In March 1916, World War I was in progress. Although the United States had not yet entered the war, the country was assisting its allies with war supplies. The Canadian Car and Foundry Company in Montreal signed large contracts with Russia and England for delivery of shells. An enormous factory was constructed in the meadowlands, which was then referred to as Kingsland. It was located on the site of Lyndhurst’s present industrial park. A brick stack, believed to be the remaining part of the Foundry, is located in the area bounded by Valley Brook Avenue, Polito Avenue, and the office buildings on Wall Street West.
Munitions, including shells, shell cases, shrapnel, and powder were shipped to Kingsland from over 100 different factories. At the foundry they were assembled for shipment to Russia. Since it was producing 3 million shells per month, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company was a worthy objective for a German saboteur.To prevent sabotage, the company erected a six-foot fence that was patrolled by guards, around the clock. All of the workers, who were forbidden to carry matches, were searched before entering the plant.
Building 30 was used exclusively for cleaning out shells; it contained 48 workbenches. On the bench in front of each employee was a pan of gasoline and a small rotating machine operated by a belt.
The cleaning process included several steps:
On a bitter cold January 11, 1917, a fire started in Building 30. In four hours, probably 500,000, three-inch-high explosive shells were discharged. The entire plant was destroyed.
It was later established that the fire started at the bench of one of the workers—Fiodoe Wozniak. In an affidavit Foundry Foreman Morris Chester Musson said:
“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.”
Other workmen alleged that the fire began in front of Wozniak’s wooden roller. One of the company directors, Mr. Cahan, remarked about Wozniak’s nervous behavior and contradictions during an interview about the incident. Wozniak, who admitted that he had served time in the Austrian Army, was told by Mr. Cahan that he would be needed in New York as part of the investigation into the fire.
The case dragged on for many years and was finally settled in the 1950s. Germany never admitted guilt, but paid reparations to the United States.
A heroine emerged the day of the fire. Kingsland resident Tessie McNamara, who operated the company switchboard, was credited with saving many lives. As the fire raged on, Tessie stayed at the switchboard that Thursday afternoon. She plugged in each of the buildings and shouted the warning, “Get out or go up!”
Thanks to her dedication, no one was killed in the fire. Escaping workers were able to cross the frozen Hackensack River or run up Valley Brook Avenue to safety. The National Special Aid Society later presented Miss McNamara with a check to honor her for her bravery.
The Lyndhurst Historical Society has created a vest pocket park dedicated to her memory. The park is located on Clay Avenue, between Valley Brook Avenue and Wall Street West. The brick stack can be seen from this park.