Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.
Despite being thousands of miles away from the action on the Western Front, Halifax was heavily embroiled in World War I. The small city was crucial to naval operations. The Royal Canadian Navy used the port as their North American base. It was the starting point of the transatlantic convoy system, which brought soldiers and supplies to the Allies. Also, any neutral ship bound for North America had to pass through Halifax for inspection. It is this inspection system that lies behind the now 97 year old tragedy.
Looking north from grain elevator towards Acadia Sugar Refinery (c. 1900). This area was lost following the explosion.
On December 6, 1917 the bustling city was brought to a traumatic halt. The SS Imo, a ship bound for New York for Belgian relief supplies, had been delayed in the Bedford Basin due to a late supply of 50 tons of coal. Meanwhile, the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship full of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzole fuel arrived from New York late on December 5th. Ships with dangerous cargo were not allowed in the harbour, but fear of German U-Boats had relaxed this restriction. The Imo attempted to leave the via The Narrows at the same time the Mont-Blanc was coming in. The busy nature of the Bedford Basin caused the Imo to sail on the wrong side, (like cars, ships are supposed to stay on the right side). As such, the Imo and Mont-Blanc faced each other head on. There was a confusion of whistle blasts over who should move to the right and at 8:45am the two ships collided. As the Imo tried to disengage, sparks were created, which led to an out-of-control fire, and ultimately the explosion at 9:04am.
The Mont-Blanc was completely blown apart. The remains of the hull were shot up 1000 ft into the air. The blast travelled at over 1,000 metres per second. A 18ft tsunami carried the Imo onto the shore of Dartmouth, the community adjacent to Halifax. A shock wave was felt as far away as Prince Edward Island. Prime Minister Robert Borden, who was in Charlottetown at the time, reported hearing the blast. 2000 people (3% of Nova Scotia) lost their lives and over 9000 were injured. Every building within a 2.6km radius was levelled. Richmond, a neighbourhood in Halifax, was completely wiped off the map. It was the largest man-made explosion in history, up until Hiroshima in WWII.
(Not-so) Fun Fact: How do you make a situation like this even worse? The following day a blizzard occurred, hampering relief efforts.
Despite the tragedy, Halifax carried on. The city and the Halifax Relief Commission, which was assembled within hours of the explosion, decided to use this disaster as an opportunity rebuild Halifax better than ever. When Canada went through a recession following WWI, Halifax was protected by its construction boom. Also, the Canadian war effort was largely unscathed as the port itself escaped significant damage. Conveys resumed operation on December 11 and continued through to the end of the war.
Kitz, Janet, et al. “The Halifax Explosion,” Canadian Broadcasting Company. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/halifaxexplosion/index.html
Mac Donald, Laura. Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion of 1917. Toronto: HarperCollins. (2005).
Nova Scotia Archives, “A Vision of Regeneration.” Accessed from : http://novascotia.ca/archives/virtual/explosion/results.asp?Search=&SearchList1=all