It was one of the most dramatic events in the United States during the Great War, just before the country entered the conflict. Exactly a century ago a munitions plant in Lyndhurst, New Jersey was destroyed after a fire led to around half a million 3-inch shells being discharged, causing up to $12m worth of damage.
The factory in question had been set up in the Kingsland area of the town, as part of a contract with the Canadian Car and Foundry Company, to supply arms and ammunition for the war efforts of Canada and Russia. While America was not then a belligerent power in the War, Canada most definitely was, as it was nominally, though in practice not completely, independent of the UK.
The fire that caused the blasts raged for around four hours. Miraculously, nobody was killed in this inferno, and this was largely down to the quick thinking of the company’s switchboard operator, Tessie McNamara, who manned her board throughout, making frantic calls to the factory’s various units, blaring out the instruction ‘Get out or go up!‘ For her bravery Miss McNamara was presented with a cheque by the National Special Aid Society.
This enormous fire could well have been down to sabotage: detectives informed one factory worker, Flodoe Wozniak, that he was wanted for questioning over the blaze. Wozniak, who had served in the Habsburg empire’s armed forces, had been witnessed acting suspiciously immediately before the fire. Before the detectives could make an arrest, Wozniak simply vanished. The case was eventually settled in the 1950s, as a $50m reparations bill was paid to the US, though Germany never actually admitted responsibility for the fire.
Public opinion across the States was already overwhelmingly anti- the Central Powers, and the Kingsland fire was only the latest in a long line of incidents (e.g. the Lusitania sinking) that merely solidified such a sentiment. Did they but know it, the American people didn’t have long to wait – only three months – before events in the War would take a decisive turn and bring their country into the mire.