December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion

I've spent a lot of time lately talking (I could just end that sentence there.) about the time before I moved to the east cost, and how I'd been curious about living near the sea, perhaps feeling some deep connection to the ocean, a holdover from my Scottish ancestry.*

As it happens, today is a very important anniversary in this seaside town. 89 years ago, during The Great War, two navy ships collided in Halifax Harbour, one a relief-supply ship, and the other a ship heavily laden with explosives. You know where this is going. Nobody knew of the cargo on the latter ship, so when the ships collided, very little could be done about the massive detonation which leveled half the town and, in conjunction with a well-timed snowstorm, resulted in over 1,900 people losing their lives.

When I lived in Toronto, my now lawyer friend was attending law school in Halifax and he put me on to a book called Burden of Desire, a novel of historical fiction documenting what became known as The Halifax Explosion (note: the preceding link is a great site for more information). Apart from the strange title of the book, which caused me to flip the front cover over to the back while I read on the subway, I found it a great story which fed my intrigue for the city. My curiosity led me to then seek out Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising, a slightly more nuts-and-bolts recounting of the same event.

The long cargo ship Julia had seen entering the harbour was the S.S. Mont Blanc,a French freighter of 3121 tons, owned by the Compagnie Général Transatlantique but under orders from the French navy. She was en route from New York to Bordeaux. Fearful of German submarines, the thirty-eight-year-old captain, Aimé le Medec, had stayed close to the New England coast on the four-day voyage from New York. He had anchored for the night just outside Halifax, awaiting clearance through its submarine defenses. By 8 A.M., with a Halifax pilot on the bridge, the Mont Blanc entered the harbour.


She had been loaded in Brooklyn, New York, the steel of her holds carefully lined with wood, fastened with copper nails, which produce no sparks when struck. The crew of the Mont Blanc were forbidden to smoke, even to carry matches on deck. No liquor was permitted on board.


Her cargo was high explosives. In her holds were 2300 tons of picric acid, 225 tons of TNT, and 62 tons of gun cotton. Loaded as deck cargo in metal drums were 35 tons of benzol, the highly volatile aviation fuel. She was not flying the customary red warning flag for a ship carrying explosives. The naval authorities controlling Halifax Harbor knew the nature of her cargo, but no one else.

excerpt from Robert MacNeil's Burden of Desire

Arriving in Halifax a few years later, I quickly learned that the Halifax Explosion is still a big deal today. After the explosion, a bad winter storm hit, affecting those who were left injured or homeless after the devastation of the explosion. Aid and supplies were quickly sent up from Boston by train, and because of this, Nova Scotia sends a massive tree to Boston every year, which is displayed in the Boston Common and accompanied by a tree lighting ceremony.

Every December 6th, the local news is filled with stories and recounts of the event from survivors, and films, studies and documentaries still keep the memory of this tragic event alive. Plaques and memoriams are erected. The historical research continues. This year, www.halifaxexplosion.org was launched, a wealth of information on the event, the ensuing media coverage, and stories from survivors. Check it out if you have a few moments.

I'm at a loss for a way to end this, other than to suggest that my view of the North End of Halifax from a nearby office window puts me that much closer to understanding all that I'd read about before I moved here, and how I love that history lurks in every corner and behind every landmark and place name.


* They could have been farmers. I don't yet know all the details, but go with me on this.

Posted bythemikestand at 8:05 AM  

4 stepped up to the mike:

Anonymous said... 6:01 PM, December 06, 2006  

I was so happy to read an interesting and informative account of an anniversary worth remembering (halifax explosion) instead of the non-sense i heard all day about the anniversary of the shooting in Montreal.

Dustin said... 9:41 PM, December 06, 2006  

Oh I'm sorry, I was looking Mike's Blog and somehow ended up at Wikipedia.

JK. As a History Major I'm a total sucker for historically laden narratives. I might have to check this one out.

themikestand said... 12:30 PM, December 07, 2006  

christine: it was either that, or a post about how the Dutch are boycotting Santa Claus in general because he's overcommercialized, unlike Father Christmas (Sinter Claus). If only FC would come on the 25th, not the eve of the 6th. ;)

Actually, I thought to double post that day and mention that to which you allude.

dustin: You just wait. Soon I'll unveil my masterpiece, Mikipedia!

Anonymous said... 2:17 PM, December 07, 2006  

Mike:

We had a little conversation concerning this at Sassy's site. Thanks for more background. I'll have to see if my library has the books.

Interesting little story: Remember that I said they went back to calling it a Christmas Tree this year, after folks around here raised such a stink about it being called a "Holiday" tree last year? That reminded me of something I saw the other day.

I was driving by an Episcopal church here in Boston and they had a sign saying "Holiday trees for sale". Good Lord! You're a church. What other holiday could you possibly be selling your trees for? :-)

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