7 December 1917 – The Halifax Relief Trains

“Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917”.
Credit: W.G. MacLaughlan, Nova Scotia Archives, accession no. 1988-34 no. 14 / negative: N-137.

On this day in 1917, relief trains from across the Eastern Seaboard depart for Halifax, Nova Scotia. After the telegraph lines to Halifax went dead, Vincent Coleman’s last message out had flashed from station to station along the Eastern Seaboard (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103). Unsure of what had happened, but fearing that it was likely disastrous, nearby communities rallied to send relief. Railways were cleared of all regularly scheduled trains, and priority given to all available relief trains, which had already begun to arrive from towns across Eastern Canada before the end of 6 December 1917 (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178).

Soldiers assist in recovery efforts.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-001833.

Immediate aid came from the military ships that had been moored in the Halifax Harbour at the time of the explosion. Both Canadian and American soldiers and sailors were sent ashore to aid in the recovery efforts.  Meanwhile, sailing back from a transatlantic convoy escort, the USS Tacoma was 52 miles out at sea when its crew spotted the pall of smoke over Halifax. Sensing something was wrong, Captain Powers Symington altered course and headed straight for Halifax. The USS Van Steuben did the same (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 70). At night, American soldiers patrolled the streets, allowing the Canadians to rest (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 137).

In the United States, New York had sent its first train within twenty-four hours of the explosion, “filled with twenty engineers, doctors, nurses, $15,000 worth of tools, $150,000 worth of lumber, one thousand portable houses, and thirty thousand pounds of bandages” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 168). Before dawn on 7 December, the Boston & Maine relief train was already at McAdam, New Brunswick; “from McAdam Junction to St. John [New Brunswick], the platforms were lined with solemn-looking workers holding shovels, carpentry tools, and medical bags, hoping for a ride to Halifax” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 165).

Hampered by a snowstorm that drifted over and blocked the railway tracks, the Boston & Maine relief train finally pulled into Halifax on the morning of Saturday, 8 December 1917. With it came a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts, addressed to the mayor of Halifax:

“Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts stands ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of… an important meeting of citizens has been held and Massachusetts stands ready to offer aid in any way… P.S. Realizing that time is of the utmost importance we have not waited for your answer but have dispatched the train.”

Upon receiving the letter, C. A. Hayes, the President of the Canadian Government Railway, wept.

(Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178-179).