Tessie McNamara Historical Marker and Park
174 Clay Avenue
Lyndhurst, NJ 00000
World War I
New Jersey History
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By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — March 6, 2011
Perhaps the most little-known monument in New Jersey—even more obscure than the Russian “teardrop” monument in Bayonne—is a marker and pocket park in Lyndhurst, in a marsh of the Clay Avenue Wetlands. It’s a memorial to a telephone operator, Theresa E. (“Tessie”) McNamara (1892–1971), who saved the lives of over 1,400 munitions workers during one of the most spectacular acts of sabotage committed against America during World War I, an event known today as the Kingsland Explosion.
During much of World War I, America was officially neutral, though it did furnish supplies—particularly war supplies—to the Allied forces opposing Germany and the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire. For example, the Montreal-based Canadian Car and Foundry Company (CC&F Co.) secured major contracts with Russia and England for delivery of munitions, especially artillery shells. A huge factory—a sprawling 84-acre complex of 40 buildings—was constructed in the New Jersey meadowlands in an area at the time called Kingsland, today the site of Lyndhurst’s industrial park, in Bergen County. Over 100 factories shipped shell cases, shrapnel, and powder to the Kingsland foundry, where over 3 million shells per month were assembled for shipment to Russia.
Kingsland was just too tempting a target for German saboteurs, who resented America’s faux neutral status in the war and whose submarine “U-Boats” were about to begin torpedoing American shipping. At the beginning of the war, American industry was permitted to sell materials and supplies to either side, but the British Royal Navy’s blockade of the Central Powers, plus U.S. government sympathies, restricted sales to just the Allies. Thus, Germany decided to retaliate against America, particularly via acts of sabotage on American soil. (Germany made reparations for their World War I sabotage activities long after the war but has never admitted responsibility for these acts.)
The first major target by saboteurs was not Kingsland but something nearby that was equally worthy: Black Tom Island, a key munitions depot for materials made in the northeast U.S., situated off a pier in the Hudson River near Jersey City. On the night of July 30, 1916, fires were set and over 2 million pounds (1 kiloton) of ammunition (including 100,000 pounds of TNT on a barge) awaiting shipment to the British and French war effort was detonated with such force that it could be felt as earthquake-like rumblings 90 miles away.
Company executives at Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Kingsland feared that their facility would be next (their fears were correct—it was next). Security was enhanced with the construction of a six-foot fence surrounding the plant coupled with 24-hour security guard patrols around the perimeter. Moreover, each worker was screened as they entered the plant.
However, the Kingsland foundry’s security and luck ran out on January 11, 1917, as the saboteurs finally made their move at Building 30. This building was configured to clean out artillery shells: 48 workbenches, each fitted out with a pan of gasoline and a small, belt-driven rotating machine. The cleaning process entailed dusting each shell with a brush, moistening a cloth in the pan of gasoline and wrapping it around a foot-long piece of wood. The shell was then inserted into the lathe-like machine that rotated it and the cloth-draped wood inserted into the turning shell. The shell was then dried in using a similar method: A dry cloth was wrapped around the stick and then once again inserted into the rotating shell.
It was in this environment that one Frederick Hinsch commanded a group of saboteurs. Hinsch had recruited German national Curt Thummel, who changed his name to Charles Thorne and who became the Foundry’s assistant employment manager. Once ensconced in this position, he hired other Hinsch operates to infiltrate the premises, in particular Theodore Wozniak.
In a later affidavit, Foundry Foreman Morris Chester Musson stated that the following events occurred just before a mysterious fire broke out at 3:45 p.m. on that day, January 11, 1917:
“I noticed that this man Wozniak has quite a large collection of rags and that the blaze started in these rags. I also noticed the he had spilled his pan of alcohol all over the table, just preceding that time. I also noticed that someone threw a pail of liquid on the rags or the table almost immediately in the confusion. I am not able to state whether this was water or one of the pails of refuse alcohol under the tables. My recollection, however, is that there were no pails of water in the building, the fire buckets being filled with sand. Whatever the liquid was, it caused the fire to spread very rapidly and the flames dropped down on the floor and in a few minutes, the entire place was in a blaze. It was my firm conviction from what I saw, and I stated, that the place was set on fire purposely, and that has always been and is my firm belief."
According to other workmen present, the fire had started in front of Wozniak’s wooden roller. (In a later interview, Wozniak exhibited nervous behavior and told a story having many contradictions, then admitted that he had served time in the Austrian Army. He soon gave the slip to detectives who were watching him and disappeared, later showing up in Mexico during the summer of 1917, under the name of Karowski or similar name, where he consorted with German agents and was known as a German agent.)
The fire in Building 30 began to grow. Soon the wind would whip it up among other buildings. Over the next four hours, roughly 500,000 (one report states 1,250,000), three-inch (76.2 mm)-diameter explosive shells were discharged in an enormous conflagration. With the exception of two concrete buildings, entire plant was wiped out in a visual spectacle greater than the explosion at Black Tom. As the stupendous fireworks-like scene played out, people watched in awe across the Hudson River, from Manhattan’s office buildings and the taller apartments.
One insurance industry worker, writing in Baltimore Underwriter magazine, noted that, “For thirty minutes the writer of this paragraph, who happened to be in a train running some seven or eight miles away from Kingsland across country, witnessed the bombardment. It was nerve-wracking, even at that distance. The flames illuminated the southern sky and the rattle and roar of the shells as they exploded kept the train vibrating….”
The saboteurs, however, did not realize that they would be tangling with the CC&F Company’s switchboard operator, Miss Tessie McNamara, and the six telephone lines leading to the various buildings and the outside world. A Lyndhurst native, McNamara was originally hired by the company as a stenographer and telephone switchboard operator, but the company grew so rapidly, additional stenographers were hired and she remained full-time at her switchboard duties.
In a later interview for the newspapers, McNamara related the following:
“About 3:45 while handling the usual volume of calls I answered drop No. 30, the Cleaning Room, and got the following excited message, ‘Tess, call the Police Department, Fire Department and the D. L. & W [Delaware, Lackawanna & Western] carshops—have the fire whistle blown—there is fire in this building which is getting away from us.’”
“I shouted to the men in the office and they all rushed out to the fire, leaving me alone. I worked on those calls knowing that if I didn’t nobody else would, and happening to glance out saw the fire spreading rapidly.”
“My first thought was to save the lives of the 1,700 men [later estimates were a little over 1,400] in the different buildings, and I was calling them up when Mr. Huebell, who had been one of the first to rush out to investigate, flung himself in and I established a connection for him over the line to the New York office. While he was talking the first shell struck the building and passed about five feet from where we were sitting. That gave me an awful scare. Mr. Huebell again went out, leaving me alone, and I would have given up if I had not heard the voice of the central office operator on the line, who was passing the calls for outside help as fast as I could give them; all the while I was getting building after building in turn and spreading the alarm. Having Central to talk to gave me courage to stay at the board.”
[Her warning, one of the classics, was, “Get out or go up!”]
“By this time things began to hum. Shells were dropping all around and I thought every minute would be my last. About a dozen buildings were now on fire and I had completed 36 calls. No more were coming in and I started for the door without coat or hat. Just then three of the boys who had missed me appeared in the office doorway. One of them shouted, ‘Come on now, Tess,’ but I couldn’t walk. My courage left me and I needed their assistance to get out. [One report stated that she fainted at that point.] They picked me up, wrapped a big coat around me, and rushed for the gate, shells dropping all around us. It was an experience I never want to tackle again. The fire was bad enough, but the constant explosions unnerved me.”
McNamara’s three friends carried her off to safety.
One audience that unexpectedly got front-row seat to the inferno and its numerous, rapid-fire explosions were the Hudson County penal and charitable institutions on Snake Hill, in Secaucus. The Almshouse, Hospital for the Insane, Contagious Diseases Hospital, Penitentiary, and Tuberculosis Sanitarium, were all grouped together on the north side of Snake Hill (now known officially as Laurel Hill and occasionally referred to as Fraternity Rock because of the Greek letters painted on it by local college fraternities). When the hellish catastrophe began, the Snake Hill residents began to panic, fearing that the world was coming to an end.
From the windows of their respective institutions, they could observe what appeared to be an awesome display of fireworks, which was strange because it wasn’t the Fourth of July. The 900+ inmates of the asylum were becoming increasingly hysterical, but quick-thinking Superintendent Dr. George W. King, and Chairman of the Hospital Committee Dr. James Meehan, devised a way to pacify the residents, turning a disaster into an opportunity. Purchasing large quantities of ice cream, fruits and candies, Meehan rushed to the hospital, where the inmates were herded into the lecture hall and told the “great news” that the War in Europe had ended and the explosions were big guns which, along with a “fireworks” display, were celebrating the end of The Great War. It worked. (Hudson Country later closed the asylum down, in 1962.)
In any event, thanks to the “plucky” Miss McNamara, historians claim that not a single one of the 1,400 employees was killed (However, according to the Wisconsin State Journal for January 12, 1917, "Later reports declared about sixteen men 'missing' but Mayor Clay today declared all had been accounted for. With the checking up of the company's list, only two men were shown to have been killed." Today, most historians maintain that, indeed, nary a soul was even injured. Escaping workers managed to traverse the frozen Hackensack River or scamper up Valley Brook Avenue to safety.
The day after the disaster, the Wisconsin State Journal also reported the following:
"Intermittent explosions, caused by bursting of stray shells, could still be heard early today in the wreckage of the plant of the Canadian Car and Foundry company, destroyed late yesterday with a loss estimated at $12,000,000.
"Stored in two concrete buildings, as yet undamaged, were tons of prinytrotoluol -- the most powerful of explosives -- used in making high power shells.
"Had this been reached by the fire which swept the plant untold damage would have resulted. Danger of the powerful explosive letting go now is believed to have passed.
"The town of Kingsland and the surrounding country today bore every mark of having been thru a terrific bombardment.
"Some houses showed gaping holes, thru which the cold wind whistled. Roofs of others were perforated. Windows were out. The hard rock road near the big munitions plant was pitted with shell holes, anyone of which was big enough to bury a dog in. The Delaware and Lackawanna railroad tracks were torn up for a distance of two miles. Rails were twisted and ties blown out of place...
"But for the fact that fuses had not yet been attached to the high explosive shells, the property damage in the vicinity of the plant would have been much heavier and the loss of life would probably have been great. The shrapnel shells exploded, scattering bullets broadcast. The high power shells merely shot up in the air, however, and fell without exploding. They would have done heavy damage, had they let go.
" In all, about 500,000 shells were destroyed. They were the last of a $83,000,000 order the Canadian company had taken from the Russian government. The last shells completing the order would have been finished this week. The shells which bombarded Kingsland and the surrounding territory were about half shrapnel and half of high explosive type.
" Mayor Clay of Kingsland, the county authorities and officials of the company started an investigation today. Clay declared it had been virtually established that the fire and subsequent explosion was caused by an electric wire falling into a vat. This started a blaze.
"The fire quickly spread and within a short time the first explosives were reached. In rapid succession the thirty-nine frame buildings, comprising the plant, were set ablaze and the explosions of the shells stored there could be heard for miles.
"With the issuance of orders for the people of Kingsland to leave their homes, the police were instructed to shoot down possible looters who refused to surrender upon command. About fifty arrests were made. Most of those taken into custody, however, were merely suspects and were released today."
For a short time thereafter, Tessie McNamara was the most famous telephone switchboard operator in America.
Most of the newspapers editors of the time, being liberal males, cheered the fact that, in an age before women had the right to vote, McNamara had demonstrated heroism far beyond that of her male counterparts. The Cincinnati Times-Star (in an editorial entitled “Quiet Courage”) noted the following:
“When young Tessie McNamara, telephone operator at the munitions plant in Kingsland, N.J., stuck to her switchboard in face of probable death, saving the lives of hundreds of men by her warnings, she once more gave to the world proof of woman’s quiet courage.
“Tessie McNamara was terribly frightened. Her impulse was to run. But a wisp of smoke curling over the eaves of shed 30 was the flag which called her to duty, and while shells roared and burst about her, she continued with her work until it was finished. After that human nature triumphed and she fainted. But she had demonstrated again that woman is the equal of man in that superb quality of soul which impels human beings to accept the final sacrifice, if need be, for the good of others.
“We are apt lightly to accept the old tradition that woman represents the undependable sex; that her more finely strung nerves often play her false in the supreme test. But Tessie McNamara once more gave the lie to this ancient libel. Whoever doubts this has only to ask the opinions of the men and Kingsland who are today alive and well because Tessie made good.”
In the editorial, “The Telephone Girl,” the February 1, 1917 The New York Times pondered the mystery of the heroism often associated with McNamara’s occupation:
“She [McNamara] was no exception to the invariable rule that the telephone girl is a heroine when disaster comes. Indeed, the unbroken uniformity of the thing is a psychological mystery. What is there about the switchboard to make Casablancas infallibly and unvaryingly? Flood, fire, battle, whatever it may be, the story is always the same; the same when the dam breaks at Austin, when the Ohio River tries to engulf Dayton. War comes and find the telephone girl the same, and the Russian Government decorates her ‘for valor under fire’ at Novorossysk. There are heroes in the other ranks of labor, but not so infallibly. Sometimes the elevator man runs his car repeatedly through the flames until the floors fall, but sometimes he does not. There is no worker except the telephone girl, unless it be the wireless operator at sea, whose record is perfectly uniform.
“There is nothing in the girl’s training to account for it. She is not trained to risk her life, nor paid for doing it, as a policeman is. The uniformity of her record might be explainable if she were upholding the traditions of a service which she had been taught it would be dishonorable to stain; this is a powerful factor in the case of the sea Captain standing by his ship as she sinks. But the telephone girl usually knows nothing of any tradition bidding her keep the honor of her service clear, though unconsciously she is fast making such a tradition. There is nothing mechanical or instinctive about her sticking to her post; the other employees run for their lives. That is because they can do nothing to avert the disaster, while she knows that she can lessen it and reasons out the way to do it; so her staying is deliberate, not instinctive.
“…Perhaps it would be best to give the solution up and not try to account for it, but simply to pay a tribute of unaffected respect to the humble little worker who, without the least idea of it, is consistently building up, whenever the terrible opportunity comes, a wonderful tradition for her trade.”
For Tessie McNamara, the principal earthly reward she received for her great act of heroism came from, of all places, the Maryland Casualty Company, the insurance company that carried the liability insurance on the factory. As one newspaper wag wrote: “It sent her a gold watch, appropriately inscribed, and a purse of gold. And. brethren, when the daily newspapers printed the story they failed to mention the name of the Maryland Casualty Company.” (Actually, The National Special Aid Society later presented Miss McNamara with an additional check to honor her for her bravery.)
Great courage had instantly transformed her into a national celebrity, but Tessie shunned publicity. Born in Lyndhurst in 1892, Tessie McNamara lived there 52 years, then moved to East Rutherford and made the daily commute to-and-from New York City. Following her retirement she lived a quiet but relatively productive life. She attended a local Franciscan church, St. Joseph's, where her acquaintances—interestingly enough—included a young Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, Father Mychal Judge, who became Chaplain of the Fire Department of New York and the first recorded victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Tessie stayed in East Rutherford. She died in on February 8, 1971, at age 78. She’s buried in the southwest quarter of Saint Joseph’s Cemetery in Lyndhurst, in the McNamara family plot, sharing a humble granite marker (partially obscured by shrubbery) with her older sister, Julia A. NcNamara (1886–1968).
In 1979 Germany finally made reparations for the damage caused by the firery calamity of 1917, but, as usual, did not admit responsibility for what had happened.
The Tessie McNamara Memorial Marker is on Clay Avenue, on the left when traveling north. The marker is next to a flagpole. In the marsh about a hundred yards across an expanse of water, is a brick stack, believed by historians to be the last standing part of the Foundry. The stack is situated in the area bounded by Valley Brook Avenue, Polito Avenue, and the office buildings on Wall Street West. The Lyndhurst Historical Society has made this area into a vest pocket park dedicated to McNamara's memory. The brick stack can be seen from the park, especially from a small wooden observation platform near the marker. Considering what Tessie McNamara did, I’ve always thought this to be one of the more oddly inconspicuous of such memorials.
Looking at this unusually discreet marker and park, one might be tempted to paraphrase artist Andy Warhol and say that Tessie McNamara got her 15 minutes of fame. I prefer to quote the New York Tribune of her era: “That queer thing, courage, which even pacifists may possess and which does not necessarily dwell in the souls of prizefighters, saved a good many lives at the Kingsland explosion. If Miss Tessie McNamara had not clamped her telephone gear to her head and warned every building within range, the casualty report from New Jersey's sector of the Great War would have read very differently.”
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