to make beer and wine in the privacy of their own home.
Though none of them knew it at the time, their lives had been spared by the difference of mere hours. Others would not be so fortunate.
Around dinner time, crackling thunder heralded the approach of a storm. For many, it promised relief from the ungodly heat that had plagued them all day. At the Depot, rain fell upon the concrete rooftops of the magazines. Inside, the artillery shells lay dormant in their stacked rows. This was not the first such storm they had endured but it would be their last.
These were massive things, ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds; leftover stock from a time when such things were produced in great quantity. Never fired on a battlefield, this hilltop had long been a safe, out-of-the-way repository. And for years, they sat without incident.
Then, the lightning struck.
While estimates vary, it is generally agreed that some 670,000 pounds of explosive were involved. Concrete and steel buildings within half a mile were leveled. Vehicles were crushed. Glass windows were broken up to five miles away. Many explosive shells that survived the initial blast were hurled thousands of feet and left craters where they detonated on impact.
Paradoxically, it was the ones that landed intact which presented a greater concern as there was no way of telling whether the act of lifting and moving might trigger the explosive payload.
All that remained at ground zero were a pair of craters, deeper than a man is tall.
Hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes in the surrounding towns and housed in the nearby Morristown Armory. Although, a number of Slavic and Czech miners returned, sneaking through the military picket in order to feed their chickens. A massive cleanup operation was initiated and continued in some form or another for decades. Nearly 100 years later, the risk posed by unexploded ordnance remains a concern on government property.
In total, the explosion claimed 19 lives. Of those were 16 Marines with the initial firefighting party. Many more were injured and hundreds were displaced. The civilian workforce who went home at midday cheated death by mere hours.
Despite the loss of life and property, some good came from this tragedy. This incident directly resulted in the development of procedures and mechanisms for the long-term storage and handling of explosives. Safety codes are written in blood and there is little doubt that such measures have saved lives.
It was a major event, but overshadowed by the massive conflicts that bookend the interwar period. When an author includes a “Historical Note” chapter describing the real-world facts around fictionalized events, I always give it a read. Just about every town has its own lore worth remembering and historical fiction provides a perfect vehicle for breathing new life into the obscure and out-of-the-way snippets of things that really happened.