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1922: North Bergen Train Bombing


North Bergen circa September 1916 Granton Junction seen in the mid-ground and Babbitt Soap Factory in the background. Courtesy of Lenny DiBrango

August 12, 1922 was a typical summer day. The high of the day just touched 90 degrees and cooled to seasonably comfortable 62 by nightfall. Just shy of midnight, Dumont Local 206 was making its way through North Bergen to the Weehawken Terminal. The train ride was usually an uneventful one. The passengers on board had just spent a day "in the country," upper Bergen County. But that calm summer night ride would come to an abrupt end as the train pass bridge number 4 and North Bergen in the midst of the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.

Jersey Journal August 14, 1922. Courtesy of the Jersey Journal Archives

As the Dumont Local made its way to Granton Junction was rocked by an explosion. On board were passengers from the greater New York City area returning home from a day of rest and relaxation. Unbeknownst to the passengers they were about to become innocent victims in a conflict between railroad workers and the Railroad Labor Board. For several weeks during the summer of 1922 railroad works across America protested for higher wages and used strikes along with attempts to sabotage tracks and trains to show their frustration. This brings us back to North Bergen. The workers at the Granton Junction Station, located today near 83rd Street off of West Side Avenue, were on strike and there was a plan to send a message to those on the Railroad Labor Board in New York. It just so happened that the Dumont Local crossed paths with their plan. As the train crossed bridge Number 4, present day bridge on 83rd Street near West Side Avenue, two explosions rung out. The train was operated by John Wendt, the engineer, and Charles Seward, the conductor. Upon feeling the shock of the explosion the train was brought to a screeching halt. The two men reported to the North Bergen and Railroad Police seeing women and children climbing through splintered windows as screams filled the quite night air. Railroad workers rushed to aid those injured. It was during that time a third explosion ignited on a separate track.


Sergeant Joseph Cuny, of the North Bergen Police Department, was the first officer to report the attack. He was standing on the corner of State Street (86th Street) and Hudson Boulevard (Kennedy Blvd). His attention drawn by the sound of the first explosion, as he turned to look he saw the second and described it as "a ball of fire grow and roll upward." He immediately contacted police headquarters and notified Chief Leonard Marcy. Cuny then ran down State Street in trying to aid those injured. It would take 15 minutes before the full force of the North Bergen Police arrived on the scene.  Along with the NBPD, North Hudson Hospital contacted as well. They sent Dr. A. R. Kolar and urgently call all off duty nurse along with North Hudson physicians. At the time of the attack first reports suggested many causalities, and the hospital readied to turn itself into something comparable today as a trauma center. Dr. Kolar arrived and saw police scouring the area and injured passengers laid along the tracks. The only source of light were railroad lanterns giving a soft and eerie glow among the wreckage. Lucky many of those hurt were treated on scene and only four passengers needed to be transported to North Hudson Hospital: Mrs. Theresa Zytka of New York City, 30 years old, suffering from extreme nervous shock Mrs. Florence Duncan of Brooklyn, 28 years old, suffering from nervous shock Mrs. J. Perrella of the Bronx, 23 years old, laceration of the right hand Anna Schmeid of Brooklyn, 4 years old, cut on the nose by flying glass Charles J. Lowe of Ridgefield Park, was sitting in the rear car, the smoking car. "I hurried up to the cars where the bombs had struck," reported Lowe. He continued and detailed the events that he witnessed:


"And I saw there a baby, certainly not more than 2 years old with its leg laid open by a heavy piece of glass from one of the windows. The glass was still sticking in the open wound, because the mother was injured and too sick and faint to care for the child immediately. Some of the passengers went to her immediately, and they stopped the flow of blood from the wound. The baby became weak and then unconscious from loss of blood. Most of the injured were women and children, and there were certainly at least twenty of them. I think so many of the children were injured because they are always at the windows in the train, and so caught the heaviest barrage of broken glass. I saw another woman with her arm hashed open, so that it seemed to me that her hand was almost severed. Passengers who were injured in lesser degree were trying to help her and the others who had severe wounds which poured blood. None of the men were injured in fact, there were few men on the train except in the smoking car, which also had its quota of women, because the train was crowded and every available seat was taken. I do not think there is any doubt that the bombs were thrown. Passengers in the third coach told me that the bomb exploded against the side with a terrific noise and a yellow glare. And that the couch seemed to rock on the rails. I made a closer examination of the coach when the train pulled into Weehawken. And I found that every window in the car had been ripped out as well as windows in two of the other cars in the train. I saw also that the forward step and part of the vestibule on the third car had been ripped away. So that I think that the bomb struck there and exerted it main ripping effect there. If it had struck right into the side of the car, I think that it would have crashed through the windows and possibly killed many women and children. We leaned from our seats at the sound of the explosion, then heard a second and lighter report. Some of us ran to the rear of the train and we saw the third bomb explode about 100 feet down the tracks. This leads me to believe that the missiles were hurled and not placed on the tracks to be exploded by the wheels." Another passenger, Frank Digney also of Ridgefield Park, was a WWI veteran who at the time of the incident worked as a chemist, gave his account as well: "That man told me that he thought from the smell of the smoke and the noise of the report that dynamite had been used in the bombs. I saw the explosion of the third bomb from the rear of the smoker and I saw the brakmen come running back. He had not been able to find anything about the bomb nor ad he seen any of the men who had thrown them. All of us agreed with the dynamite expert that the bombs were thrown and were not placed on the tracks. One reason for this theory is that the bomb hit the third car. If it had been placed on the tracks the locomotive would have exploded it. The bombs were certainly thrown. Our car was filled with an arrid, gray smoke which was distinguishable from the tobacco smoke in the coach."

The Jersey Journal reported extensively on the attack. In its August 14th Evening Edition, a letter published to the Jersey Journal Forum: Letters to the Editor. In the letter the author penned a scathing image of the railroad works, the presumed attackers by the public, calling them fiendish, diabolical and savages. The writer even suggested that "Every agency of justice should unite to run down the guilty and place them behind bars." North Bergen's Police Chief Leonard Marcy was doing just that.

Police Chief Leonard Marcy (1917) History of Hudson County: Genealogies of Prominent Families. Courtesy of the National Archives

Two days had passed since the bombing and the shroud of mystery was yet to be lifted. The question who was on every residents lips. Alfred Lax, the representative for the strikers at Granton Junction denied that any of his men had any part in the bombing. Lax made an official statement: "The committee has been against violence of any kind and has counseled men against it. I am sure the explosion was not due to the strike or, if it was a bombing, that it was not committed by strikers. He continued, "Our men know very well that violence of any kind alienates public sympathy, which we need in situation of this kind." There was even a rumor that the North Bergen Police knew the men who perpetrated the attack. Yet even though there was much discussion of the event the North Bergen Police were silent. There was only a brief exchange with reporters: North Bergen Police Department: "There have been no arrests." Reporter: "Will there be any arrests made today?" North Bergen Police Department: "Don't know anything about it." What people did not know about was the investigation going on at police headquarters. Chief Marcy was working to make an arrest soon. He was working with several North Bergen and Hudson County detectives, Chief David Rossa of the New York Central Railroad Police, Inspector George Bardol a "special policeman," John Serpico of International Fireworks Company, the New Jersey State Police and the Department of Justice had assigned men to the case as well.

Jersey Journal Evening Edition August 15, 1922. Courtesy of the Jersey Journal Archive

What we do know about Marcy's investigation is limited. We know he theorized that the attackers mostly likely were attempting to damage the bridge, not the train. He believed this because if the bridge collapsed, debris would block the track below causing delays in service and use on both lines heading in and out of the New York metro area. He said of the attacker(s), "regardless of what they sought to accomplish the crime was dastardly. Many deaths might have resulted." Marcy would also go on the record as saying the bombs were the work of a "novice."  One group Marcy sought to investigate and eventually cleared of involvement was the labor union, the International Workers of the World. Meanwhile, workers at Granton Junction prepared to strike. The West Shore Railroad yard was now being patrolled by law enforcement and North Bergen was the focal point of the nation when it came to the railroad strike.

The New York Herald August 16, 1922. Courtesy of Chronicling America

Harold Grassfield a 21-year-old North Bergen native, volunteer firefighter, World War I veteran (Navy) and striking shop-man was arrested by George Bardol after an impromptu confession. Grassfield told Bardol that he and roughly 40 others rode to the bridge under the cover of darkness and planted the explosives. He claimed all those involved worked at the Granton roundhouse, which was once located on 69th Street between Tonnelle and West Side Avenues. He was turned over to the North Bergen Police and question by Chief Marcy for more than three hours. He told Marcy a different story. He claimed to know nothing of the event, he played baseball in the afternoon, taken lunch at a restaurant on the Boulevard with friends and  was at dance at the time of the bombing. He went on to say he only wanted to see how Bardol would react to his statement. He was charged with illegal possession of explosives. The fact the Grassfield confessed to Bardol is of some interest. Three weeks before the event Bardol arrested Grassfield. He caught him carrying a sack of "bombs" which Grassfield claimed  were going to be used during a parade. The charge against him was never filed. However, Grassfield admitted to Marcy about the run in with Bardol, this time claiming the explosives were fireworks that were going to be used at a party. That said, Chief Marcy was able to get several names out of Grassfield and the chief promised their arrest by morning. During the back and forth between Marcy and Grassfield, Marcy played to Grassfield's sympathies. Grassfield's father was an engineer for West Shore Railroad. Marcy asked: "Supposed your father had been the engineer of the train that was passing over that bridge when the dynamite was set off, what would you have thought then?" Grassfield responded:"That's something I won't tell anybody except my lawyer."

Grassfield was held and a bail of $2,500 (roughly $38,000 today) which his family posted. A hearing was set for the evening of August 23rd, 8 days after the first arrest, it however was further postponed to a unsubscribed date. However, the happenings at Granton Junction were escalating. Strikebreakers were brought in and many altercations took place. Marcy had laid the blame for the explosion on the strikes and stated, "outrage indicative of more terrible violence yet to come." Marcy and the North Bergen Police continued to investigate the clues made available by Bardol's story and more arrests were expected to follow.  During the investigation, Grassfield had a very powerful voice come forward to his defense, secretary of the Central Strike Committee, David Williams. Williams defended Grassfield with the following public statement: "It is proved to our satisfaction that the strikers had no part in the bombing, and that the boy [Grassfield] is innocent. Grassfield is not a member of any our unions. He was employed on the railroad as a laborer ad went on strike n sympathy with or men. Because he did so we propose to stand by him and see him through his trouble. According to our investigation young Grassfield is assistant foreman of the Excelsior Fire Company of North Bergen, of which his father is foreman. The fire company is planning a celebration and the younger Grassfield is chairmen of the entertainment committee. To advertise the event he had secured some firework bombs. He confided to a friend that he had them and jokingly remarked that he was going to blow up the coal pit with them, something that is impossible with this class of fireworks. We are confident that he will be freed of the charge and that further investigation will disclose that the strikers had nothing to do with the outrage at Bridge No 3."

Williams not only publicly defend Grassfield he made every attempt to clear his name. He sent telegrams to New Jersey's U.S. Senators, Walter Evans Edge and Joseph Sherman Frelinghuysen, protesting against the North Bergen Police Departments take over of Granton Junction and the arrest of Grassfield. As stated before things in North Bergen were almost at boiling point.  As the summer was drawing to a close Harold Grassfield's fate did not look good. Marcy had found a witness. The witness was never named but only identified as a "young North Bergen man." The young man employed by a local fireworks factory, again, the name never being released. The anonymous young man showed Chief Marcy how the bombs detonated. He recreated the explosion which emitted a loud sound and a multi-colored spray of pyrotechnics. After the field test there was enough evidence to try Grassfield. A bomb that matched the description of the explosion, a signed witness statement from the factory worker and when George Bardol saw the replica of the bomb and identified it as being similar to the ones he found in Grassfield's possession the month earlier. The Great Railroad Strike of 1922 came to an end on September 14th, 1922. The railways of the United States were fully operational and strikers appeased. But in the mix of union negotiations the case against Grassfield falls apart. It seemed as if everyone involved simply turned to their next assignment. With the strike over, the railroad companies no longer wished to press charges against anyone known or unknown in the bombing. Grassfield would never be tried for the attack on Dumont Local 206 and would go on to live a very productive life and become a major figure in the North Bergen community. He would serve as a firefighter up until his untimely death in 1946 when he suffered a heart attack while fighting a fire, he was 46.

So I leave it to you. Was Grassfield the perpetrator? Could a young, volunteer firefighter who served in the Great War do such a thing? What would be his motive? Does a full day of activities with plenty of alleged witnesses create a rock solid alibi? What would be the purpose of boasting to being party to such a heinous event? Could Special Officer Bardol had it out for Grassfield? Was he wrongfully accused? Was the evidence circumstantial? Did his story always stay the same?

Or...

Was he guilty? He must have done it. He was a son looking out for his father's livelihood.  Perhaps this was the only way he felt he could enter the rail workers union. Or his sympathies with the union led to him taking up arms with them. He did claim he'd only answer a question to his lawyer. The test bomb did match the description of those from the train. He knew intimate details about the bombing. His story did change when Marcy interrogated him.

The truth is we may never know. The bombing of Dumont Local 206 took place nearly 100 years ago, 97 to be exact. Those involved are long gone. Their stories lost to history. Records are sparse and we are only left with some of original newspaper articles to analyze the tale. Yet, this was a major event in North Bergen's history. An event that rocked the town to it's core and captivated  the residents during the short yet intensive investigation which put a young Chief of Police to the test. Today people pass under bridge No. 4 without knowing what took place there. And oddly enough before the new bridge was built on 69th Street it was used to avoid the train.

 

 

 

 

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