6 December 1917 – The Halifax Explosion

“Ruins of the Army & Navy Brewery operated by Halifax Breweries Limited at Turtle Grove, Dartmouth.”
Credit: Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-1271 (modified from the original). Coloured by Canadian Colour.

 The city of Halifax was a bustling port during the First World War, with thousands of troopships and cargo vessels moving in and out each year. On the morning of 6 December 1917, the Halifax Harbour was busy as usual, and two ships were about to pass each other through the Narrows, a dangerous section of water between the harbour and the Bedford Basin. The SS Imo, a Belgian relief ship, had been unable to leave before the anti-submarine nets shut close on the harbour the previous night. Likewise, the SS Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, had been unable to enter the harbour in time (learn more here). Now on the morning of 6 December, both ships’ captains hoped to get underway.  In a rush to escape the busy harbour, the Imo crossed over into the Mont Blanc’s path and failed to defer to the Mont Blanc’s right of way, which was naval law.

When the two ships collided at the entrance to the Narrows, the Imo’s bow tore a hole in the Mont Blanc. More importantly, it crushed a few grains of the extremely volatile dry picric acid. Few of those on shore knew of the Mont Blanc’s explosive cargo; it carried 5.85 million pounds of explosives, including picric acid, TNT, gun cotton,  and benzol. When the loose grains of picric acid were set alight by the crushing force of the Imo’s bow, dense fumes from the barrels of benzol on deck caught fire and led the flames directly back to the barrels. In those few seconds, the fate of the ship, and Halifax, were sealed. Expecting an explosion at any moment, the Mont Blanc’s crew abandoned ship, and rowed frantically for shore, but for over twenty minutes the ship was adrift in the Narrows. It eventually came to rest against Pier 6 in the industrial neighbourhood of Richmond, where a crowd gathered to watch it burn.

At 9:04:35 a.m. the Mont Blanc exploded in a massive fireball. The explosive crash ripped through the air at “13,320 miles per hour – twenty-three times the speed of sound” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 63). The blast’s air wave followed, flattening buildings instantaneously and sending shards of glass through the air, slicing through whatever stood in their path and causing terrible injuries. The ship’s entire hull was hurled in the air, tumbling within the fireball, with most of it simply vapourizing (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 62). Fragments of the ship tore into the buildings and people in the Halifax Harbour and dockyards. The 1,140-pound anchor shank flew through the air approximately 3.78 km, landing at Armdale, while the ship’s 90 mm gun landed over 2 km away at Albro Lake, Dartmouth.  The explosion also caused a large tsunami in the harbour, the resulting twenty-foot wave smashed into buildings, swept people out to sea and decimated the Mi’Kmaq community in Tufts Cove.

“View looking south showing damage caused by the Halifax Explosion.”
Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-019944, Item 5.

In all almost 2 000 people are thought to have been killed, many were never found and some 250 bodies never identified. The city hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, many suffering from eye injuries as the result of broken glass or burns from the fires that spread across the city. Over 1 600 houses were destroyed, and many areas in Halifax and its surrounding communities were uninhabitable. More than 6 000 people were homeless, with little prospect of shelter for the winter.

“Women walking from Africville towards Halifax, on Campbell Road near Hanover Street.”
Credit: James & Son, Nova Scotia Archives, courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives (2451).

Trains filled with donated goods were sent from across Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States, and over $30 million in financial aid was raised to help rebuild the city. This funding did not extend to the Mi’kmaq communities in Tufts Cover or to the black settlement of Africville on the Bedford Basin, both of which suffered damage either from the explosion itself or the tsunami. Restoration activities began almost immediately, to ensure that the port remained open for ships travelling to and from Europe. Despite a judicial inquiry and several civil suits, no blame for the explosion was ever officially laid.

Download our poster about the centennial anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.

Notables|

Railway Dispatcher Patrick Vincent Coleman

Patrick Vincent Coleman was working as a telegraph operator at the Richmond railway station on the day of the explosion. Somehow, he and Chief Clerk William Lovett had been warned of the contents of the ship and the danger of imminent explosion. Coleman and Lovett realised that a passenger train was due to arrive at 8:55 am and hoped to stop it. Lovett managed to call the terminal agent further up the line and warn them of the imminent danger, after which both men left. However, Coleman returned to his office, and continued sending warnings by telegraph, which were picked up by the stations along the Truro line, in an attempt to stop any incoming trains bound for Halifax. He was killed at his desk when the explosion occurred at 9:05:34 a.m. Lovett was also killed. When the Halifax lines suddenly went dead, Coleman’s message “rocketed from station to station”, announcing to the outside world that something terrible had happened in Halifax (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103).

The Christmas Tree at Boston Common

When the Spanish flu struck in 1918, Nova Scotia sent a team of doctors to Boston to as a symbol of gratitude for the assistance received from Massachusetts after the Halifax Explosion. In December 1918, this gratitude was extended in the form of a Christmas tree, sent from Halifax and installed at the Boston Common. In 1971 the tradition was reinstated and has taken place every year since, with the lighting of the annual tree signaling the start of Boston’s Christmas festivities. In Halifax the gesture remains a sobering reminder of the loss suffered in December 1917. (See Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 273-274).