“Halifax Wrecked” was the newspaper headline screaming off the page on the morning of December 7, 1917. The day before, at 9:04 a.m., an enormous explosion in the Halifax Harbour wiped out a large section of the North End of the city, killing almost 2000 people and blinding many thousands more. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of that event, an event that has become part of who we Haligonians are.
Two ships trying to navigate the harbour ended up in the same shipping lane and one, The Imo, trying to maneuver, strafed the hull of the other, the SS Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb, loaded with explosives for the war effort but not flying a warning flag because that would only invite a German attack. The ship caught fire and exploded. There’s a pretty good interactive recreation on this site if you want to know a bit more about the details.
The day after the explosion there was a winter storm. The army set up tents to help house the newly homeless. Schools and churches were converted into hospitals and morgues. The City of Boston loaded up a train and sent aid with supplies and medical personal almost as soon as they heard the news. Halifax sends Boston their city’s Christmas tree in thanks and has done since the 1970s.
The event is part of our history and there have been a number of books written about it, as well as novels that use the event as a backdrop.
Pretty much the most definitive of the non-fiction books are:
Janet F. Kitz – Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery – contains many first person accounts of the survivors. (1989)
Laura Macdonald – Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
Michael J. Bird – The Town the Died (1962)
There are also three new books just released:
Katie Ingram – Breaking Disaster: Newspaper stores of the Halifax Explosion from newspaper coverage point of view which sounds pretty interesting. (Read an article about Katie and the book in the Chronicle Herald here)
Ken Cuthbertson – The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster
John U. Bacon – The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
(Read a review of these books here at the Globe and Mail)
For the novels, I’ve read a few and can recommend these:
Robert MacNeil – Burden of Desire from 1992. This Goodreads member review is quite good.
Genevieve Graham – Tides of Honour from 2015. I read this last year. Here’s my review.
Hugh MacLennan – Barometer Rising written in 1941 which I read recently. Review here.
An aside: Awhile back I wrote here about Project Bookmark, a project to focus on books written about various areas of Canada, a way you could “Read across Canada”. The 19th bookmark is going to be placed at the Halifax Citadel this afternoon and will honour Mr. MacLennan’s Barometer Rising.
Goodreads has a list of novels with the Explosion as a backdrop here.
A cannon from the SS Mont Blanc, found thrown several miles away from the harbour by the explosion near Albro Lake in Dartmouth
You can probably guess this has been a topic that has always fascinated me. None of my family were living here when it happened though my father grew up in the area that was rebuilt, on a dead end street leading to Fort Needham where the memorial now stands, overlooking the blast site below. I live around the corner from where one of the guns from the Mont Blanc was thrown, about 3 miles from the harbour. It’s mounted and there are a couple of information signs installed. They have a small ceremony there on the 6th every year though the main remembrance ceremony is at the larger memorial at Fort Needham.
To finish, a couple of interesting websites. The Nova Scotia Archives maintains the Book of Remembrance, a list of everyone that died, where they lived and how old they were. Another new site is 100 Years 100 Stories.