Would you want to live in Halifax in 1917, if you could? You would have probably enjoyed it. It had dance halls and ice skating on the ponds, a nearly endless supply of soldiers passing through and pouring money into local businesses, a movie theatre showing first-run films, and a Chinese restaurant on Barrington Street. But you may have regretted it, because on December sixth of that year, it became the site of the largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen.
On a Tuesday morning, everyone was going about their going-to-work routine when it seemed like the world exploded. Nearly half the city was flattened in a single enormous blast that dwarfed anything humans would create until Hiroshima in 1945. It was just as shocking as it would be to you if your windows were blown in while you were brushing your teeth. Two thousand people were killed, but unless you are Canadian, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of it.
How could this happen? Unusual for an event that injured more 9,000 people, it was neither an act of war nor epidemic nor natural disaster, but a totally unexpected, unintended, unforeseeable shipping accident. Even today, to visit Halifax is to admire its extensive harbour, but it is impossible to miss that it is very much a working port with incredible traffic. In 1917, it was exponentially busier, with a nearly nonstop flow of warships and supply ships passing through daily. Halifax Harbour has two parts, the small outer harbour, and the enormous inner Bedford Basin, which are connected by a thin strip of water called—appropriately—the Narrows. It is only wide enough for a single ship to pass through at once.
The morning of the sixth was not particularly unusual, except for the two ships which seemed to be creeping perilously close to one another in the Narrows. Office workers with a view crowded around their windows to see the spectacle (and, one would presume, to avoid work in a time-honoured tradition.) Children—in another time-honoured tradition of avoiding schoolwork—lingered on the streets to stare as an empty Belgian relief ship, the Imo, approached the Mont Blanc, a French ship heavily laden with explosive munitions headed for the Western Front. Both ships blew whistles and made valiant efforts to change directions, but at 8:45 they collided with a painful screech of metal-on-metal. Still there was no immediate excitement, other than the dockworkers shouting and enjoying the spectacle.
Smoke billowed from the accident, as sparks had flown in every direction, and the shouting on board became more urgent as the sailors realized what was happening. The captain of the Mont Blanc gave the order to abandon ship and his sailors fled for the lifeboats—rowing, literally, for their lives. The captain of the Imo tried frantically to reverse the engines, but it was too late, and his crew mutinied under him. Some sailors fled below decks to face the last moments of their lives in prayer. Some leapt over the rails into the frigid December ocean.
At 9:06, the Mont Blanc exploded. Every last ounce of the high-powered explosives destined for the Western Front blew at once. It was beyond imagination, unreal in its magnitude, nearly unfathomable. Fifteen hundred people were killed instantly in the blast. Hundreds more would die in the immediate aftermath. Nine thousand people were injured at once.
The blast was so great it blew the water from the harbour, and moments later an immense tidal wave sixty feet tall came roaring back in, washing away people and buildings alike. Every window for ten miles around was shattered. A cloud of smoke rose twenty thousand feet in the air and was visible far out to sea. The Mont Blanc was blown to pieces, and shards of white-hot iron fell like rain throughout the city.
Hundreds of thousands of fires broke out immediately, the result of tipped stoves, downed power lines, and open flames sent flying. A thick, choking, oily black smoke descended on the city and wouldn’t lift for days, coating everyone and everything with thick, nearly ineradicable dirt. Houses collapsed onto their terrified inhabitants, trapping people into smoky, burning disaster zones. In one home, a 23- month-old girl was flung underneath a lit stove while her mother and brother were killed instantly.
Some were blinded permanently from flying glass, the result of standing in front of plate-glass windows. Thousands were deafened or left with some degree of hearing damage. Open wounds were smeared with the oily black soot, leaving bluish-black tattoos on thousands of Haligonians that would never fade with time.
Surviving police and firemen tried their best to direct efforts, but the damage was so immense, they had no idea what to do. With their own buildings demolished, and their own vehicles unable to traverse the streets thanks to downed power lines and smoking rubble, they sent frightened citizens to nearby hospitals for lack of better options, but the hospitals were overwhelmed within minutes. Soldiers recovering from war injuries were turned out of their beds to make way for the wounded, and many began to help with the triage. Medical supplies were drained nearly immediately with the influx of wounded, and in some cases doctors were forced to do rapid limb amputations or eye removals while the patients were still unconscious.
Soldiers from the barracks were mobilized to help with the rescue efforts, and officers threw open the doors of the military hospital and buildings to provide shelter. Frantic calls for help were sent over the few remaining telegraph lines, via military radio, and even via semaphore flag in an effort to reach anyone who could help. British cruisers and American Coast Guard ships in port, after securing their own damages, began mounting rescue efforts and converting to hospital ships. In a world where the forms of instant communication were either severely damaged (the telegraph) or only available in limited forms (the radio), it would be easy to assume that news traveled slowly.
Not so, thanks in large part to probably the most famous Explosion victim. Vince Coleman, who was immortalized in a Heritage Minute and thus familiar to all Canadians of a certain age, was a railway telegraph operator who had been warned of the fire by fleeing naval officers. He began to run for his life, but remembered a passenger train was due in minutes and returned to his post to send the urgent message “Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching Pier 6. Goodbye.” They were his final words. He died instantly in the blast, but saved hundreds of passengers, and more importantly, notified the railway of the impending disaster.
Fifty minutes after the explosion, a train left Truro, sixty miles north, at full speed and laden with medical supplies and every doctor or nurse within reach. By one that afternoon the train was dispatched back to Truro, loaded with injured victims. By the evening, a dozen relief trains had already arrived in Halifax from throughout the Maritimes as communities sent doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and warm clothing—for a terrible snowstorm had just begun to blanket Halifax in snow.
Massive snowdrifts covered the collapsed houses and obstructed the streets. The military’s search-and-rescue efforts were forced to fight their way through the snow before locating injured civilians. Telegraph lines that had been repaired hours before were knocked down again, severely hampering communications once more. Thousands and thousands of displaced residents shivered in makeshift shelters, unaware if their loved ones were alive, dead, missing, injured, or freezing somewhere in the city.
We will never know the exact number who died as the result of the Explosion, whether in the immediate blast or the terrible devastation that resulted. We will never know how many were injured and left with permanent damage. Thousands were forced to identify loved ones based on the most insubstantial remains—a piece of jewelry, a scrap of clothing, a damaged shoe—and most certainly, some of the identifications were wrong. More than twenty-five thousand people were left with damaged or inadequate housing in the face of a harsh Maritime winter.
Canadians banded together to send aid to their injured neighbours, and cities sent money, clothing, and Christmas presents to help in the relief. The city of Boston was particularly vital, sending up several trains of workers and supplies to wounded Halifax. In gratitude, Halifax sent an enormous Christmas tree to the city of Boston, where it was placed in Boston Commons. They sent another in memoriam in 1971, and since then, Halifax has sent a tree every year.
Today, Halifax is a beautiful, modern city with a thriving bar scene, excellent restaurants, several colleges and universities, and a gorgeous harbourfront. But the city still bears physical scars from the Explosion—many buildings still hold fragments of iron or scorch marks in the brick. The anchor of the Mont Blanc was mounted on a cairn in a city park near where it landed—nearly two full miles from the Narrows. St. Paul’s Church in the downtown core features an “explosion window,” where it is said an outline of broken glass resembles the silhouette of a priest blown through the window.
Two streets in Halifax are named after Vince Coleman, who was hailed as a lifesaving hero.
“Ashpan Annie,” the toddler blown under the kitchen stove, was rescued after twenty-six hours trapped under the stove, and lived to be ninety-six years old. She lived her entire life in Halifax and had several songs written about her.
Surprisingly, most of the crew of the Imo survived the blast, and the ship washed up on shore following the massive tidal wave. The ship was repaired and sailed until it ran aground in the Falklands in 1921 and was abandoned.
The clock on the Halifax Town Hall was stopped at the moment of the blast and has read 9:05 ever since.
The last known survivor of the Explosion died this July at the age of ninety-eight. It has now passed out of living memory.
Images courtesy of Collections Canada.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.