On Dec. 6, 1917, the largest human-made explosion before the detonation of nuclear weapons would occur. An explosion that released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, about one-seventh the power of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
I’m talking about the Halifax Explosion
I have always been fascinated by this explosion, which completely changed Halifax forever.
I wanted to start by looking at Halifax in the weeks leading up to the explosion because I feel that when we talk about the Halifax Explosion, we only focus on the day of the explosion, and after, rather than the leadup to the day and the people who were going about their lives at the time, unaware that a massive event was looming on the horizon.
By the time the calendar turned over on 1917, Halifax had existed 168 years dating back to June 21, 1749, when Edward Cornwallis landed with 13 transports full of settlers to establish a new community. Of course, the land had been occupied for untold centuries by the Mi’kmaq people, who called the area of Halifax K’jipuktuk (che-book-took), which meant Great Harbour.
It would fill that role soon enough as a headquarters for the Royal Navy in North America for decades. As with most communities, Halifax would go through booms and busts. It would see its importance increase during times of war, only to fade during peacetime.
This episode isn’t about the history of Halifax though, even though it is a fascinating history. This is the story of Halifax and the explosion that changed it forever, and for that, we need to fast forward up to 1917.
When 1917 rolled around, Halifax was one of the most important cities in North America. It was the headquarters for the Royal Navy and just prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Halifax had gone through a huge upgrade to its harbour and waterfront facilities. When war was declared, Halifax was the jumping off point for ships in the Atlantic convoys that would proceed to Europe with men and supplies.
Within the harbour, merchant ships would gather at the Bedford Basin where two sets of anti-submarine nets protected them. British cruisers and destroyers were also in the harbour to protect convoys as they departed. Search lights and gun batteries provided an added sense of security for the ships in the harbour.
The war had brought immense change to Halifax. Its population rose from 60,000 before the war to 65,000 by 1917 and the weight of goods passing through the harbour increased nine-fold. A reason for this was all neutral ships bound for any port in North America had to report to Halifax first for inspection. By the time 1917 came along, Halifax was a world class port and naval facility during the steamship era. The entire country of Canada connected to Halifax through a series of railways that all funneled, like rivers leading to a delta, into the city. It was from here that soldiers left, and it was to here that soldiers returned. There was even talk of putting in a subway system in Halifax, but this was not pursued.
With all of this, the city was overburdened. Its housing and transit facilities were straining under the weight of the war, and the city government did its best to keep up.
Needless to say, there was a lot going on in Halifax as 1917 progressed towards 1918.
For the residents of Halifax, with its importance in the war effort, there was a constant worry of German Zeppelins coming over the ocean and dropping bombs on the city. Residents also dealt with the constant worry of submarines in the harbour, or German battleships arriving and blasting their guns towards Halifax.
There were also rules in place regarding blackouts to protect ships coming into the harbour. A ship’s silhouette against the lights of Halifax would be an easy target for a submarine. At night, the city descended into darkness. Shades were drawn to keep light from homes getting out, and any opening where light could get through was covered.
So, what was happening in the city in the two weeks leading up to the disaster? Essentially, things went on as they always had in the community. Troops came and went, dignitaries visited, businesses opened and closed, and no one could expect what was about to hit the city.
The biggest news at the time was the federal election, which would prove to be the most contentious and divisive in Canadian history. The ruling Conservatives had formed the Unionist Government with several Liberals who supported conscription. The Conservatives had been in power since 1911 and the hope was, they would remain in power to implement conscription, something the Liberals and their leader, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, were firmly against.
The Union Government was led by Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the favourite son of Halifax. Borden had been born in Nova Scotia and had worked for many years before he became a politician in his law firm in Halifax. He represented many important Halifax businesses and sat on boards in Halifax such as the Bank of Nova Scotia. When Nov. 22 came around, two weeks before the explosion, the election campaign had been going on for about a month and there was little doubt that Borden would once again win his riding. For the first time in his career, he would not represent Halifax, as he stepped aside so another candidate for the party could run in his place, while he would run in Kings County, another district in Nova Scotia.
On Nov. 15, he was in Halifax to open his campaign, in a meeting held at Market Hall. Around 5,000 people came out to the meeting, including many women who could now vote thanks to having relatives fighting overseas in the war.
Borden would say in that kick-off to his campaign, quote:
“Since Halifax was founded, more than a century and a half ago, there have been no events in the world’s history comparable to those through which we have passed since August 1914.”
Little did he know, only three weeks from then, Halifax would go through an event it could have never even dreamed of. Borden would return to Halifax a few weeks later, not to campaign, but to assess the destruction that had descended on the community he loved.
On Nov. 24, many people in Halifax Harbour were surprised to see a brightly coloured ship that stood out from the grey ships that dominated the harbour. The sister ship of the Kirstianfjord, built as part of the Scandinavian-American Line, with 2,000 passengers described as undesirables. The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
“They were watched with much interest from the decks of ships at anchor for it is known that among the passengers are many undesirable citizens whom the United States have allowed safe passage back to Germany and Austria. The ship retains the gay colors of the Scandinavian-American Line and presents a striking contrast to the somber grays and dizzy camouflage of the Allied ships.”
That same day, the bells of St. Paul’s Anglican Church were rung in the city to celebrate the recent victory in France at Passchendaele. That church had a deep history in the city, dating back to 1750 when it was built. When the explosion hit, the church would survive but a piece of a wooden frame from another building was thrown into the wall of the church, where it remains to this very day. Only one stained glass windows in the church would be damaged, but most of the regular windows were destroyed. The role of this church was large in the Halifax Explosion, where it served as an emergency hospital. It was also the only church in the city that could conduct a service the day after the explosion.
On Nov. 26, nearly 500 soldiers returned from the front lines in Europe and docked in Halifax. A large staff of medical officers were on hand to help the injured soldiers and get them ready to travel out on a train to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Most would be long gone before the explosion happened.
With so many soldiers moving through the city, bootlegging was a significant problem. On Nov. 28, Private Edward Legg, who was attached to the engineering battalion, was arrested and found with $350 on his person. In a small hotel room, he had been making rum, which he then sold to soldiers who were looking for cheap alcohol.
On Nov. 29, another ship of soldiers came into Halifax, 500 in total, with many seriously wounded or sick. Of the 500 who arrived, 300 would depart to other places in Canada and another two ships were expected within the next day. Two men on the ship died enroute and were buried at sea. On Dec. 1, another 1,500 arrived in the city, swelling the population of the community briefly.
As ships came in with soldiers, other ships left with new recruits who were about to find themselves in hell when they were dropped into the French trenches. For many soldiers, the last time they would ever see Canada would be at Halifax Harbour and for others, the sight of the harbour was enough to move them to tears as they realized they were back home and their time in the trenches was over.
By Dec. 3, the federal election was heating up in Halifax. The community and province were a strong supporter of the Union Government, so it was no surprise that the Halifax Chronicle came out in support of Borden and his government. The newspaper would report, quote:
Another 500 soldiers arrived in Halifax on Dec. 3, with many severely injured. Lt. Robert Dibbie, who was a champion oarsman, arrived back in Canada with those 500 soldiers. Described as having his head ripped open from ear to ear by a shell, he had spent three months in hospital before he could come home. During his time at the front, before this severe wound, he had been shot several times and suffered a fracture to his skull.
On Dec. 4, it was reported that six soldiers were studying at the Halifax School for The Blind. The school had been opened decades earlier in 1871 with only four students. When the explosion happened, only two days later, most of the students were taking music lessons in rooms away from the harbour. The building would survive the explosion, and last until 1983 when it was torn down. Soon after, the school would suddenly its enrolment numbers skyrocket due to so many residents of Halifax losing their sight from flying glass. The organization would also play an important role in creating the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
On Dec. 5, the day before the apocalypse came to Halifax, Frank Carvell, who was a Member of Parliament, was in the community to speak to residents about the election and why the Union Government was the right government to vote for. At the time he was the Minister of Public Works and 1,200 people came to hear him. Carvell would go on to play a prominent role in the response to the explosion, working with Prime Minister Borden to help the city recover from the massive explosion.
The day before the explosion, Halifax Harbour was full of ships. There was the British ship Middleham Castle, which had left dry dock but was quickly replaced by the Hovland, a Norwegian ship. While the Hovland was being repaired, the Picton, a British ship, was waiting to enter dry dock. While the ship sat in the water, the crew unloaded it in preparation for its own repairs. Two other ships, both British, sat in the harbour, the Curaca and Calonne. Both ships were getting cargo in the form of horses, who would soon find themselves taken from Canada and put into the meat grinder that was trench warfare, along with the soldiers who would ride them.
There were also two submarines in the harbour, not German of course. At the time, Canada had only two submarines, the CC1 and CC2 and both sat in the harbour. On top of all of that, more ships sat in the harbour or at the entrance to the harbour. There was the Alfreda, Armstrong, Beryl, Liberty and Lighter. Even the United States had ships in the harbour with the Old Colony and the Morrill.
At the Acadia Sugar Refinery, the Ragus was docked, as was the St. Bernard. Two-armed merchant ships sat next to the immense Highflyer, the British light cruiser that had a crew of 450 and measured in at 113 metres in length. This ship was far bigger than the three Canadian patrol vessels in the harbour, with the Acadia, Margaret and Cartier being the largest of the ships Canada had at Halifax at the time. At the time, there were about a dozen wooden anti-submarine drifters, measuring at 18 metres in length with a crew of 11 each, in the area after having arrived from the shipyards.
There were many tugboats, all moving around the much larger ships in the harbour and helping push them in and out of their positions. On Dec. 5, like most days, there were as many as 13 tug boats in the harbour, and the next day several of them would be right in the mix of things when two ships collided and changed Halifax forever. Two ferries, the Dartmouth II and Halifax II, also crisscrossed the harbour, taking people to and from the communities in the days before bridges were built.
If all of these seems like a lot, it was. It is believed that on Dec. 5, 1917, there were as many as 50 merchant ships in the Bedford Basin alone. Among those ships was one of 27 that had arrived in the harbour, ready to be loaded, before taking a slow convoy to Europe.
One of those ships was a Norwegian ship called the Imo. Not quite arrived yet was the Mont Blanc, currently steaming towards where it would arrive on Dec. 6, in its date with destiny.
The Imo had been built in 1889 as part of the White Star Line, the same company that would build the Titanic. Launched as the Runic, it was a cargo liner that carried 12 passengers and freight, typically livestock. By 1912, she was named the Imo and was serving as a whaling supply ship.
When the First World War erupted, the ship became the charter for the Belgian Relief Commission. A neutral ship, she had “Belgian Relief” painted on the side of the ship to prevent German submarines from sinking her.
She would arrive in Halifax Harbour on Dec. 3 for neutral inspection, scheduled to spend two days awaiting refueling supplies. The ship was supposed to leave the harbour on Dec. 5, before the arrival of the Mont Blanc, but due to a delay in the coal load for the Imo arriving, she could not leave before the submarine nets were put up for the night. As a result, the Imo would not be able to leave until Dec. 6.
Small things can have huge impacts on history, and the delay in the coal load arriving would be such an event. If it had of come on time, the Imo and Mont Blanc would have never met in Halifax Harbour, and the explosion, would have never happened.
While the Imo was too late to leave the harbour because of the submarine nets going up, the Mont Blanc was too late to enter the harbour and had to wait until the following morning.
The Mont Blanc had been launched the same year as the Imo, where it was owned by French owners but built in England. When the First World War began, the ship was put into service transporting wartime supplies for the French. She had left New York on Dec. 1 to join a convoy in Halifax, loaded with explosives including picric acid, guncotton, benzene and TNT.
Prior to the First World War, a ship loaded with explosives as the Mont Blanc was would not have been allowed within the harbour, but those rules had relaxed due to the threat of German submarines.
For the night of Dec. 5, the Imo waited in the harbour to leave the next morning, while the Mont Blanc sat outside the harbour, waiting for the nets to go down so it could go into the harbour the next day.
As the sun rose on Halifax on Dec. 6, it was a cool day and ship traffic began quickly and early in and out of the harbour as soon as the submarine nets went down.
Due to the number of ships in the harbour, any ship entering in and out of the Bedford Basin were required to pass through the Narrows. Ships would have to pass on the side of the channel closes to their starboard or right side, so they could pass oncoming vessels port to port, by keeping them on their left side. As well, all ships were expected to move at a top speed of five knots, or 9.3 kilometres in the Harbour.
At 7:30 a.m., the Imo was granted clearance to leave the Bedford Basin through signals sent by the HMCS Acadia, a guard ship in the Harbour. Captain Haakon then had the Imo enter into the Narrows at a higher speed than was allowed in an effort to make up for the delay caused by the coal the previous day. As the Imo moved through the harbour, she came upon the SS Clara, an American steamer that was piloted on the wrong side of the harbour. The pilots of both ships agreed to pass each other starboard-to-starboard, rather than port-to-port, which pushed the Imo farther into the middle of the Harbour and closer to the Dartmouth shore. The Imo then approached the Stella Mari, a tugboat, which observed the Imo moving at excessive speed, so Horatio Brannen, the captain of the tugboat, moved closer to the western shore in order to avoid the ship.
At this time, Francis Mackey, an experienced harbour pilot, was on the Mont Blanc and the ship began moving into the harbour at 7:30 a.m., becoming the second ship to enter the harbour after the nets went down. The ship would move into the Bedford Basin on the Dartmouth side of the harbour.
As the Mont Blanc headed into the harbour, Mackey watched the ferry traffic and the other small boats in the harbour. Before long, he spotted a ship approaching about 1.21 kilometres away. It was the Imo.
Mackey on the Mont Blanc sounded a signal whistle to indicate that his ship had the right of way. The Imo responded with two short blasts, stating that it would not yield its position. In response, the Mont Blanc halted her engines and began to angle itself towards the Dartmouth side of the Harbour. The Mont Blanc let go another signal whistle, which the Imo again responded to with two whistles.
As the two ships were now approaching each other on a collision course, they both cut their engines, but this didn’t stop their movement due to momentum, but their speeds did decrease.
Mackey then ordered the Mont Blanc to steer hard to port to cross the bow of the Imo to avoid a collision. The Imo then blasted three whistles to state it was reversing its engines, which caused the Imo to swing towards the Mont Blanc.
At 8:45 a.m., the two ships collided and at first, there was nearly no damage beyond barrels of benzol that had tipped over on the deck and began to flow across the hold of the Mont Blanc.
The Imo, at this point, restarted its engines and began to pull back from the Mont Blanc. The two ships grinded against each other which in turn caused sparks. Those sparks ignited the benzol and a fire quickly started at the water line of the Mont Blanc and travelled up the side of the ship.
Knowing what was on the ship, the captain of the Mont Blanc thought that the ship would explode immediately, and he ordered the crew to abandon ship.
Around this time, people began to gather on the shores of the harbour, or at the windows of their homes, to watch the fire burning in the harbour, unaware of the immense danger they were in. As the crew of the Mont Blanc abandoned ship, the yelled to the people on shore, and the ships coming to respond to get away, trying to tell everyone that the ship was about to explode but they could not be heard.
In response to the fire, several ships started to make their way towards the Mont Blanc, as the ship drifted towards Pier 6 on the Halifax side. The Stella Maris responded to the fire, spraying the burning ship with its fire hose. The HMS Highflyer and the HMCS Niobe both responded as well. By the time the ships arrived, the plates on the Mont Blanc were too hot to touch, which prevented the securing of a line to the ship to tow it away from the pier, which was now on fire.
A man named Vincent Coleman was standing at his telegraph office about 750 feet from Pier 6. A sailor running by told them of the cargo burning in the Mont Blanc and Coleman quickly realized the danger to an incoming train from Saint John. Coleman returned to his post and sent out a message. There are many variations of this message, but the most common relation has it saying quote:
Then, at 9:04 a.m., the fire on the Mont Blanc, which by this point had spread throughout the ship and was burning ferociously, ignited the cargo of high explosives. In seconds, the entire ship was blown into pieces by a blast wave that extended out from the ship at a speed of one kilometre per second.
At the moment of detonation, where the Mont Blanc had been suddenly warmed to 5,000 degrees Celsius with the pressure of thousands of atmospheres. For a moment, the Halifax Harbour floor was exposed to air due to the displacement of a huge volume of water by the explosion. When water surged in to fill this new void, it produced a tsunami that rose as high as 60 feet above the high-water mark on the Halifax side of the Harbour.
The blast cloud exploded into the air, rising to 11,800 feet and the blast itself was felt as far away as Cape Breton, which was over 200 kilometres away, as well as Prince Edward Island, about 180 kilometres away.
Moments after the explosion and with the blast wave shooting out, 400 acres of land was completely destroyed by the explosion.
For the ships near the Mont Blanc, the blast was devastating. The Mont Blanc was blasted into smithereens, which caused white hot shards of iron to start falling down on Halifax, igniting fires throughout the city. Its 90-mm gun landed 5.6 kilometres to the north, while its anchor, which weighed half a ton, landed 3.2 kilometres to the south. Other pieces of steel plating and shrapnel would be found eight kilometres away from the blast zone, while there were also reports that 56 kilometres away from the blast, a barn was lifted from its foundations. News reports also stated that at Sydney, Nova Scotia 321 kilometres away residents felt a slight earthquake from the explosion. Some of these reports have to be taken with a grain of salt though, as there may have been some embellishment.
The Imo was carried onto shore by the tsunami. The blast killed all but one person on Highflyer. William Becker was the only survivor, although he was injured and had to swim to the Dartmouth shore. Two of the crew on the whaler survived for a few minutes before dying when they were pulled on shore. On the Stella Maris, 21 of the 26 men were killed and the ship was severely damaged and, on the shore, taken there by the tsunami. One of the survivors on that ship was Walter Brannen, who had been thrown into the hold by the blast.
On the Mont Blanc, the crew were able to get to safety and only one of the crew was killed in the blast.
Out at sea about 72 kilometres away from Halifax, two American vessels were coming in when the shock of the blast had the chief officer believing he had struck a mine, and then seeing a ship on the horizon, believed that he had been fired upon.
On Pier 6, firefighters from West Street Station 2 had arrived with the first motorized fire engine in Canada. As they were unrolling the hoses to fight the fire, the explosion occurred, the firefighters were killed instantly. In all, nine firefighters were killed in the explosion.
In Halifax, it was utter devastation. A total of 1,600 people were killed instantly and 9,000 were injured, 300 of whom died later. In a radius of 2.6 kilometre, 12,000 buildings were either destroyed or heavily damaged. A total of 1,630 homes were destroyed by fires and the explosion, leaving 6,000 homeless and 25,000 without enough shelter for the winter.
In all, the blast caused $35 million in damages, about $607 million today, making it one of the costliest disasters in Canadian history.
William Barton, a traveling auditor for the Imperial Munitions Board was having breakfast at the Halifax Hotel when the explosion happened. He would relate quote:
Once outside, Barton would describe the cloud he saw rising in the air, stating quote:
“Outside overhead a giant smoke cloud was moving northward. Danger seemed over.”
John Tappen, a 19-year-old apprentice pipe fitter was working in an engine room on a ship anchored in Halifax Harbour. Someone came running in yelling that two vessels had collided. Tappen went up on deck to see the Imo and the burning Mont Blanc drifting apart. The last thing that Tappen remembered was watching the ship. When the explosion happened, Tappen was thrown down a corridor into the interior of the ship. He would say decades later quote:
“When I regained my senses, I noticed all the buttons on my vest had been blown off.”
Tappen climbed back on deck to find most of his co-workers had been killed.
For those who were standing at their windows watching the fire burn, the blast hit their homes and smashed those windows, sending pieces of glass into their eyes, blinding many for the rest of their lives. A total of 5,900 eye injuries were reported, with 41 people losing their eyesight.
With the blast, stoves and lamps were thrown through buildings, causing fires to erupt throughout Halifax. In the North End of the city, entire blocks burned to the ground, while residents were trapped in their homes.
Billy Wells, a local firefighter, was thrown through the air in the explosion and had his clothes torn from his body. He would say of the devastation quote:
“The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”
The Acadia Sugar Factory, located near Pier 6 was reduced to rubble and most of the workers inside were killed. The Nova Scotia Cotton Mill located 1.5 kilometres from the blast was destroyed by a fire and its concrete floors collapsed. The Royal Naval College of Canada was heavily damaged and the students inside were maimed in the blast. The Richmond Railway Yards and Station was destroyed, killing 55 workers and destroying 500 railway cars.
The Protestant orphanage suffered terribly, losing its matron and all but two of its children in the explosion. Another 30 girls working for the Richmond Printing Company were all killed as well.
At the Richmond School, most of the children in attendance were killed in the blast but one child was blown through the ruins and was essentially unhurt.
Cora Matheson would suffer two broken legs and had a dangerous wound on her head. When the explosion occurred, she was knocked out of her father’s house and fell on the road. When she awoke, her fur coat had been taken off her body. Rather than be a case of looting, this was likely someone believing she was dead and taking the coat to be used to keep warm either for themselves or someone else.
David Inch was working in the exhibition grounds when the explosion occurred. He came home to find his wife missing. Her body would later be found, and she had tragically died.
One family, the Hefflers, lost 20 members in the explosion.
Third Officer Mayers of the British transport Middleton Castle was 200 yards from the explosion when it happened. Standing on the deck, about to step into a small boat to go ashore, he was knocked out by the blast. When he came to, he was 800 metres away and all of his clothing had been blown off of his body, but he survived.
Soldiers digging in rubble heard the faint bark of a dog. As they cleared the rubble, they found not only a dog, but a three-year-old boy next to him, still alive and unbruised.
In another home, a family of five had been killed but their kitten was found alive.
Throughout the city, hundreds of pigeons were found dead from the blast, littering the ground.
The Montreal Gazette would write after the explosion quote:
“Under the force of the explosion, houses crumpled while the unfortunate residents met death in the debris. In the west and northwest end, the damage was more extensive, and the walls of houses were in place blown to atoms and the plaster strewn on the streets, making them more like a shelled section of Flanders than a Canadian town.”
The newspaper would go on, describing the commotion after the explosion, stating quote:
“A few minutes after the explosion occurred, the streets were filled with terror-stricken people trying to make their way as best they might to the outskirts, in order to get out of the range of what they thought to be a German raid. Women rushed terror-stricken through the streets, many of them with children clasped to their breasts. In their eyes was a look of terror as they struggled on with blood-stained, horror-stricken faces, endeavoring to get anywhere from the falling masonry and crumbling walls. By the littered roadsides as they passed, there could be seen the remains of what had once been human beings, now torn and mangled beyond realization of what had occurred.”
Thanks to Coleman the telegraph operator, that train that was supposed to arrive was stopped a safe distance from the blast, saving 300 lives. While Coleman was killed in the blast, his message, sent out before the telegraph lines were destroyed in the city, was responsible for bringing all incoming trains towards Halifax to a halt but it was also heard by other stations along the Intercolonial Railway and it allowed for rescue and relief efforts to start immediately, thereby speeding up the process of bringing help to the stricken community.
A dispatch was received by J.D. Reid, the Minister of Railways from the Division Superintendent out of Moncton, which stated quote:
“The fire is spreading. We are sending special trains out of Moncton and every city with fire apparatus is also being called out. We are picking up fire apparatus between Moncton and Sydney and rushing it to Halifax. The situation is bad. Every building north of the Queen Hotel is totally wrecked. North Street Station is in ruins, as well as our plant at Willow Park and there is one mass of fire wreckage and dead bodies in the north end of the city.”
Halifax was by far the worst hit community, but it was not the only one to be impacted by the massive explosion. Dartmouth was on the other side of the harbour but would still suffer heavy damage, with 100 people losing their lives. Several buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.
Nearby to Halifax, there was the Mi’kmaq settlement, located opposite of Pier 9. At the time, many white landowners wanted to remove the Mi’kmaq from the location so that the land could be used for development, but the Mi’kmaq refused to move. When the explosion happened, most of the physical structures in the settlement were completely destroyed and were not rebuilt afterwards. It is known at least 16 died in the settlement but the number is probably much higher. Survivors from the Mi’kmaq settlement were not taken back to their land but instead put into a racially segregated building that was in poor condition and then they dispersed around the province.
Africville was a black settlement that had existed since the mid-19th century and thanks to the raised ground to the south, it was spared the direct force of the explosion but due to the frail condition of the buildings, many were still destroyed and five people died. At the time, Africville had no police or fire protection, nor any water or sewer lines due to racism at the time and the belief that the residents should move to make way for industrial development. When relief funds came in from across Canada, nearly nothing went to Africville, and the reconstruction of Halifax did not happen in Africville at all.
I covered Africville in a previous episode, you can find the link in my show notes on my website:
In evening editions of newspapers around Canada, the headlines spoke of the devastation throughout Halifax.
The Winnipeg Tribune would report quote:
“The news is not authentic. No official reports can be obtained. There is no direct telegraphic or telephonic communication with Halifax.”
Rampant rumour would spread out from Halifax over the cause of the explosion. In Washington D.C., the rumour was that a Belgian relief ship rammed a vessel loaded with ammunition, while another rumour stated that the collision was caused by a British cruiser. Another rumour stated that an American ship was rammed in the harbour.
The first rescuers were those who survived the initial blast in Halifax. Neighbours and co-workers began to dig out their friends and relatives and were soon joined by soldiers stationed in the city, as well as firefighters and policemen. Firefighters came from as far away as Moncton and Amherst, distances of 200 and 260 kilometres by the end of the day.
A private Hennenberry had returned home from the front wounded only days previous. He was found digging frantically in the rubble and was reported saying quote:
“Here was my home and I am sure I heard a moan a moment ago.”
Other soldiers helped him dig and they found his 18-month-old baby Olive, who had been protected when the protruding ash pan of the stove shielded her from wounds. While he was overjoyed to find her, he soon found the dead bodies of his wife and five other children.
Another soldier, unnamed, who had just returned home from the front found his wife and children dead. Rather than falling into despair, he was helping relief efforts, stating quote:
“I must do something or go mad.”
Due to the extent of the damage, pretty much every vehicle in the city was put into service including cars, delivery wagons, trucks and more to collect the dead and wounded.
Arthur Beamis, who had suffered a broken rib in the explosion, did not seek help but instead used his car to transport wounded all day until he finally collapsed and was taken to the hospital.
Another man who had part of his face blown away worked in the ruins to rescue survivors.
For days afterwards, wounded would be found in the rubble of buildings. One young child was found on Dec. 8 in the rubble of his home, mostly unhurt. One six-year-old child was blown through the roof of his house in the explosion, rolled down the roof of another house and fell on the ground and suffered only a few scratches on his cheeks.
One girl named Lola Burns was saying morning prayers next to her bed when the explosion occurred. The house around her collapsed but the timbers fell in such a way to create a tent over here, saving her from being crushed.
One fact that often gets ignored is that due to the explosion and the stress of the situation for survivors, a large number of premature births were recorded in Halifax after the explosion.
With the amount of wounded in the city, numbering upwards of 9,000, the hospitals were soon swarmed with people and doctors were overwhelmed, working for days on end with little rest. At Camp Hill, a military hospital, 1,400 people were admitted on Dec. 6.
The Chebucto Road School would become the central morgue, with the Royal Canadian Engineers converting the basement of the school into a morgue and the classrooms into offices for the Halifax coroner. Before long, wagons and trucks began delivering a steady stream of dead to the new morgue. Arthur Barnstead was the coroner in charge, and he would implement a system created by his father John Barnstead to number and describe the bodies. This system was developed when victims of the Titanic began to arrive in Halifax in 1912.
One of the first organizations to respond was the Royal Navy, which sent rescue parties ashore, as well as medical personnel. They would then turn their ships into floating hospitals and many wounded were brought on board. The United States quickly responded as well. The USRC Morrill, USS Tacoma and USS Von Steuben were all in the area when they saw the explosion happen and quickly altered course to come to Halifax to help. In Halifax Harbour, the American steamship Old Colony was docked. As it only suffered slight damage, it was turned into a hospital ship manned by American and British doctors.
A train from Saint John was arriving in Halifax when the explosion occurred but it was only slightly damaged and was able to continue moving. It would continue towards Halifax until it was blocked by wreckage. At this point, passengers and soldiers took emergency tools and began to dig people out of the rubble, using sheets from sleeping cars as bandages. This train would be loaded with injured people and then sent to hospitals outside of Halifax.
Boston responded almost immediately. State Governor Samuel McCall immediately sent a telegram to the mayor of Halifax stating quote:
“Understand your city is in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. We stand ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me immediately.”
The executive manager of the state committee of public safety, Henry Endicott, immediately called a meeting to discuss how aid could be offered to Halifax.
It was through Boston that huge amounts of food, furniture, clothing and medical supplies would be sent into Halifax to help. In addition, many doctors and nurses came from various American states to Boston to take trains into Halifax to render their assistance, where they set up temporary hospitals and helped the wounded throughout the city.
Aid would also come from Washington and New York City, with a Red Cross Relief train coming out of the city, with five cars loaded with food, clothing and medical supplies. American soldiers from a nearby troop ship also went to Halifax to serve as police in the streets through the evening to prevent looting, of which there was nearly none.
In Winnipeg, Mayor Davidson immediately called for aid from citizens to help Halifax, a common thread throughout North America to help the stricken city.
The Winnipeg Tribune included a fill in the blank pledge on its front page that allowed its subscribers to donate any amount and send it to the newspaper.
Mayor Church of Toronto immediately offered any relief Halifax needed. He telegraphed Halifax stating quote:
“Please accept Toronto’s deepest sympathy in the terrible calamity. Advise us forthwith what assistance and aid we can give you. We are all at your service and will dispatch any aid necessary by special train. Do not fail to call upon us. Toronto’s heart goes out to you.”
The Canadian government would pledge $1 million to Halifax on Dec. 10, with the funds placed in the hands of the Citizens’ Finance Committee.
King George V would send condolences to the people of Halifax, stating quote:
“Most deeply regret to hear of severe explosion at Halifax resulting in great loss of life and property. Please convey to the people of Halifax where I have spent so many happy times, my true sympathy in this grievous calamity.”
There was a worry over a second explosion happening and steam shooting out of the ventilators at the ammunition magazine at Wellington Barracks had many believing a new explosion was going to happen. This rumour spread throughout the city and people fled from their homes and created confusion that would hamper rescue efforts for two hours.
By noon, Lt. Governor MacMallum Grant and other leading citizens in the community formed the Halifax Relief Commission. This Commission organized medical relief for Halifax, providing food and shelter, while also covering the costs of medical care and funerals.
People throughout Halifax banded together to begin to help each other. Men and women helped in hospitals and shelters, while children ran messages between sites as the telegraph and telephone lines were all down.
Almost as soon as the disaster happened, rescue trains began to be dispatched from across the region, including the United States. The first train would leave Truro at 10 a.m. with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. It would reach Halifax by noon, and returned to Truro with the wounded and homeless by 3 p.m. By the end of the day, a dozen trains had reached Halifax from across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The day after the disaster, a terrible blizzard hit the community, dropping 41 centimetres of snow. This storm, which added insult to injury, caused trains to be stalled in snowdrifts, while newly repaired telegraph lines were knocked down once more by the weight of the heavy snow. The only good news from the storm was that it helped to put out fires that were burning throughout the community.
While initial reports were that 300 people died in the explosion, the following day reports were that between 2,000 and 5,000 people died in the disaster.
Prime Minister Borden would return to the city on Dec. 7, finding it in ruins and many of his friends missing, presumed dead. He had cancelled two meetings to rush to the city to get to the city to consult with authorities and assist, while assuring the population of government help. He would cancel the rest of his campaign and focused on helping in Halifax. He would also thank the United States for their help, stating quote:
Colonel McKelvey Bell stated that despite spending two years on the firing line in France, he never saw anything to equal the scene in Halifax.
Reverend M.F. Fallon, the Roman Catholic Bishop of London, would send word stating quote:
“It is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world are fixed on Canada today”
Throughout the city following the explosion, it was said that carpenters and property owners were busy boarding up their premises to keep out the snowstorm, and all power plants in the city were out of commission.
As trains flooded into the community, there was another problem. Telegraph lines were swamped with messages from politicians, officials and loved ones all looking to get information on what had happened. Many telegraph messages didn’t get through, which had people across North America sending more messages. In addition, along with trains of supplies, doctors and nurses, there were trains of people coming in to find out what had happened, to search for loved ones and to volunteer themselves.
By Dec. 10, Halifax was asking that anyone with no business in Halifax to stay away, and all residents not engaged in relief work were asked to leave Halifax as well.
Throughout the city, those who survived the explosion were then setting out on the grim task of finding loved ones at morgues. The Windsor Star would report quote:
“Weary survivors who have searched the temporary morgues for missing relatives went to hospitals to continue the heart-breaking hunt.”
As soon as Halifax recovered from the initial shock of the explosion, the investigation into what happened started. Due to the fact that Halifax was so important to the war effort, most people believed that the explosion was a German attack, and the helmsman of the Imo was arrested on suspicions of being a German spy due to having a letter supposedly written in German, which turned out to actually be Norwegian.
Within Halifax, German residents were soon rounded up and imprisoned on suspicions of being spies by city police.
Corporation Consul T.A. Hunt would say when discussing the possibility of German sabotage quote:
“Any man who is disloyal to Canada should be shot. German enemies in this country should be lashed and shot. They would not get away with disloyal acts anywhere else.”
On Dec. 10, the Windsor Star reported quote:
“All German citizens of Halifax are being arrested today. They were ordered into custody regardless of sex. Seven men and one woman had been arrested up to a late hour last night, and others are being rounded up as rapidly as possible.”
Even as the real reason for the explosion came to light, many still believed the Germans were involved.
The Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry was formed to investigate the cause of the explosion, with proceedings beginning on Dec. 13, one week after the explosion. These were presided over by Justice Arthur Drysdale.
On Feb. 4, 1918, blame was put on the captain and pilot of the Mont Blanc, as well as Mackey and the chief examining officer for the Royal Canadian Navy Commander F. Evan Wyatt, who was in charge of the harbour, gates and anti-submarine defences. Justice Drysdale would agree with the opinion that the Mont Blanc was solely to blame for the explosion as she should have avoided collision at all costs due to her cargo.
At the time local opinion was very anti-French due to the issues over the Conscription Crisis, and that likely influenced the outcome heavily. Even though the Imo was on the wrong side of the channel, it escaped blame in the inquiry. Mackey, as well as the captain and pilot of the Mont Blanc were charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence. Benjamin Russell, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice, found no evidence to support the charges and no one was convicted.
The owners of both ships would embark on a civil litigation trial in which they sought damages from each other. Justice Drysdale would again rule that the Mont Blanc was entirely at fault on April 27, 1918. Appeals would go to the Supreme Court of Canada on May 19, 1919, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on March 22, 1920, and it was eventually determined both ships were equally to blame.
Reconstruction efforts would begin almost immediately in Halifax, but the damage was so extensive that even by January 1918, 5,000 people still had no shelter. The Reconstruction Committee would build 832 new housing units, which were furnished by relief funds.
On Dec. 7, partial train service returned to Halifax and on Dec. 9, full service began. The Canadian Government Railways created a special unit to repair and clear railyards. The piers in Halifax Harbour would be back in operation by late-December and fully repaired by January.
The North End of Halifax would be completely modernized after the disaster, with more public access to green spaces, as well as low-rise, low-density and multifunctional urban neighbourhood. A total of 326 large homes were built facing a tree-lined, paved boulevard, all of which were built of fireproof materials. Due to this reconstruction, the North End became an upscale neighbourhood and shopping district.
The explosion would remain a watershed moment for Halifax and Canada. The explosion itself became the standard by which all large explosions were measured until the dropping of the atomic bombs. In fact, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Time Magazine stated that it had the power of seven Halifax Explosions.
There would be other benefits from the explosion. The extensive damage to eyes would result in the newly formed Canadian Institute for the Blind in Halifax becoming an internationally known centre for care of the blind. Pediatric care after the disaster would improve throughout North America thanks to William Ladd, who came to help and used his insights to pioneer pediatric surgery in North America. The explosion would also inspire health reforms, public sanitation improvements and a focus on maternity care.
In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to Boston to thank the community for its help, especially the Boston Red Cross. For decades, this would not be a tradition but in 1971, it was revived and now an annual donation of a large tree is done from Halifax to Boston. The tree is now Boston’s official Christmas tree, and it is lit at Boston Common. The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources has guidelines for selecting the tree, and one employee is chosen to oversee the selection.
For Halifax, the explosion was deeply traumatic. A ceremony would be held on the first anniversary of the explosion but there would not be another ceremony until 1967, for the 50th anniversary.
The Halifax North Memorial Library was built in 1964 to commemorate the victims of the explosion. This building would feature the first monument to mark the explosion. Designed by Jordi Bonet, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Sculpture would exist until 2004 when it was put in storage, where it was mostly destroyed. In 2015, the remaining fragments were sent to the Bonet family. At the library, a full list of the victims of the disaster is on display.
In 1985, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells were built, facing Halifax Harbour. It is at this bell tower than an annual civic ceremony is held ever Dec. 6 now. Throughout Halifax and Dartmouth, fragments of the Mont Blanc are mounted as monuments to the explosion.
In 1994, historian Jay White looked at 130 major explosions in human history and five criteria of casualties, force of the blast, devastation, quantity of explosive material and property damage values. Using those criteria, White stated that the Halifax Explosion was unrivalled in terms of the overall magnitude with the consideration of all of those criteria together.
Today, the Halifax Explosion is over a century in the past, yet it still looms as the worst disaster in Canadian History. I will end this episode with what John Tappen said in 1993.
“I’m getting to an age where I have trouble remembering certain things but there are some things I will never forget.”
Information from Saskatoon Daily Star, Ottawa Citizen, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Vancouver Province, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, The Regina Leader-Post, Catastrophe, Halifax Public Libraries, Winnipeg Tribune, Windsor Star, Ottawa Journal, Macleans, Vancouver Sun,
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