Friday, March 23, 2012

Explosion in Halifax Harbor

It was 1917, and France was fighting desperately to protect their country in World War I. Several French ships were sent to the United States to load munitions and explosives for the effort. The Mont Blanc was one of these ships. It was loaded in New York with every possible precaution taken for safety even down to have the men wear linen covers over their shoes to avoid having a spark of static electricity set off all the explosives being loaded onto the ship.

The Mont Blanc

 Once it was fully loaded with munitions from the decks to the deep holds of the ship, the Mont Blanc set out for Halifax Harbour to meet the convoy that would accompany it to Europe. All on board were grateful that they made the voyage to Halifax without any attacks by Germany submarines.

Two days earlier, the Belgium relief ship, Imo had arrived at the mouth of the harbor, and although somewhat delayed arrived at her mooring. Having had the ship's paperwork cleared, the captain of the Imo was in a hurry to move back out of the harbor and deliver the supplies on board. There was some confusion involved concerning when the Imo was cleared to move.

Halifax Harbour passed between two cities: Dartmouth and Halifax. It could be said that these cities were always in some danger from being located alongside a harbour that was so frequently used in the war times, but the residents did not think about that and instead enjoyed watching the ships moving through the harbour. After all, there were submarine nets and other precautions in place to prevent enemy forces from entering the harbour, and the city of Halifax had been built as a fortress from it's earliest days.

On December 6, the Imo and the Mont Blanc were both leaving the harbour. The Mont Blanc was in it's correct lane, but the Imo, moving fast, seemed to be confused as to which lane it should be traveling in. In desperation, the captain of the Mont Blanc tried to move to the lane opposite the Imo to avoid the impending collision, but the Mont Blanc was not able to turn in time, and the Imo struck it, ripping a hole in the ship and causing sparks to fly.

The people of Halifax felt that the fire was no threat and indeed many young people went down closer to the harbour to watch the excitement. Others watched from the windows of their houses. Even the dock workers at the harbour found the collision a great source of amusement. The only ones who quickly saw the danger were the captain and crew of the Mount Blanc and they quickly escaped in lifeboats heading as quickly as possible to the Dartmouth side of the harbour, and running up into a wooded area for safety. Waving wildly from a lifeboat the crew tried to warn the people of Halifax, and the smaller boats now approaching the ship to offer help (or just to view the fire), but the warning was not well understood since the crewmen spoke French. The Imo had seen two small explosions and moved back down the harbour for safety.

At 9:05, the explosion happened. It was massive. Large pieces of the ship were thrown as far as three and a half miles away. The harbour rose in an enormous wave. And much of Halifax was destroyed in a moment. Over 1,600 people died in that moment. 9000 were injured. So many windows shattered in houses outside the main area destroyed by the explosion that children and adults standing at their windows suffered horrific eye injuries as glass shards flew into their eyes. A telegrapher managed to warn off a train approaching Halifax, saving 500 lives, but losing his own life for his bravery. $16,000,000 of damage was reported in the city. A blizzard on the day after the explosion made it impossible to find all of the injured and those trapped in the rubble. More people were killed in the explosion than in all of World War I. It was the most massive explosive in history before the nuclear age.

A school destroyed in the explosion

Recovery work began within hours after the explosion. Temporary shelters were built at a rate of one an hour. Red Cross workers, doctors, nurses, and the survivors of the explosion quickly set up relief services and made preparations for medical treatment of survivors. Soldiers provided disciplined assistance. Prisons were emptied to provide shelter to survivors. A permanent commission was set up in Halifax to deal with the after effects of the disaster.Trains carried the injured to cities where more hospitals were available, and returned with supplies for the city. Eye doctors from Boston rushed to the scene to treat the large numbers of those who had shattered glass shards in their eyes. Many of those victims however were permanently blinded. 

The Canadian and British governments raised $33,000,000 in relief funds. Relief funds from as far way as New Zealand were gathered for the city.  Massachusetts also provide relief funds along with sending trainloads of supplies, nurses, and doctors to Halifax. Doctors and nurses also came from a number of Canadian cities.

After the identification of bodies and funerals, Hologonians began to view the damage to their city as a blank slate on which to build a new and beautiful Halifax. They worked to build a planned city with improved roads, better buildings, and garden areas.

Today, Halifax is a beautiful city and a testament to the work to recover from the explosion.

Halifax Today
Books used for this article:

Janet F. Kitz. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery

Websites used for this article:

The Halifax Explosion in 1917 ( - Canada Online)

The Halifax Explosion (

The Halifax Explosion (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

Halifax Explosion - This one minute YouTube video shows the fire, people in Halifax being warned by a messenger from the harbour master's office warning people to get away from the shore, the city after the explosion, and graphic images of the wounded in hospital.

Halifax Explosion - This four minute video on YouTube is a slide show of images of the damage from the explosion, and a celebration of what a miraculously beautiful city Halifax is today.

The Halifax Explosion - Nearer My God to Thee is a four minute slide show on YouTube showing scenes of the Mont Blanc burning and the subsequent condition of the city.

This Day in History: The Great Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion: In the Blink of an Eye is a comprehensive source of information about the explosion, and the rescue work, relief, and rebuilding following the disaster.

The CBC Halifax Explosion Site

Other recommended sources:

A three hour move, Shattered City is available at Amazon. It provides a fictionalized account of one family's experiences following their survival after the explosion.

Halifax Explosion Link List - This page lists names of 362 people in Halifax at the time of the explosion and links each to their documents in the 1901 census and in the Halifax Explosion Book of Remembrance.

A digitized copy of the Book of Rememberance lists over 1,900 killed that day. It can be found at The Nova Scotia Archives

Nova Scotia in Film Trailer: At War - This YouTube video is of life in Halifax before the explosion.

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