“Get up or go up!,” switchboard operator Theresa Louise “Tessie” McNamara shouted into the intercom, ignoring the artillery shell that had just crashed through the wall and passed
just five feet over her head. “What a crazy day!” she later recalled . . . . Every instinct in my body told me to leave and run for safety, especially as I began to see the flames. But I could not do it. I knew that my life was not the only one in danger.”
It was January 11,1917, three months before the United States would enter World War I, when a fire started in Building #30 of a munitions factory. Located in Kingsland, now Lyndhurst, New Jersey, at the edge of a marsh now known as the Meadowlands, the factory had been built to manufacture armaments for Great Britain and Russia who were fighting against Germany and its allies. The fire, an act of foreign sabotage, spread rapidly throughout the complex of 40 buildings, setting off stockpiles of gunpowder, TNT, and a million artillery shells. “Thousands of these missiles,” wrote a reporter, “were flung aloft and for minute after minute the sky rained red and golden fire.” As many as a half a million shells exploded setting off reverberations for miles and filling the sky with a dense black cloud, an enormous plume filling the sky.
It was 8:45 a.m. when Tessie got the call about the out-of-control fire. Quickly she called the police and fire department, had the fire whistle blown and alerted the men in her building who rushed out to the fire, leaving her alone.
She stayed: “My first thought was to save the lives of the 1,700 men in the different buildings . . .knowing that if I didn’t nobody else would,” she told a reporter the day after the explosion. Glancing out the window she could see the rapidly spreading fire: “Shells were dropping all around and I thought every minute would be my last.”
Still she stayed until she completed the calls. Then, she said, “I started for the door without my coat or hat. Just then three of the boys who had missed me appeared in the office doorway. One of them shouted, ‘Come on, Tess,’ but I couldn’t walk. My courage left me and I needed their assistance to get out. 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."
Thanks to Tessie’s warning all the workers survived the explosion. She was awarded a $100 gold coin and a check for $25. Her heroism was reported in newspapers across the country,
including Ohio, Montana, Texas, Arizona, California, and South Carolina. On February 11, 1921, a poem, “Tessie McNamara,” by Viola Roseboro, appeared on the front page of a newspaper in Walthill, Nebraska.
In 2003, near the site of the explosion, the Lyndhurst Historical Society placed a beautiful boulder with a plaque, a flagpole, a bench, and a sign that reads: “KINGSLAND EXPLOSION MEMORIAL IN HONOR OF TESSIE McNAMARA. A viewing platform with a scope aimed at the brick smokestack, the most visible remains of the factory, and pavers were added in 2008 and 2009 by Eagle Scouts Projects and the Lyndhust Historical Society. In 2017 the centennial of the Kingsland Explosion and Tessie’s heroism was marked by an event In 2021, the memorial was "proudly restored" by an Eagle Scout Project and the Lyndhurst Historical Society. (I am noting the continued care of the landmark honoring Tessie McNamara because it is not something I have seen at other landmarks.)
Tessie McNamara eschewed celebrity, living a quiet life until her death in 1977.
Linda and I visited Tessie's Memorial on May 1, 2022. It was a beautiful Spring day, undisturbed by traffic or people, only Canada geese couples who flew over our heads, one honking, then the other, back and forth Linda photographed me standing at the boulder with its mica sparking in the sunlight, and thinking about Tessie's actions 105 years ago and the people who have honored her ever since in this out-of-the way location.