The explosion that rocked Jersey City

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

One hundred years ago, the terrorists who struck in the United States tended to be either Italian or German. In the case of the former, they were radicals, or more specifically the anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani. The latter were, in somewhat stark contrast, supporters of law and order, at least as long as it was in the imperial jurisdiction governed from Berlin.

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Among the targets hit by agents of the foreign power that would become an enemy officially on April 6, 1917, was an artificial island built around “black tom” rock in New York Harbor.

Novelist Patrice Hannon takes up the story: “Black Tom Island was a Lehigh Valley rail yard located in Jersey City just across from the Statue of Liberty. In 1916 it was being used as a munitions depot. The U.S. was officially neutral in the war, but we were selling weapons to only one side. Over the years millions of tons of arms and explosives manufactured for the Allies passed through Black Tom.

“On July 30, 1916, over two million pounds of munitions were stored in freight cars and on barges there. At 2:08 a.m. the harbor was rocked by a massive explosion at Black Tom—the result of German sabotage,” she said.

“I was inspired to write about the incident because my father, who was 5-years-old at the time of the explosion, remembered and often spoke of it,” Hannon added.

And so, “Black Tom” is a novel set in Jersey City and New York City in the years before the U.S. entered the Great War.

“It’s the story of an Irish-American family profoundly affected by the infamous explosion,” she said.

Among its characters are Patrick Kelly, a young patrolman, Claire Connolly, a beautiful chorus girl, and the real-life local politician Frank Hague, whose 30-year tenure as mayor of Jersey City began in 1917.

“In addition to telling the fascinating story of the Black Tom sabotage, I wanted to paint a picture of what Jersey City was like during the period,” Hannon said. “I tried to be as faithful to history as possible without allowing my research to draw attention to itself. Many readers have told me they picked up the book to learn about Black Tom and found themselves even more interested in the story of the fictional Kelly family.”

Patrice Hannon, the author of the novel “Black Tom.”

Patrice Hannon

Place of birth: Jersey City

Residence: New York City

Published works: “Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love” (Plume); “101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen” (Adams Media); “Black Tom: A Novel of Sabotage in New York Harbor” (CreateSpace).

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

If I have the luxury of choosing I prefer to write in the morning in a fairly quiet environment. I sometimes read of writers who listen to music when they write and I wonder how they can do it. When I have a deadline, however, I can write all day and late into the night, which tells me that I should welcome rather than dread deadlines.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read great writers. Don’t give up. And be a lot more active on social media than I am.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

There are so many! I could easily answer with any of Jane Austen’s novels, but if I had to pick one of them I would say “Emma.”

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Predictable answer but how could I not choose Shakespeare?

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

The village of Camp on the Dingle Peninsula. Thirty years ago my mother saw a classified ad in the Irish Echo for a traditional 200-year-old cottage in Camp. She asked my brother Brian, who was visiting Ireland at the time, to take a look at it for her. He gave it a thumbs-up and she bought the house sight unseen.

From that time on my parents loved spending long summers there. The rest of the family had the pleasure of staying with them and growing to love Camp also.

The natural beauty of the area is unsurpassed and there are several cozy pubs within walking distance of the house, which has never had a television but has two fireplaces and a garden with a view of Caherconree, part of the Slieve Mish range. Beautiful Tralee Bay is nearby. The area is magical, steeped in Irish mythology. Our neighbors there, one generation after another, have been good friends for as long as we’ve been going to Camp. My mother would be pleased to see the continuing rewards of her inspired decision three decades ago to tear an ad for a house in Ireland out of the Irish Echo.