Re: The Halifax Explosion 100.
Halifax Explosion (December 6, 1917)
Halifax was devastated on December 6, 1917 when two ships collided in the city's harbour, one of them a munitions ship loaded with explosives bound for the battlefields of the First World War. What followed was one of the largest human-made explosions prior to the detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945. The north end of Halifax was wiped out by the blast and subsequent tsunami. 1,946 people died, another 9,000 were maimed or blinded, and more than 25,000 were left without adequate shelter.
Halifax was a busy, wartime port city in 1917. The First World War had been underway for three years, exposing Canadian servicemen to injury, death and hardship, but bringing prosperity to Halifax. After decades of hard economic times, the city was a hub of Canada's war effort. With one of the finest and deepest ice-free harbours in North America, Halifax was the port through which tens of thousands of Canadian, British Empire and American troops passed on their way to the battlefields of Europe, or on their way home.
The city’s population of nearly 50,000 was swollen by the influx of troops, and by Canadian and British naval officials supervising activity in the port. Millions of tonnes of supplies also passed through the port, en route to the war — wheat, lumber, coal, food, munitions and armaments — arriving by rail and departing on ships. The harbour was not only home to Canada's fledgling Royal Canadian Navy but was also a base for Royal Navy vessels and merchant ships from around the world, needing repair or resupply.
All this activity boosted the economy, made jobs plentiful, and gave the small city a buzz its residents had not experienced in decades. Civilian migrants arrived in search of available work — at the dockyards, railyards, the sugar refinery and other factories. Women also took up paid jobs once filled by men, who were now away at war. Soldiers and sailors filled the streets. Despite its horrors in Europe, the war created wealth and opportunity for many in Halifax, but also boosted demand for bootleg liquor and prostitution — upsetting the Victorian-era morals and sensibilities many Haligonians still harbored.
Much of Halifax's industrial activity was centred in the working-class neighbourhood of Richmond, in Halifax's north end — a tightly knit community of wooden homes, schools and churches. Unpaved streets criss-crossed the slopes of Richmond, leading down to the harbour where factories, naval piers, a sprawling dry dock and railway yards bustled with activity. Further north of Richmond was the Black community of Africville. Across the harbour, on the more sparsely populated Dartmouth shore, was the long-time Mi'kmaq village of Turtle Grove.
The Mi'kmaq called the harbour K’jipuktuk, or Chebucto, meaning "great harbour."
During the war, the harbour was protected by a network of fortified gun emplacements and observation posts, manned by military personnel. Many Halifax residents believed that German battleships might one day arrive offshore and shell the city. Underwater nets, to guard against German submarines, were also strung across the harbour entrance. Gates in the nets were opened periodically during the day, allowing surface traffic to come and go.
At the harbour's innermost reaches, the vast, sheltered expanse of Bedford Basin made Halifax an important staging area for transatlantic, naval-escorted convoys — organized as protection against marauding submarines at sea. Convoys of merchant ships assembled in Bedford Basin before ferrying their supplies and soldiers to the war effort in Europe.
In early December 1917, one of the merchant ships in port was the large, Norwegian vessel IMO, en route from Halifax to New York to pick up relief supplies for the beleaguered population of war-torn Belgium. The words "BELGIAN RELIEF" were emblazoned in large block letters on the Imo's side. Another was the French munitions ship MONT-BLANC — filled with tons of benzol, the high explosive picric acid, TNT and gun cotton — arriving in Halifax to join a convoy across the ocean. Before the war, the port of Halifax was under civilian control, and ships carrying munitions or explosives were not allowed into the inner reaches of the harbour. However, the British Admiralty had assumed command of the port in wartime, and ships such as MONT-BLANC were now permitted through the harbour and into Bedford Basin.
IMO was departing the harbour on the morning of 6 December 1917. She had emerged from Bedford Basin and was travelling south through the Narrows — the harbour's tightest navigation section — moving on the eastern, Dartmouth side of the channel instead of the Halifax side to the west, where outgoing vessels normally travelled. Imo's path required incoming ships to pass to its right or starboard side, rather than to its left or port side, which was customary. IMO had an experienced, local harbour pilot on board, William Hayes, who knew the navigation rules of the harbour. However, earlier encounters that morning with two inbound vessels moving towards Bedford Basin — both of which IMO had passed starboard-to-starboard — resulted in the unusual position that Imo now occupied, too far to the east, on the wrong side of the Narrows.
MONT-BLANC had arrived outside Halifax the previous day and anchored overnight at the mouth of the harbour.
On the morning of December 6, 1917, MONT-BLANC was cleared by harbour authorities to proceed toward Bedford Basin. Despite MONT-BLANC's dangerous cargo, there was no special protocol for the passage of munitions ships in the harbour. Other ships such as the IMO were not ordered to hold their positions that morning until the MONT-BLANC had made safe passage through the port.
Francis Mackey, MONT-BLANC's pilot, was guiding the ship inbound on the Dartmouth-side of the Narrows, when he encountered the IMO heading straight towards him in what he believed was MONT-BLANC's lane. Mackey would later maintain that the Imo was moving at an unsafe speed for such a large, unwieldly ship in the harbour, and also that incoming ships (in this case MONT-BLANC) had the right-of-way over outgoing vessels. Regardless of the accuracy of those claims, what is certain is that the IMO was sailing too far to the east, in what should have been MONT-BLANC's path.
After a series of whistles and miscommunications between the officers and pilots on the two ships, and failed manoeuvres to avoid a collision, the IMO struck the starboard bow of the MONT-BLANC. After a few moments the two ships parted, leaving a gash in MONT-BLANC's hull and generating sparks that ignited volatile grains of dry picric acid, stored below its decks.
For nearly 20 minutes the MONT-BLANC burned. The fire encompassed burning drums of benzol, a form of gasoline, on the ship's top deck, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the sky. The spectacle attracted the attention of people on shore, including children on their way to school, and drew many residents to their windows and others towards the ship itself. In the harbour, teams of firefighters and sailors from other ships headed toward MONT-BLANC, hoping to put out its fire.
Few understood the danger, except for a handful of harbour and naval officials, as well as Francis Mackey and the French-speaking crew of the MONT-BLANC, who fled the ship after the fire broke out, rowing desperately in lifeboats for the Dartmouth-side of the harbour. As they did so, the crippled and burning MONT-BLANC drifted toward Pier 6 on the Halifax shore — a busy area filled with residential homes, businesses, moored ships, the Royal Naval College of Canada, and a large sugar refinery.
Two men on the Halifax side who had learned that an explosion was imminent were Vincent Coleman, a railway dispatcher in the nearby railway yards, and William Lovett, chief clerk of the yards, who was warning people in the yards about the MONT-BLANC's deadly cargo.
Coleman controlled the busy freight- and passenger-rail traffic coming and going from the Halifax peninsula. He was about to flee his office when he realized that trains were due to arrive — including the 0855 train from Saint John, New Brunswick, with hundreds of passengers on board. As the MONT-BLANC burned and the minutes ticked by, Coleman stayed at his post, tapping out a message on his telegraph key, warning stations up the line to stop any trains from entering Halifax. "Munitions ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye."
The Saint John train was ultimately saved, not because of Coleman's message, but because it was running late and never reached the north end of the city. However, Coleman's message, sent in the final minutes of his life, was among the earliest alerts received by the outside world about the disaster in Halifax.
"Our veterans did not forget about us .... Let's not forget about them." From Michael Levesque