Photo of the Day

Halifax Explosion. Tall cloud of smoke rising over the water. This is one of the few photographs of the blast, reportedly taken 15-20 seconds after the explosion.

Halifax Explosion. Tall cloud of smoke rising over the water. This is one of the few photographs of the blast, reportedly taken 15-20 seconds after the explosion.

 The Explosion

A Second of Silence, Then in the Blink of an Eye…

On December 6, 1917, the town of Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada) was destroyed by the explosion of a cargo ship loaded with military explosives. About two thousand people were killed and almost ten thousands were injured. Until the first nuclear blast, it was the largest man-made explosion in recorded history with an equivalent force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT.

 “Hold up the train. Ammunition Ship Afire in Harbour Making for Pier 6 and will Explode. Guess this will be My Last Message. Goodbye Boys.”

Final Communication from Railway Dispatcher Patrick Vincent Coleman

At 9:04:35 Mont-Blanc exploded with a force stronger than any manmade explosion before it.

The steel hull burst sky-high, falling in a blizzard of red-hot, twisted projectiles on Dartmouth and Halifax.

Some pieces were tiny; others were huge. Part of the anchor hit the ground more than 4 kilometers away on the far side of Northwest Arm. A gun barrel landed in Dartmouth more than 5 kilometers from the harbour.

The explosion sent a white cloud billowing 20,000 feet above the city.

For almost two square kilometers around Pier 6, nothing was left standing. The blast obliterated most of Richmond: its homes, apartments and even the towering sugar refinery. On the Dartmouth side, Tuft’s Cove took the brunt of the blast. The small settlement of Turtle Grove was obliterated.

More than 1600 people were killed outright; hundreds more would die in the hours and days to come. Nine thousand people, many of whom might have been safe if they hadn’t come to watch the fire, were injured by the blast, falling buildings and flying shards of glass.

And it wasn’t over yet.

Within minutes the dazed survivors were awash in water. The blast provoked a tsunami that washed up as high as 20 meters above the harbour’s high-water mark on the Halifax side.

People who were blown off their feet by the explosion, now hung on for their lives as water rushed over the shoreline, through the dockyard and beyond Campbell Road (now Barrington Street).

The tsunami lifted Imo onto the Dartmouth shore. The ship stayed there until spring.

The tsunami created by the explosion swept through the damaged areas, scouring the land and leaving bare mud piled with debris. Fireplaces and furnaces caused fires in other areas, leaving acres of charred wreckage.

By 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, December 6, 1917, a major Canadian city lay in rubble, and most of the undamaged area had no water or heat. All communication was lost with the outside world; the city had no telephone service.

That night, a blizzard hit the region, bringing gale force winds and temperatures of 10-15 F. Thick, wet snow soon hid the victims, hindered the rescuers, and halted relief trains; by morning, ice coated the streets and hills.

The Halifax Explosion was the largest man-made explosion until the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

The Mont-Blanc was a French general cargo and munitions ship owned by Cie Generale Transatlantique. It was 320 feet long, had a width of 44.8 feet,and a depth of 15.3 feet. The ship had a gross tonnage of 3121 tonnes, a net cargo capacity of 2252 tonnes. The Mont-Blanc was powered by steam and pushed through the water with a single screw. Captain Aime Le Medec was in command of a crew of 41 French sailors.

On December 1, 1917, at 11:00pm, the Mont-Blanc sailed in darkness from Gravesend Bay, New York. Its only protection – two guns, one 90mm gun on the bow and a 95mm gun mounted on the stern. In the preceding weeks, the cargo holds had been lined with wood held in place with copper nails to prevent sparks. The ship was filled with explosives, on deck and below. In the holds 2366.5 tons of picric acid, both wet and dry, 250 tons of TNT, 62.1 tons of gun cotton. Secured on the deck, 246 tons of benzol in barrels. For the deck guns approximately 300 rounds, some on deck, some stored below. While it was common for ships to carry a significant bulk of explosives it was usually mixed with regular cargo. The war effort in France hung on the availability of munitions. As a safety precaution the explosives were separated by wooden partitions, and the crew were forbidden to smoke, to carry matches or have liquor on board.

By comparison the Mont-Blanc was a slow ship, under the current load she was unable to keep up with the larger and faster ships due to leave New York. The Mont-Blanc was directed by the British Naval Authority to steam to Halifax to join the next available convoy for Bordeaux.

c. 1900: Before the explosion. A view of Dartmouth, looking across the harbour to Halifax. IMAGE: FOX PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

c. 1900: Before the explosion. A view of Dartmouth, looking across the harbour to Halifax.
IMAGE: FOX PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

Halifax Explosion: Destroyed buildings, with the harbour in the background.

After the Halifax Explosion: Destroyed buildings, with the harbour in the background.

The Imo, formerly named the Runic, originally served as a livestock carrier under the White Star Line. In 1912 it was registered to the South Pacific Whaling Company out of the port of Christiana, Norway, as a supply ship. In 1917 the Imo sailed as a charter for the Belgian Relief Commission, it was neutral and sailed alone. Painted on its side were the words “Belgian Relief” to protect it from German Submarines. The Imo powered by steam with a single screw had a gross tonnage of 5043 gross, a net tonnage of 3161 tonnes. It was 430.7 feet long, 45.2 feet wide, and had a depth of 30.3 feet. The Imo under the command of Captain Haakon From was sailed by a crew of thirty-nine.

The Imo was powered by a triple expansion steam engine, it was strong and efficient. On its drive shaft was a 20 foot right-hand propeller that made 60 revolutions per minute. The propeller gave the ship a “transverse thrust”, while making headway the ship veered to the left, in reverse it swung to the right. While this setup gave the Imo a full ocean speed of 12 knots, it became a disadvantage navigating in tight quarters such as the Halifax Narrows, Due to the combined effect of transverse thrust and the length, and depth of the Imo’s hull, and its keel, the Imo was difficult to maneuver. The Mont-Blanc had the same type of engine and propeller setup, with about half the horsepower of the Imo, a smaller slower ship with more maneuverability.

Dec. 6, 1917: A massive smoke cloud rises into the sky moments after the 2.9 kiloton explosion. IMAGE: VICTOR MAGNUS/SWNS.COM

Dec. 6, 1917: A massive smoke cloud rises into the sky moments after the 2.9 kiloton explosion. IMAGE: VICTOR MAGNUS/SWNS.COM

The SS Imo is pictured after the explosion.

The SS Imo is pictured after the explosion.

December 3: The Imo arrived at Halifax from Rotterdam, Holland, cleared the submarine nets and was moored along the western shore of the Bedford Basin awaiting the coaling tender, to refuel. Leaving Halifax would also require clearance from the British Naval Authority under Commander Frederick Wyatt, who was responsible for regulating and authorizing all harbour traffic. The Imo was destined for New York to load relief supplies.

Commander Wyatt received a telegram that the Mont-Blanc was steaming toward Halifax carrying explosives. As a result of the war, it was common for munitions ships to enter the harbour and shelter in the Basin. Prior to the war, precautions were taken by the Harbour Master, Captain Francis Rudolf, to off-load explosives to George’s Island. No precautions or special arrangements were made for the anticipated arrival of the Mont-Blanc.

Nova Scotia Coast: December 4: On its way to Halifax the Mont-Blanc was delayed by a gale. Otherwise the voyage was uneventful, no submarines were encountered, the crew of the Mont-Blanc were relieved to see the Nova Scotia shore, their estimated time of arrival, the afternoon of December 5th.

Bedford Basin Convoy: December 5: During the afternoon Captain Haakon From received clearance to leave Halifax. Pilot William Hayes was already on board. Captain From was anxious to get back to sea, his intent was to leave on December 5th. Sailing was delayed because the coal tender was late, by the time coaling was complete the submarine nets were closed, requiring the Imo to remain in the Basin. Pilot Hayes went home for the night, to return in the morning.

Mont-Blanc at McNab’s: At 4:00pm Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey, a veteran of 24 years, boarded the Mont-Blanc at the mouth of the harbour from a ship headed out to sea. He met Terence Freeman, the examination officer whose job it was to inspect the Mont-Blanc for entry to Bedford Basin. The Mont-Blanc passed the inspection. By 4:30 the submarine nets were closed, the Mont-Blanc would have to anchor off McNab’s Island Lighthouse until morning.

On December 6, at 7:39, the sun rose in a clear sky over the eastern hills of Dartmouth, cut through the smoke from morning fires and warmed the Halifax shore. Mothers woke their children for breakfast, waved them off to school; and their husbands off to work. Businessmen strolled past shops, offices, and factories where labourers were already hard at work. At the garrisons soldiers had been assigned their duties. In the harbour, sailors readied their ships for the day. At North Street Station passengers awaited the morning trains.

The Mont-Blanc sheltered over night in the cove of McNab's Lighthouse, outside the submarine nets, while the Imo anchored in the Basin. Pilot Francis Mackey remained on board to guide the Mont-Blanc into the Basin in the morning.

The Mont-Blanc sheltered over night in the cove of McNab’s Lighthouse, outside the submarine nets, while the Imo anchored in the Basin. Pilot Francis Mackey remained on board to guide the Mont-Blanc into the Basin in the morning.

The immediate impact of the explosion covered 325 acres, windows were broken more than 50 miles away.

The immediate impact of the explosion covered 325 acres,
windows were broken more than 50 miles away.

Soldiers worked throught he blizzard to rescue as many people as they could. A train carrying a corps of surgeons, doctors, nurses, and medical supplies pushed through blizzard conditions and reached Halifax on December 8th.

Soldiers worked throughout the blizzard to rescue as many people as they could. A train carrying a corps of surgeons, doctors, nurses, and medical supplies pushed through blizzard conditions and reached Halifax on December 8th.

December 1917: Soldiers stand guard amid ruined houses on Kaye Street in Halifax. Within three hours of the blast, officials had formed an official Halifax Relief Commission as soldiers, sailors and citizens worked to rescue victims from crumbling buildings and extinguish the fires consuming swaths of land. IMAGE: HALIFAX RELIEF COMMISSION NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES

December 1917: Soldiers stand guard amid ruined houses on Kaye Street in Halifax. Within three hours of the blast, officials had formed an official Halifax Relief Commission as soldiers, sailors and citizens worked to rescue victims from crumbling buildings and extinguish the fires consuming swaths of land.
IMAGE: HALIFAX RELIEF COMMISSION NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES

Dec. 11, 1917: Scene of devastation in Halifax after the explosion of the Mont Blanc. The Imo, which collided with the Mont Blanc, can be seen in the distance. It survived the explosion relatively intact. Much of the city did not. Halifax became known informally as the "Shattered City." IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Dec. 11, 1917: Scene of devastation in Halifax after the explosion of the Mont Blanc. The Imo, which collided with the Mont Blanc, can be seen in the distance. It survived the explosion relatively intact. Much of the city did not. Halifax became known informally as the “Shattered City.” IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Timeline

Mont-Blanc leaves McNabs

At 7:30, the Mont-Blanc, under the direction of Francis Mackey and Captain Aime Le Medec, left her anchorage at McNab’s Island and headed up the harbour at a speed of six knots. Leading through the submarine nets was an American tramp steamer that had arrived that morning. The steamer was piloted by Edward Renner.

Imo leaves Basin: In Bedford Basin the crew of the Imo had raised the anchor. The Imo was steaming toward the Narrows, Pilot William Hayes was aboard. As the Imo entered the Narrows, she was met by the American tramp steamer just coming around Pier 9 on the Halifax shore, headed for the western edge of the Basin. The protocol for navigation in the harbour required ships to pass starboard to starboard. Pilot Renner had ignored the protocol.

Two blasts came from the Imo to request the steamer change its course to allow the Imo to enter the Narrows in the correct channel. Pilot Renner returned two blasts signaling no change of course. As a result the Imo began its turn into the Narrows, in the Dartmouth channel. Before the steamer entered the basin, Pilot Renner, using a megaphone, cautioned William Hayes that there was another ship coming up the harbour.

Imo avoids the Stella Maris: The Imo cleared the steamer. In short order she was met by the Stella Maris, a tug, pulling two ash scows from the Dockyard along the Halifax shore. Captain Brannen edged the Stella Maris closer to the shore to make way for the Imo. The 400 foot length of the tug with its ash scows caused the Imo to overshoot the turn into the Narrows. The Imo was in danger of grounding.

Captain From ordered the Helmsman, John Johansen, to reverse the engine. The bow of the Imo swung around to the right, making a course adjustment, the Imo remained in the Dartmouth channel.

Mont-Blanc spots Imo: The Imo was at a distance of about three quarters of a mile when Francis Mackey first spotted her. From the wheelhouse of the Mont-Blanc, Mackey saw that the Imo was on a southeast course, that would cut across the bow of the Mont-Blanc. Mackey was disturbed by how quickly the Imo was advancing. He sent a blast of the steam whistle to indicate the Mont-Blanc had the Dartmouth channel.

The Imo responded with two blasts, indicating Captain From meant to hold the Imo on its present course.

A second insistent blast was sent from the Mont-Blanc, now steering at dead slow, tight along the Dartmouth shore…..the Imo responded with two blasts, there would be no change of course.

The Mont-Blanc goes to port: On two blasts from the wheelhouse the Mont-Blanc turned to port crossing the bow of the Imo.

On the Imo, Captain From ordered the “Full Reverse”.

The Imo hits the Mont-Blanc: The Imo sliced into the hull of the Mont-Blanc at the number one hold. While the damage to the Mont-Blanc was not severe it toppled barrels that broke open and flooded the deck with benzol.

Five hundred tents have been erected on the Common, and these will be occupied by the troops, who have given up their barracks to house the homeless women and children.The day after the explosion, a blizzard dumped 16 inches of snow on the city, stalling relief efforts but extinguishing the remaining fires. IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Five hundred tents have been erected on the Common, and these will be occupied by the troops, who have given up their barracks to house the homeless women and children.The day after the explosion, a blizzard dumped 16 inches of snow on the city, stalling relief efforts but extinguishing the remaining fires. IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Dec. 11, 1917: Residents walk through a section of Halifax completely flattened by the blast. Railyards and ships lay devastated by the blast. People who had been watching the fire were blinded or killed by flying glass. Hundreds of fires were sparked all over Halifax and Dartmouth. An incoming passenger train was stopped outside the blast radius thanks to the sacrifice of a railway dispatcher who stayed at his post to send out a warning. IMAGE: CORBIS

Dec. 11, 1917: Residents walk through a section of Halifax completely flattened by the blast. Railyards and ships lay devastated by the blast. People who had been watching the fire were blinded or killed by flying glass. Hundreds of fires were sparked all over Halifax and Dartmouth. An incoming passenger train was stopped outside the blast radius thanks to the sacrifice of a railway dispatcher who stayed at his post to send out a warning. IMAGE: CORBIS

Dec. 11, 1917: Halifax residents dig through rubble five days after the explosion. IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Dec. 11, 1917: Halifax residents dig through rubble five days after the explosion. IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

The grinding of the Imo’s bow on the broken plates of the Mont-Blanc sent a cascade of sparks onto the deck. The benzol ignited. In an instant, the forecastle of the Mont-Blanc was engulfed in a raging fire. The fire exploded barrels and sent others up like rockets into the sky above the Mont-Blanc.

On shore crowds gathered, drawn to the harbour by the smoke and explosions on the deck.

On the Imo, Captain From attempted to turn the Imo back up the harbour into the Basin.

Onboard the Mont-Blanc, Captain Le Medec was faced with a crucial decision. With his knowledge of the cargo, should he order the crew to fight the fire? Should they attempt to steer the ship to open water? Should they attempt to scuttle the ship where she lay? Would there be time to take action before their cargo of 3000 tons of explosives caught fire? The order came from Captain Le Medec, “Abandon Ship!”

Failing the attempt to turn the Imo back to the basin, Captain From ordered his ship out to sea.

Columns of flame cut through the smoke as it lifted high over the Mont-Blanc.The spectacle of the Mont-Blanc ablaze drew onlookers from all directions. Sailors left their stations and gathered at ship railings, labourers and businessmen alike put down their work, shopkeepers came out into the street, wives left their wash lines, mothers and young children stood in windows. School children ran to see the fireworks.

The burning benzol gave off a black smoke much like that of an oil tanker on fire, to those watching not an unlikely site. But the nature of the cargo on the Mont-Blanc was known to only its crew, its Captain, Pilot Mackey, Terrence Freeman the Examination Officer, and Commander Frederick Wyatt. Under normal circumstances the Mont-Blanc would have flown red flags to indicate it was carrying explosives, no red flags were flown due to the threat of submarine attack.

As the Mont-Blanc drifted toward the Halifax shore, the crew lowered lifeboats from the stern and rowed for their lives for the Dartmouth shore. As they came ashore the French sailors tried desperately to tell onlookers to run from the danger. Unable to understand the sailors’ French, the onlookers remained. Captain Le Medec, Francis Mackey and the crew of thirty-nine took refuge in the woods at Tufts Cove.

Back on the Halifax shore, general-store owner, Constant Upham ran to his phone. In minutes fire bells rang out. From the Isleville Station came the hose wagon, from the Quinpool Road station the chemical engine. Racing down Barrington Street, came a new motorized fire truck, the “Patricia”, built to combat chemical fires.

At Richmond Station, Train Dispatcher, Vincent Coleman tapped out a message to the in-coming train from Truro, “Munitions ship on fire, making for Pier 6. Good bye.”

The Mont-Blanc pushed toward Pier 6 where the schooner St. Bernard stood unloading lumber. As the Mont-Blanc edged forward, the deck fire set Pier 6 alight. By now the crew of the Stella Maris had anchored the scows and returned to offer help. The Mont-Blanc grounded at the foot of Richmond Street, in the center of the Richmond district, the busy, industrial north end of Halifax. Fire had spread to the number one hold.

December 1917: The SS Imo lists after being run aground by the force of the explosion.IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

December 1917: The SS Imo lists after being run aground by the force of the explosion.IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

At the foot of Richmond the air was filled with the sound of bursting flames, billowing smoke, explosions, fire bells, and crowd reactions all around… and then a momentary silence…

The Mont-Blanc exploded in a fraction of a second.

Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, there came an explosion. From one end of the city to the other glass fell, and people were lifted from the sidewalks and thrown flat into the streets. In the down-town offices, just beginning to hum with the usual day’s activities, clerks and heads alike cowered under the shower of falling glass and plaster which fell about them.

The most immediate and devastating effect of the explosion was a shockwave produced by the detonation that was the equivalent of 2989 tons of TNT. The shockwave travelled at a speed of more than 1500 meters per second.
At the centre of the blast the heat produced by the chemical reaction was in excess of 5000C. The heat and pressure pushed a fireball of hot gases, and debris consisting of soot, unburned coal, carbon from explosives, and shrapnel high into the sky above the harbour. As the gases cooled a giant cloud formed, the soot, carbon, and shrapnel fell as a deadly shower.

Seventeen minutes after the collision the explosion occurred. Under the force of the explosion houses crumpled like decks of cards, while the unfortunate residents were swept to death in the debris.
Around the Mont-Blanc the water was vaporized by the heat, the pressure of the explosion sent a 20 meter tidal wave out into the harbour and up into the Richmond neighbourhood for three city blocks.

The force of the concussion was so great that freight cars were blown off railway tracks at a distance of nearly two miles.

Captain Le Medec’s decision for his crew to abandon the ship saved their lives. All from the Mont-Blanc survived, with the exception of one sailor who suffered serious injuries, he later died from his wounds. As for the ship, nothing of the ship remained; it was literally blown to bits. Fragments of the ship, large and small were thrown high into the air. Large pieces were catapulted for miles, one of the ship’s gun barrels landed three and a half miles away at Albro Lake in Dartmouth. A 1140 pound piece of the anchor was found partially buried, two miles away in Armdale. Rivets and small fragments of red-hot steel fell into the harbour and onto the surrounding area crashing through buildings punching holes in ships, killing, and maiming people.

The Mont-Blanc exploded before the Imo could make headway to open water. The shockwave swept over the deck tearing away the smoke stack and the super-structure. Shrapnel perforated the ship’s hull. Captain Haakon From was killed, as were five of the crew of the Imo. The body of Pilot William Hayes was found crouched under a boat on the bridge. The tsunami lifted the Imo and threw it against the Dartmouth shore. Helmsman John Johansen was knocked unconscious and awoke to find himself neck deep in water, moments later he found himself back on board the Imo, the wave having receded. Others who survived the blast, but who feared being washed overboard made for the shore. A boat from the HMS Highflyer arrived to rescue the remaining sailors.

Dec. 6 – As the result of a terrific explosion aboard the munition ship Mont Blanc in Halifax harbour this morning, a large part of the north end of the city and along the waterfront is in ruins and the loss of life is appalling. Early estimates place the number of dead at between eight hundred and one thousand, but late to-night the Chief of police placed the killed at possibly 2,000. On one ship alone, forty persons were killed. Thousands have been injured. The property damage is enormous, and there is scarcely a window left in the city. Among the dead are the Fire Chief and his deputy. They were hurled to death when a fire engine exploded. Fire followed the explosion and this added to the greatest catastrophe in the history of the city.

The impact of the explosion was disastrous. Sixteen hundred people were killed outright. They were sailors looking on from the decks of their ships, rail-workers, longshoremen. They were onlookers who were drawn to the spectacle of the burning ship. They were labourers looking on from factory windows or doorways; shopkeepers, and firemen. They were wives, mothers and babies, and school children. Nine thousand others were wounded.

The explosion of the Mont-Blanc had the destructive power of a massive earthquake. The shockwave laid the Richmond community to waste. In the immediate vicinity of the blast, houses, shops, and factories were splintered into kindling. Long chains of rail cars and locomotives were smashed and tossed about like toys. The Sugar Refinery, a concrete and brick structure which stood ten stories, to the top of its smoke stack, was reduced to rubble.

Dec. 6 – Chief of Police Hanrahan to-night estimates that the dead from the explosion on a munition ship and subsequent fire, destroying a large section of the north end of the city, may reach two thousand. Another estimate says over two thousand. Twenty-five teams loaded with bodies have arrived at one of the morgues.

Amongst those killed were Captain Horatio Brannen and 18 members of the crew aboard Stella Maris (just 5 survived); the vessel was washed up on the shore. The Also killed were many other sailors who had been watching the unfolding drama on board ships in the harbour.

Back on land, the devastation was immense. An eye-witness report is available from the one survivor of the “Patricia”, Canada’s first motorised fire engine. Driver Billy Wells was opening a fire hydrant at the time of the blast. He recounted the day’s events for the Mail Star, in its edition of 6 October 1967:

…That’s when it happened … The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine … The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm…

Badly injured, Billy was then nearly drowned as the tsunami came over him. He explained:

…After the wave had receded I didn’t see anything of the other firemen so made my way to the old magazine on Campbell Road … The sight was awful … with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires … I was taken to Camp Hill Hospital and lay on the floor for two days waiting for a bed. The doctors and nurses certainly gave me great service.

One of the heroes of the day was Vincent Coleman, who was a railway dispatcher. When warned of the imminent explosion by sailors who had been sent ashore by a naval officer, Coleman initially left his office to escape but returned to his station when he realised that two trains carrying passengers were on their way to the Richmond station. Going back to his desk at the station’s telegraph office, he managed to send a brief warning message along the rail line. Coleman’s Morse code message was, “Hold up the train. Ammunition Ship Afire in Harbour Making for Pier 6 and will Explode. Guess this will be My Last Message. Goodbye Boys.”

His warning was heeded and trains stopped all along the line. Coleman is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery where a total of 8 military personnel who were killed on this day are commemorated.

The Halifax Explosion injuries included many patients with large splinters of wood, metal, or glass in their bodies, hundreds with eye injuries from flying glass, and crushing injuries caused when buildings collapsed.

Hospitals, clinics, and private doctor’s offices were immediately overwhelmed as family members and rescuers began to bring in the injured. Because many Canadian physicians were already in the military, the whole region already had a shortage, and some doctors were killed or badly injured in the explosion.

All medical professionals—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians—and anyone with first-aid or medical training immediately began to work nonstop on the casualties, often with severe shortages of even the most basic supplies. For the first hours they worked in freezing cold buildings because the windows had been blown out. Debris was everywhere. Patients were put all over, often on floors; surgery was performed on tables and desks. In the first few hours, one hospital had no physicians and only five nurses for hundreds of patients.

Halifax was the major port for receiving wounded Canadian soldiers brought back from the World War I in France, where the fighting was in its fourth year. The three military receiving hospitals normally processed thousands of wounded. One was destroyed and another heavily damaged in the explosion.

The 1917 Halifax Explosion Story.

The 1917 Halifax Explosion Story.

Clock found in explosion wreckage. Photo Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Clock found in explosion wreckage. Photo Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Explosion damage, Halifax, 1917

Explosion damage, Halifax, 1917

The committee of the citizens of Halifax was appointed to make a public statement on the damage to the City of Halifax and the Town of Dartmouth and after as careful a survey as possible of the damaged area the Committee reported that, while every building in Halifax and Dartmouth was more or less damaged, the devastated area is found near the scene of the explosion and embraces chiefly districts occupied by workers and the poorer classes.

Between three and four thousand of such dwellings have been completely destroyed by the explosion or by fire. The number of those affected is estimated at 25,000 and while, of course, the circumstances of all or even the most of them cannot be ascertained, until each one’s case is investigated, yet it is feared that the destitute poor in the area will number upwards of 20,000 and their actual loss and the estimated cost of their temporary maintenance will reach between twenty-five and thirty million dollars. It is to be clearly understood that in this estimate only the persons rendered destitute are considered and this is the portion of the population of Halifax and Dartmouth least able to bear the loss and which must be immediately relieved by the generous assistance of their fellow citizens throughout Canada.

All business has been suspended and armed guards of soldiers and sailors are patrolling the city. Not a street car is moving, and part of the city is in darkness. All the hospitals and many private houses are filled with injured.

With so much death and devastation there was much work to do, and where to begin? The community cared for its injured and its dead, but there was a ruined city to rebuild too. The Explosion had completely destroyed more than 1600 buildings, including many landmarks: the sugar refinery, three piers, shipyards, Oland’s brewery in Dartmouth, the Dartmouth city rink.

Thousands of other buildings stood damaged. And everywhere–in the relatively untouched south end, in Bedford and Rockingham–broken windows.

Winter had set in with a vengeance. People couldn’t stay in temporary shelters.

On the water, more than thirty merchant ships had been waiting in Bedford Basin for convoy escorts. They were largely unharmed in the Explosion.

The ships in Bedford Basin were part of two convoys scheduled to leave on Friday December 7 and Monday, the 10th. But the harbour, the dockyard, and the navy’s provisioning systems were in chaos.

Storehouses were exposed to the elements, and so battered that it was dangerous to go inside those that were still standing. Most of the civilian workers had left to search for and care for relatives. The military people loaded as many perishables as possible onto ships in the harbour.

Military headquarters in Ottawa and London looked for an alternative harbour for convoys. Montreal was no option: the St. Lawrence River was frozen.

For loyal servants of the Empire, it was all part of the list of obstacles to be overcome.

No replacement port was necessary. The first convoy after the Explosion left on December 11, and the system was maintained for the rest of the war.

The city put together a Halifax Relief Committee and started assisting people in the first hours of the crisis. It worked well in the early days, but it was clear to everyone that the job of helping the hurt, bereaved and dispossessed would take months, even years.

For now, there were immediate and urgent challenges to be met.

As the temperature fell on December 6, people needed clothing right away. Thousands had nothing but whatever they had been wearing at 9 a.m.

Food and fuel supplies quickly ran short.

Social services were already stretched: How could ruptured families survive? And what about those who had been blinded or suffered loss of sight in the showers of flying glass?

The city was not alone. Outside help came from around the world. The biggest job- rebuilding- was a three-headed monster: thousands of people needed short, medium and long term shelter.

The relief trains faced major problems. First, a blizzard brought high winds and many inches of snow that slowed or halted the trains. Second, the rail system near Halifax had been destroyed or badly damaged.

Finally, communication was limited because equipment and so many telegraph lines had been destroyed. All across Canada and the United States, communities began to fill trains with emergency supplies and skilled professionals to send to Halifax. The railroad companies cancelled all regularly scheduled trains to clear the tracks for the relief trains and worked to restore telegraph connections with Halifax. Railway telegraphs were a principal communication network because trains were the primary transportation and communication system throughout Canada and the United States. The railroad companies were major organizers of relief efforts.

People and governments throughout the British Empire—from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa—and the United States began to donate money for the relief effort. Also, groups and individuals from towns, churches and synagogues, and aid organizations, from the wealthy to young schoolchildren donated money and supplies for recovery and rebuilding.

For some time, there was a belief that the explosion was the work of German agents, and a Norwegian sailor on the Imo was arrested as he was thought to be German. The Captain of the Mont-Blanc was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted at his trial. In 1919 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Imo and Mont-Blanc were equally to blame for the tragedy.

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 In December 1917, Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the hub of the Dominion of Canada. World War I had brought activity and prosperity to the port. The harbour was crowded with wartime shipping. Convoys of ships loaded with war supplies of food, munitions and troops gathered in Bedford Basin ready for the voyage to Europe with heavily-armed warships as escorts. Neutral vessels anchored in the harbour, their crews forbidden to land for fear any might supply information to the enemy. New railway lines and terminals were almost completed, made necessary to carry the extra traffic handled by the staff of the Intercolonial Railway. The population was swollen with troops, some awaiting embarkation for Europe, some garrisoned there, their families, and people who had come to benefit from the plentiful employment.

Tufts Cove School after Halifax Explosion.

Tufts Cove School after Halifax Explosion.

“Buildings over a great area collapsed, burying men, women and children. Tug boats and smaller vessels were engulfed and then a great wave washed up over Campbell Road. Fires broke out and became uncontrollable, stopping the work and rescue. Not a house in Halifax escaped some damage, and the region bounded on the east by the harbor, south by North street (sic) and west by Windsor street (sic), is absolutely devastated. The wounded and homeless are in different institutions and homes over the city … Hundreds of the bodies which were taken from the ruins are unrecognizable and morgues have been opened in different parts of the city.” (Friday, December 7, 1917)

“Buildings over a great area collapsed, burying men, women and children. Tug boats and smaller vessels were engulfed and then a great wave washed up over Campbell Road. Fires broke out and became uncontrollable, stopping the work and rescue. Not a house in Halifax escaped some damage, and the region bounded on the east by the harbor, south by North street (sic) and west by Windsor street (sic), is absolutely devastated. The wounded and homeless are in different institutions and homes over the city … Hundreds of the bodies which were taken from the ruins are unrecognizable and morgues have been opened in different parts of the city.” (Friday, December 7, 1917)

Aftermath of the explosion, Halifax, 1917

Aftermath of the explosion, Halifax, 1917

The dockyard and naval yards along the harbour were always busy. Trans-Atlantic convoys gathered weekly in Bedford Basin, headed for the war in Europe.

Since the start of World War I, Halifax Harbour had been busier than at any other time in its history…but harbour traffic control had failed to keep up. The Dartmouth ferries, civilian and military shipping, and small fishing and pleasure craft all jostled about the harbour. Collisions were frequent.

The main rules were the “rules of the road,” which are much the same on the water as they are on land. Examples:

  • Keep to the right, or starboard in traffic
  • Signal your intentions and respect those of others.

After the Explosion many people said that it had been a disaster waiting to happen. In 1917, as now, Halifax was a transportation hub for Atlantic Canada and the Eastern Seaboard. Immigration had slowed to a trickle since the beginning of the war, but the immigration sheds at Pier 2 still did steady business as soldiers and sailors headed to and from Europe. Supplies and people arrived by train at the terminals on North Street and on the harbourfront.

Many people still considered cars a luxury, and the horse and cart were part of everyday life. For those with neither, Halifax had a public tram system. It needed upgrading.

Three ferries plied routes between Halifax and Dartmouth. The “morning rush” was among their busiest times, as people headed to work or for appointments on one side of the harbour or the other.

The twentieth century had brought miracles of modern communication. The telegraph was part of daily life. A message that moved around the world, door to door in mere hours, was still an amazing accomplishment in 1917.

Telephones were catching on. They weren’t considered basic appliances. Many businesses had them, but they were still the exception in most homes

In the days following the explosion, Halifax was overwhelmed with the amount of relief that was given almost immediately. Many countries sent doctors, nurses, money, supplies, and household items. Most notably, Boston, Mass. (which had a well-organized EMO) sent up trainloads of aid and brand new furniture which still sits in many households.

Military and naval personnel worked with civilians in the relief effort. Nearby cities like Truro took in the homeless. Eaton stores donated furniture.

The Canadian and British governments donated millions for reconstruction, while the United States organized a relief train filled with supplies, doctors, and nurses, some of whom were on the scene and working before shocked Canadian officials had fully recovered.

A day after the accident the Halifax Herald vividly described the destruction:
“Buildings over a great area collapsed, burying men, women and children. Tug boats and smaller vessels were engulfed and then a great wave washed up over Campbell Road. Fires broke out and became uncontrollable, stopping the work and rescue. Not a house in Halifax escaped some damage, and the region bounded on the east by the harbour, south by North street (sic) and west by Windsor street (sic), is absolutely devastated. The wounded and homeless are in different institutions and homes over the city … Hundreds of the bodies which were taken from the ruins are unrecognizable and morgues have been opened in different parts of the city.” (Friday, December 7, 1917)

The Massachusetts State House received news about the accident two hours after it happened, at approximately 11:00am. Under the leadership of Governor Samuel W. McCall, Massachusetts, especially Boston, began immediate work to organize relief efforts. McCall sent a series of messages, including the following, to the Mayor of Halifax:

“Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me immediately.”
“Since sending my telegram this morning offering unlimited assistance, an important meeting of citizens [Massachusetts Public Safety Committee] has been held and Massachusetts stands ready to offer aid in any way you can avail yourself of it. We are prepared to send forward immediately a special train with surgeons, nurses and other medical assistance, but await advices from you.”
With his previous messages left unanswered, and fully aware of Halifax’s urgent and dire need for medical assistance, McCall made the decision that Halifax could not afford any delay:

“Won’t you please call upon Mr. Ratshesky for every help that you need. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will stand back of Mr. Ratshesky in every way.
Respectfully yours,
Samuel W. McCall
Governor
P.S. Realizing that time is of the utmost importance we have not waited for your answer but have dispatched the train.”
A train carrying a corps of surgeons, doctors, nurses, and medical supplies pushed through blizzard conditions and reached Halifax on December 8th.

A meeting was held by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee at Faneuil Hall, resulting in the establishment of a relief fund which raised $100,000 on the first day alone. Supply ships loaded with donated goods were sent from Boston to Halifax, and arrived at their destination 3 days later. Boston and other cities around Massachusetts continued to tirelessly pull together to raise money and collect provisions that were soon after delivered to the devastated city.
In 1918, Halifax gifted to the city of Boston a giant Christmas tree as a token of appreciation and remembrance for the immediate assistance that the Boston Red Cross, the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee, and the citizens of Boston provided during the most critical and darkest period after the 1917 explosion.

Every Christmas season, Halifax continue to recognize their special relationship with the people of Boston with the gift of a large Christmas tree which has continued as a holiday tradition that signifies humanity and selflessness in times of disaster.

As a result of the tragedy certain benefits accrued to the city. Medical treatment, social welfare, public health, and hospital facilities increased and improved. Regulations relating to the harbour were tightened, making it as safe as human errors of judgment would permit. The Hydrostone development, built as relief housing, still stands an early example of a very high standard of urban development.

Though the explosion was a terrible dark moment for the city, the response of the numerous towns, cities and countries who offered relief is an inspiring story of compassion, human generosity, and the willingness of many to work together to help repair a “Shattered City”, from which modern Halifax has emerged. December 6th, 1917, was a defining moment in the history and rebirth of Halifax.

The Explosion – Halifax Explosion

Halifax Explosion – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The accidental explosion that erased a Canadian city in 1917

CBC – Halifax Explosion

Halifax Explosion | Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Intro – Halifax Explosion

Halifax Explosion | Historica Canada

ARCHIVED – Halifax Explosion – Fire – SOS! Canadian Disasters …

The Halifax Explosion – December 1917 – Western Front Association

The Halifax Explosion | Halifax.ca

Historypin | Collection | Halifax Explosion: December 6th, 1917


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