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Port Security

On 31 July 1916, a massive explosion destroyed the port facility on Black Tom’s Island, New Jersey and sent a million dollars worth of glass cascading onto the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken, and other New York and New Jersey cities. Only the fact that it happened at 0200 prevented the loss of thousands of lives. Sabotage was suspected, but never proven.

On the morning of 6 December 1917, a tremendous blast ripped through the sleepy town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The explosion destroyed 3,000 dwellings, killed more than 1,600 people and injured 9,000. Most of the dead were children. That morning the French freighter Mont Blanc, carrying 5,000 tons of TNT, collided with the Norwegian steamship Imo in Halifax’s outer harbor. Unfortunately, after the collision, a fire started, and the crewmen tried to put it out rather than scuttle the ship. When the fire reached the TNT, an explosion equal to a small nuclear blast occurred. Mont Blanc simply disappeared, and the shock waves threw Imo ashore. The Mont Blanc disaster ranks as one of the worst maritime tragedies of all times. This particular ship sailed from New York on its way to Europe, one of hundreds that loaded explosive cargoes in New York for the war in Europe.

It was these disasters that stirred American leaders to empower the Coast Guard to ensure that this never again happened in the United States. The Coast Guard and its predecessor agency, the Revenue Cutter Service, had long been tied to the movement and anchorage of vessels in U.S. territorial waters. The RCS was first tasked with this job during 1888 in New York. By 1915, when the Coast Guard was created, the service was directed by the Rivers and Harbors Act “to establish anchorage grounds for vessels in all harbors, rivers, bays and other navigable waters of the United States . . . .” During World War I, the Coast Guard continued to enforce rules and regulations that governed the anchorage and movements of vessels in American harbors. The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the Coast Guard further power to protect merchant shipping from sabotage. This act included the safeguarding of waterfront property, supervision of vessel movements, establishment of anchorages and restricted areas, and the right to control and remove people aboard ships.

The tremendous increase in munitions shipments, particularly in New York, required an increase in personnel to oversee this activity. The term “captain of the port” was first used in New York and this officer was charged with supervising the safe loading of explosives. During the war a similar post was established in other U.S. ports.

During World War I, CAPT Godfrey L. Carden, commander of the Coast Guard’s New York Division , was named Captain of the port (COTP) in that harbor. The majority of the nation’s munitions shipments abroad left through New York. For a period of a year and a half, more than 1,600 vessels, carrying more than 345-million tons of explosives, sailed from this port. In 1918, Carden’s division was the largest single command in the Coast Guard. It was made up of over 1,400 officers and men, four Corps of Engineers tugs and five harbor cutters.