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Halifax History November 2, 2021

A Brief Overview of the Halifax Explosion of 1917

Photo via Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Read on to learn about the disaster that shaped Atlantic Canada’s largest city with a catastrophic collision on the morning of December 6th, 1917; the infamous Halifax Explosion.

Cities around the world have been shaped by the major disasters in their past. Events like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 are responsible for moulding both the cultural and physical aspects of their environment. Sadly, Halifax is not exempt from catastrophic disasters, having experienced the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917.

The Explosion

On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the Norwegian ship Imo left the Bedford Basin, outbound for New York to load food and clothing for the people of occupied Belgium. At the same time, the French steamship Mont-Blanc entered the Halifax Harbour, inbound from the Atlantic, carrying a cargo of highly-explosive war materials bound for France.

After a series of ill-judged maneuvers at the entrance to the Narrows, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc on the bow. Although the collision itself was minor, a fire was ignited, burning for twenty minutes and drawing unassuming spectators to the shoreline who were unaware of the grave danger presented by the fire.

Triggered by the fire, explosives onboard the Mont-Blanc underwent a sudden, violent chemical reaction, and just after 9 AM, the Mont-Blanc exploded. The massive energy released tore through the ship at 1,500 metres per second, and in an instant, the Mont-Blanc became a 3,000-ton bomb in a busy harbour.

Devastation

Over 1,900 people were killed immediately and 9,000 more were injured. In an instant, 325 acres were destroyed – virtually all of North End Halifax.

In the wake of the explosion, hospitals were unable to cope with the massive volume of casualties, and there was a desperate need for housing. Matters were only made worse by the devastating blizzard that struck the city the following day, dumping 16 inches of heavy, wet snow over the sooty, oily ruins.

Aftermath

As news of the explosion spread, people around the world came to Halifax’s aid. Medical relief arrived from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, across Canada, and from the United States, reinforcing the work of local responders and providing much-needed specialized treatment for the most serious injuries.

Gradually, Halifax was put back together, though nothing could compensate for lost lives. Within two months over 1,500 victims had been buried, however many of the remaining victims remained undiscovered until the spring as warming temperatures made the excavation easier.

Although today there are few survivors left to tell their stories, Halifax has not forgotten, and every December 6, just before 9 am, there is a service by the Memorial Bells at Fort Needham Memorial Park, close to where SS Mont-Blanc exploded.

10 Facts About the Halifax Explosion

  1. The Mont-Blanc was carrying 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton, all of which became the fuel for the blast.
  2. The explosion didn’t happen immediately on impact, but occured 20 minutes after the ships collided as a result of a chemical reaction created by the fire and the explosive cargo onboard the Mont-Blanc.
  3. The Halifax Explosion was the largest man-made explosion prior to the Atomic Bomb (by overall measure of deaths, explosive force, and radius of destruction).
  4. The human toll of the disaster was devastating; 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 more were injured in the blast. Approximately 250 bodies were never identified, and many victims were never found.
  5. The destruction to property in the aftermath of the explosion was devastating. 1,630 homes were completely destroyed, 12,000 houses were damaged and 6,000 people were left without shelter in the wake of the event.
  6. Because of the explosion, window panes throughout Halifax were completely destroyed – leaving 41 people totally blind with a final total of eye injuries at 691.
  7. The Halifax Explosion helped spur the creation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). A staggering 250 eye removals were performed over a period of two weeks following the explosion, an additional 206 survivors had lost one eye and required monitoring to ensure they retained their vision in the other, and 260 more people had glass embedded in their eyes” (CNIB). CNIB volunteers worked with survivors to successfully navigate their new reality, helping them learn new skills, including reading braille, and relearn skills that were suddenly difficult without vision.
  8. To thank the City of Boston for its immediate action in delivering supplies and medical support in the wake of the explosion, in 1971, Halifax began the tradition of sending a Nova Scotian Christmas tree each year.
  9. There is a Halifax Explosion Book of Remembrance on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The book contains the names, ages, residential address at the time of explosion and burial location of all 1,951 people lost in the explosion. There is a reference copy of the book available at the museum for public consultation. You can also access the book online here.
  10. The Chebucto Road School (now the Maritime Conservatory of the Performing Arts) served as the main mortuary for victims of the Halifax Explosion. The morgue operated in the basement of the building, while the classrooms were used as offices for the coroners. The system used to number and describe the bodies was modelled after the identification process used to identify Titanic victims.

Learn more

While this is just a brief overview of an event with countless stories and facets, there are many places in Halifax where you can discover the accounts of those who were there, surviving and overcoming the tragedy. Here are a few places you can learn more:

Visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to see the permanent exhibit, Explosion in the Narrows: The 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion.

Visit Fort Needham Memorial Park in Halifax’s North End to explore the many stories told by commemorative elements throughout the park in remembrance of the victims of the explosion.

Learn about the lasting impact on the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove from the Halifax Public Library‘s blog: Turtle Grove and the Halifax Explosion: A Brief and Not at All Definitive History

Explore the historical municipal sources on the Halifax Explosion collected by the Halifax Municipal Archives.

Read the Halifax Explosion History documented by the Halifax Regional Municipality.


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