Halifax History December 1, 2017

Here’s what you should know about the Halifax Explosion

header image via @rob.hys

Want to learn more about the disaster that shaped Atlantic Canada’s largest city 100 years ago but not sure where to start? We’ve got your back. Here’s a basic summary of the catastrophic collision that occurred on the morning of December 6th, 1917.

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. Unfortunately, Halifax is not exempt from catastrophic disaster, having experienced the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

On the morning of December 6th, the Norwegian aid ship Imo collided with the French arms vessel Mont-Blanc in the narrows, the waterway linking the Bedford Basin and the Halifax Harbour. Although the collision itself was minor, it ignited a fire that burned for twenty minutes, drawing spectators to the shoreline who were unaware of the grave danger presented by the fire. Only a few naval officers and Vincent Coleman, railway dispatcher, knew the explosive cargo that was aboard the Mont-Blanc.

At 9:04 AM, the Mont-Blanc exploded. It destroyed 1,630 home, and left 12,000 others damaged. Over 6,000 people were left without shelter. Unsurprisingly, “hardly a pane of glass in Halifax and Dartmouth was left intact.” To make matters worse, the city was hit by a  blizzard the following day, covering the area in over 40 centimetres of heavy, wet snow.

The death toll of the Halifax explosion “rose to just over 1,900. About 250 bodies were never identified; many victims were never found. Twenty-five limbs had to be amputated; more than 250 eyes had to be removed; 37 people were left completely blind.” (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic). Aid workers came from as far away as Boston, which is why Nova Scotia now sends them their annual Christmas Tree for the Boston Common each year.

Did You Know?
  • The Halifax Explosion helped spur the creation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Over 1,000 people incurred serious eye injuries from airborne shrapnel, “which left them blind or with significant vision loss. 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.
  • The Halifax Explosion was the largest man-made explosion prior to the Atomic Bomb.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • While there has never been a complete tally done on the financial cost of the Halifax Explosion, $35 Million USD, in 1917 rates, is commonly used as the total. The estimate includes “losses to government, shipping and railways, houses, churches, manufacturing plants and inventories and personal belongings” (CBC).
Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion
  • The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is home to a permanent exhibit ‘Halifax Wrecked: The Halifax Explosion’, which features stories and personal effects of both victims and survivors. The exhibit “explores the Explosion from an anecdotal perspective, giving visitors a sense of the devastation that occurred, but more importantly, a sense of the city’s bravery in the face of adversity” (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic).
  • The Maritime Museum also has a special exhibit running until November 2018, entitled ‘Collision in the Narrows.’ The exhibit explores the “three cultural movements that converged in The Narrows of Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917: a deeply rooted indigenous culture, a global maritime culture, and a Canadian national culture” (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic).
  • The Dalhousie Art Gallery (6101 University Avenue) is featuring five exhibitions on the topic of the Explosion. Running from October 12 – December 17, 2017, you can learn more here.
  • The Fort Needham Memorial Park was established in by the Halifax Relief Commission as a memorial to the Halifax Explosion. The park is home to the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower, the location of annual memorial services on December 6th. In 2017, the park has underwent major improvements, including the addition of a new children’s playground, enhancements to existing pathways and lighting, and additional commemorative features. Read more about the park here, and visit it at 8:45 am on December 6th, 2017 for the memorial service.

There are numerous other events taking place in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the Explosion, a list of which can be found on the website 100years100stories.ca.

Do you want to know more about this pivotal event in Halifax’s history? We love that and hope that this is the case! While this was simply a brief overview of an event with countless stories and facets, you can discover dozens of stories and memories from accounts of those who were there, surviving and overcoming the tragedy, here.

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