Hal­i­fax explosion was the worst man­made dis­as­ter in Cana­dian his­tory

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL MACDONALD

The top tourist draw in Hal­i­fax at this time of year has to be its sprawl­ing water­front board­walk, which fea­tures some of the city’s best restau­rants, shops and gal­leries. At one end of the pic­turesque, twok­ilo­me­tre walk­way, you’ll find Casino Nova Sco­tia, and at the other, the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Im­mi­gra­tion at Pier 21.

For his­tory buffs, how­ever, the main at­trac­tion this year is at the mid­way point, in­side the Mar­itime Mu­seum of the At­lantic.

The mu­seum, per­haps best known for its Ti­tanic ex­hibit, re­cently opened an ex­panded dis­play of sto­ries and ar­ti­facts com­mem­o­rat­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the Hal­i­fax Explosion.

It was the worst man-made dis­as­ter in Cana­dian his­tory, and its an­niver­sary is be­ing marked in mul­ti­ple ways in the city, where vis­i­tors can find mul­ti­ple relics and com­mem­o­ra­tions.

The mas­sive blast, just af­ter 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, was caused by the col­li­sion of a Bel­gian re­lief ship and a French mu­ni­tions ves­sel car­ry­ing TNT through the nar­row­est part of the har­bour.

En­tire neigh­bour­hoods were lev­elled by the re­sult­ing shock wave and tsunami. More than 1,600 homes and busi­nesses were de­stroyed, many of them burn­ing to the ground af­ter their coal stoves tipped over. Win­dows were bro­ken as far away as Truro, about 100 kilo­me­tres away. And the ground shook in P.E.I.

Al­most 2,000 peo­ple were killed. Another 9,000 were in­jured, hun­dreds of them blinded by fly­ing glass.

The mar­itime mu­seum’s lat­est ex­hibit is called “Col­li­sion in the Nar­rows.” Among other things, it in­cludes twisted metal frag­ments that were hurled across the city, in­clud­ing a piece of the SS Mont Blanc’s rud­der hinge, which weighs sev­eral hun­dred kilo­grams.

The items mostly come from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of explosion ar­ti­facts, which is still grow­ing 100 years later.

“Ev­ery year in the spring­time, the frost heaves up pieces of the Mont Blanc,” says Roger Marsters, cu­ra­tor of marine his­tory. “We get new of­fers of do­na­tions ev­ery year.”

To be sure, the city’s north end is still marked by the explosion.

Ev­ery year on Dec. 6, a me­mo­rial cer­e­mony is held at the Hal­i­fax Explosion Me­mo­rial Bell Tower at Fort Need­ham, which over­looks the area dev­as­tated by the blast.

Craig Walk­ing­ton, chair­man of the Hal­i­fax Explosion an­niver­sary ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee, says this year’s cer­e­mony will pay tribute to those who sur­vived the explosion. Ear­lier this year, the city is­sued an in­vi­ta­tion to those who sur­vived the blast to come for­ward for recog­ni­tion.

At least 18 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a 105-year-old woman, have re­sponded to the call, though lit­tle is known about who they are, Walk­ing­ton said.

“We want to rec­og­nize those who were alive at the time of the explosion, and hope­fully be able to find some­one who can ac­tu­ally talk about their own per­sonal mem­o­ries,” Walk­ing­ton said in an in­ter­view.

Not far from the bell tower, which is be­ing re­fur­bished, is the Hy­dro­s­tone, one of the most tan­gi­ble lega­cies of the dis­as­ter, known th­ese days for its charm­ing restau­rants, shops and cafes. The un­usual neigh­bour­hood was built af­ter the explosion in only 10 months.

It in­cludes 324 dwellings — mostly row houses, some du­plexes and a few de­tached homes — de­signed by Mon­treal ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Ross. All of the homes are made from tough, fire­proof con­crete blocks meant to look like cut gran­ite, a wel­come fea­ture for ten­ants who had seen so many wood-frame homes burn to the ground.

The area is also no­table for its short, par­al­lel, one-way streets and back lanes. But its most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture is the wide, grassy boule­vards in front of each row of homes.

Other ev­i­dence of the explosion is lit­tered across the city.

More than three kilo­me­tres from the blast site, in the mid­dle of a res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood on Spin­naker Drive, a hum­ble mon­u­ment pro­vides mute tes­ti­mony to the in­cred­i­ble power of the explosion. A 500-kilo­gram hunk of metal — the shaft from the an­chor of the Mont Blanc — sits atop a gran­ite pedestal in a small, tree-lined park.

Across the har­bour, in Dart­mouth’s north end, a sim­i­lar mon­u­ment fea­tures a twisted, 500-kilo­gram can­non from the stern of the ship. It, too, was thrown more than three kilo­me­tres.

A new web­site, called “100 Years 100 sto­ries” (https://100years100s­to­, in­cludes an in­ter­ac­tive map that shows the var­i­ous memo­ri­als and ex­hibits across the city.

The web­site has be­come a clear­ing house for all of the events and lo­ca­tions as­so­ci­ated with the up­com­ing an­niver­sary. It also in­cludes stun­ning archival pho­tos and heart­break­ing sto­ries from that grim time.

A grainy 13-minute film shows flat­tened homes, re­lief work­ers trudg­ing through the snow, shat­tered win­dows, man­gled fac­to­ries, and wounded peo­ple be­ing car­ried on stretch­ers to be treated in rail­way cars.

One of the most touch­ing pho­tos is that of 23-month-old An­nie Welsh, who was found in a burned-out home, shel­tered by the ash pan of a stove. She would later be­come known as Ash­pan An­nie, a well-known res­i­dent of Hal­i­fax who died at the age of 95 in 2010.


The af­ter­math of the 1917 Hal­i­fax ship explosion is shown in a file photo. Ev­i­dence of the mas­sive explosion that killed al­most 2,000 peo­ple in 1917 is lit­tered across the city, pro­vid­ing a tourism draw to At­lantic Canada’s largest city.


Ken Hynes, cu­ra­tor of the Army Mu­seum at Ci­tadel Hill, looks at a photo of his grand­fa­ther, Fletcher Manch­ester Bartlett, who was work­ing at Ci­tadel Hill at the time of the Hal­i­fax Explosion on Dec. 6, 1917. The explosion was the worst man-made dis­as­ter in Cana­dian his­tory.


This clock, on ex­hibit at the Mar­itime Mu­seum of the At­lantic in Hal­i­fax, stopped at the mo­ment of the Hal­i­fax Explosion, Dec. 6, 1917.

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