When I was a kid in Halifax, Nova Scotia, we’d sometimes hike into the woods across from the landward side of the peninsula, near the western bank of the inlet known as the North West Arm, so we could look at a twisted, nondescript shaft of metal, just lying there on the ground. Urban myth had it that this was the remains of a ship’s anchor that had flown all the way there from the harbour, blown by an explosion, many years before. It was said to have traveled along an arc clear over the peninsula to land where it now sat, two and a half miles from where it started. Supposedly, it had been lying there for decades. It was a big chunk of iron. It looked like it weighed a ton.
This wasn’t just a story that kids circulated among themselves, mind you. It was something your parents told you, and something their parents had told them. There was nothing to identify the aged hunk of metal on the ground, but there didn’t have to be. We all knew what it was, and what had put it there.
You see, about a hundred years ago, now, on December 6, 1917, my home town was all but blown off the face of the Earth.
It was an accident born of Halifax’s special wartime role within the British Empire. In both world wars, Halifax was a crucial staging area for the maritime resupply of European allies. Huge gatherings of freighters would form up in the inner sanctum of Bedford Basin, the largest natural harbour on Earth (I don’t buy the claims made for Sydney, Australia), and at any given time during either war there’d be dozens of ships moored there, lined up prior to assembling themselves into convoys.
There was, therefore, a tremendous amount of harbour traffic, and a crap-load of work for the harbour pilots, as hundreds of large vessels came and went weekly. It was often quite the nautical traffic jam. Meanwhile, just off shore, within sight of the city’s lights, U-Boats waited in ambush for the ships to come out, determined to sink as many as they could. It was the same story in the Second World War, when, I’ve read, you could stand on the shore out by Eastern Passage and watch the burning freighters go under, having failed to so much as make it over the horizon before being set upon by hostile subs.
Bedford Basin opens up off a slender inlet called “the Narrows”, and in December 1917 the Imo, a Belgian ship full of medical supplies, and the Mont Blanc, a munitions ship loaded to the gunwales with thousands of tons of high explosives, found themselves navigating through the tight confines of the Narrows in opposite directions. Accounts vary as to why, you can imagine the post-disaster inquiries and finger-pointing, but in any case they collided. Mont Blanc began to burn like a Roman candle, and an explosion became imminent.
The cargoes of ships aren’t widely disseminated in wartime, as there might be local spies looking to tip off the U-Boats or surface raiders as to which were the juiciest targets. Few knew what would happen if the fireboats, now hard at work, couldn’t stop Mont Blanc from burning. Many people in Halifax watched the drama through panes of glass, standing at their windows fascinated, oblivious to the danger. At the same time, people on the Dartmouth side of the Narrows were wondering why a bunch of sailors was tearing up the hills and yelling something incomprehensible in French. The crew of the Mont Blanc, running hard for their lives, had tried to scuttle, but no one could have lived, not even for an instant, through any attempt to go below and search for the valves. The fire would have incinerated you in a flash, long before you could do anything useful. So they paddled furiously ashore, and ran for the Dartmouth Hills, and you can’t really blame them.
At around 9 AM, when Mont Blanc blew, it detonated with a force measured in thousands of tons of TNT, kilotons, units otherwise associated only with nuclear weapons. It’s said that the harbour floor was exposed. A huge tidal wave washed ashore, carrying all before it. Powerful shock waves propagated through the bedrock in all directions. Plates were knocked off of shelves 60 miles away, in Truro, and the boom was heard 135 miles away in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. North End Halifax, closest to the detonation, was all but destroyed. About two thousand were killed outright, and 9,000 more wounded, a great many with terrible eye damage from the shattered windows they’d been looking through when the shock wave hit. My own grandfather, a haberdasher, was in the basement of a stout stone building, checking inventory when the explosion came. Baffled, he wondered for a moment if somebody had dropped a packing crate upstairs.
It was the largest man-made detonation in history prior to Trinity.
The night of the Explosion, about the worst snowstorm in living memory blew in and blanketed the shattered city in a couple of feet of freezing death, obscuring the survivors who were trapped in their collapsed houses. Nothing was recognizable any more. Where were the streets? Where had the buildings been, exactly? The devastation and confusion were most acute in the places where the lower classes lived – the effects of the explosion were asymmetric, and bitterly unfair. With the sort of perversity so typical of such disasters, the Mont Blanc had gone up closest to where the poor and working people were concentrated, so that it was the weakest of the city’s citizens, in the most fragile dwellings, who took the worst of it. Post-blast it looked like Nagasaki up there, everything laid flat by an iron fist of moving air. Then the shockwave, already somewhat spent as it headed for the affluent South End, was deflected up and around the huge drumlin known as Citadel Hill, and the rich folk where I grew up suffered mainly broken windows and other repairable damage.
The outside world was puzzled, then alarmed, when all telegraph and telephone communication from Halifax suddenly ceased. The lines were all cut. In a herculean effort that merits a telling in its own right, authorities in Boston got wind of an epic disaster of unknown proportions, and loaded up a relief train that carried most of what you’d need to deal with the emergency, including not just food and clothing and such, but medical staff and supplies.
Fighting through the blizzard, the Bostonians arrived about 48 hours after the explosion. More trains came from New England, full of building supplies, the necessities of everyday life, and construction workers. First order of business was to build a temporary city on the Commons. Not a tent city, mind you. Proper, if Spartan, apartments. Then on to restore the North End. They stayed for months.
In 1918 Halifax sent a huge Christmas tree to Boston in thanks. The tradition was revived when I was a kid. Every December, the people of Nova Scotia deliver a big green thank-you card to their friends in Massachusetts.
Sixty years later they were still teaching us about it in school. There were signs of the explosion everywhere, if you knew what to look for. One of them was that shaft of twisted metal in the woods, for this was one urban myth that was actually true. That really was an artifact of the explosion – the anchor shaft of the Mont Blanc. It weighed over a thousand pounds. When they developed the area, they mounted it on a plinth, and you can go see it now, on display in front of some townhouses, now properly labelled.
It’s amazing how obscure this event is to anyone not born close to it’s epicenter. I doubt many Americans have heard of it. Even people in Toronto are often unaware of it. Had anything similar happened in Boston, or New York, it’d be one of the most famous disasters in history, I’d wager, on a par with the San Francisco Earthquake, and the Great Fire of Chicago.
There’s plenty to be read on the subject, but I’d recommend a book by Canadian author Hugh McLennan: Barometer Rising, a novel set in Halifax in 1917. We all read it in school. It’s a drama of war, family strife, betrayal, high level incompetence, and the struggle of a young professional woman to make it in a man’s world, all of it coming to a head just when the Halifax Explosion violently shifts all the pieces on the board. I’ve always thought the book was a prototype for the “disaster movie” genre of the 1970s (Earthquake, Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, the various Airport sequels etc.), all of which follow a very similar arc – interpersonal dramas beginning to tie knots so dense and elaborate that only a cataclysm can cut through it all. It’s a great read, and a great depiction of the Canadian experience in 1917, as the young nation’s exploits in WW I called into question both its inferior status within the British Empire, and the moral fibre of the Englishmen who claimed authority to lead it.
I think maybe it changes your perspective, a little, coming from a town that was almost wiped out by thousands of tons of high explosives. It expands your conception of what’s possible.