Kingsland Explosion. 1917
In January 1917 the United States remained officially neutral as World War I dragged on in Europe. Manufacturers in the United States and Canada were allowed to continue to sell war materials to the nations allied against Germany and the Central Powers, an activity which both exasperated the Germans and inspired them to action against the North American nations. German agents worked within the borders of the United States, and many fires, train derailings, shipboard accidents, and other catastrophes occurred which popular sentiment believed were the result of nefarious activities by German saboteurs. Often official investigations revealed no plausible link to the activity of German – or any other agents – and left the cause of the event unexplained. One such case was the Kingsland Explosion which occurred on January 11, 1917.
The Montreal based Canadian Car and Foundry Company was contracted with Czarist Russia to provide badly needed ammunition, and to expedite shipment built a large manufacturing facility in the New Jersey wetlands known as The Meadowlands. On the night of January 11 a fire started on or near a workbench which was the normal work station for an employee named Theodore Wozniak.
The fire began in an area where 3 inch explosive shells were cleaned using gasoline as the cleaning agent. In less than four hours the entire plant was destroyed by the fire. Over a half million shells which had been intended for use by the Russians were detonated. Investigators in the aftermath of the fire were quick to learn of its point of origin and let Wozniak’s supervisors know that the worker – and former Austrian army member – would be needed for questioning. Wozniak by then had disappeared.
The German government officially claimed to have no knowledge of the causes of the fire, nor of Mr. Wozniak, and an official investigation which was completed in 1931 found no concrete evidence linking the government of the Kaiser, by then long deposed, with an act of sabotage against a supposedly neutral nation. It was generally accepted that Wozniak set the fire deliberately, but no evidence linked him to known German sabotage and espionage activities.
Legal actions against Germany which began in 1934 and lasted well into the 1950s disagreed, establishing legal culpability by the Germans and demanding they pay reparations. In return for not admitting guilt, West Germany agreed to pay $50 million in reparations.