At 9.06 on the morning of 6 December, 1917, the Canadian port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia was shattered by the largest man-made explosion to have ever occurred. The shock and horror was unrivalled until the Enola Gay opened its bomb-bay doors over Hiroshima.
The Stage is Set
The harbour at Halifax is made up of two bodies of water: Halifax Harbour proper, and at the inland end, Bedford Basin. The aptly named Narrows joins the two sections. On the Southwest side of the Narrows lies Halifax, overlooked by the Citadel on Citadel Hill. Dartmouth is on the Northeast of the Narrows. In December of 1917, Halifax Harbour was an extremely busy wartime port, and through the Narrows steamed a huge amount of traffic bearing munitions and supplies bound for Europe. The banks of the Narrows were crowded with homes, shops, factories, schools; and just before nine in the morning, thousands of people walking from their warm homes into the Canadian winter morning, sometimes pausing to watch the ships go by. At 8.45am they were provided with a new and unusual spectacle.
The Curtain Rises
The French munitions carrier Mont Blanc was steaming fully-laden towards Bedford Basin in its designated channel. The Norwegian flagged Belgian relief ship Imo was steaming toward the Atlantic through the Narrows. Tragically, the Imo was off course, the equivalent of driving on the wrong side of the road. Almost instantly after the inevitable collision, spectators on shore paused to watch burning drums of benzol on the Mont Blanc's deck. The Imo managed to steam a safe distance from the fire and paused to consider their error and their fate. The crew of the Mont Blanc was taken aboard other ships. The Mont Blanc drifted gently against the piers on the Halifax side. Within a few minutes, the burning benzol leaked into the holds of the Mont Blanc where 2,766 tonnes of TNT, gun cotton and picric acid were stowed.
At 9.06am, the burning ship vanished in a single gargantuan explosion. Many of the spectators on shore, and the buildings around them, also vanished. More than two square kilometres of the north end of Halifax was levelled by the combination of the blast, the ensuing inundating wave, and the firestorm that began as both coal and wood-heated buildings collapsed on their stoves and furnaces. Dartmouth's sparsely-developed north end suffered much less damage. The blast was heard on Prince Edward Island and windows were broken in Truro, 100 kilometres away.
1,600 people were killed in the explosion, including the captain, bridge and deck crew of the Imo. Out of the 9,000 injured people, flying glass blinded 200. 6,000 were left homeless in the depths of a Nova Scotia winter. 20,000 had less than adequate shelter. Before the explosion, Halifax had a population of 50,000. Because fire was near the principal munitions' store at the docks, Halifax had to be evacuated for the days immediately after the explosion.
Relief trains carrying food, clothing, medicine, building supplies, and relief workers set out immediately from New England, the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and Central Canada. The state of Massachusetts was particularly generous: the people of Halifax continue to send a giant Christmas tree to Boston in gratitude.
In April of 1918 the Halifax Relief Commission was incorporated under provincial law to administer the 30 million-dollar relief fund. The commission began its work with civic planning and public housing projects. Shortly after World War Two, the Commission turned to providing pensions. In 1976 the Commission's remaining $1.5 million and 65 disabled dependants were transferred to the Canada Pension Commission.
For More Information
The aftermath of the Halifax explosion has been well-recorded in photographs, and many of them are available online. Here are some links for pictures and information:
The novel Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan has the Halifax Explosion as a backdrop.