December 6th – The Halifax Explosion

Headline from the Halifax Herald on the day after the Explosion

Headline from the Halifax Herald on the day after the Explosion

On this day in 1917, an explosion occurred off Halifax, Nova Scotia when the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship filled with munitions, collided with the Norwegian ship SS Imo. The explosion generated by the two ships’ collision was the largest man-made explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, equal to almost 3 kilotons of TNT exploding.

Halifax was an important port for the British Empire and contributed greatly to the Allied war effort during the First World War. From Halifax, Canadian soldiers and war supplies (including munitions) were shipped from Canada to the European battlefields. One ship in particular, the SS Mont-Blanc, happened to be laden with explosive cargo in Halifax Harbour on December 6th, 1917, enroute to Bordeaux, France. Another ship in the Harbour on that day, the SS Imo, was enroute to New York City to pick up food to be brought across the Atlantic for the Belgian people. Mixed messages (literally) between the two ships in the Harbour resulted in the Imo colliding with the Mont-Blanc, sparking an ignition of the explosive compounds onboard the Mont-Blanc.

The collision between the two ships did not immediately cause an explosion, however generated enough commotion to get the attention of Haligonians (denonym of those who are from Halifax). Many stood in the streets of Halifax looking upon the collision in the Harbour, or peered through the windows of their homes and businesses for a view. Once the Mont-Blanc exploded, fragments of the ship came raining down on the city. The gun from the Mont-Blanc was claimed to have been found 3 km away from the epicentre of the explosion. The blast was so powerful that the explosion in Halifax Harbour was heard from 300 kilometres away. The blast produced a massive cushion of air that blasted through the city, destroying/damaging city property. For those that were not dead from the initial explosion, eye injuries were common, as the air cushion shattered the glass from windows through which Haligonians viewed the two ships collide. In the end, approximately 2000 people were killed in the Halifax Explosion, and approximately 9000 left injured.

Emergency response to the explosion and its aftermath was hampered by a blizzard that was moving through Nova Scotia. Help however did come, from both near and far. Across Nova Scotia and from other provinces, firemen and medical staff hurried to Halifax to assist in the relief of the city. One notable international contribution to the city’s relief was from the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee. In commemoration of the assistance rendered by the city of Boston to Halifax, in 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to Boston in gratitude. Starting in 1971 and continuing to this day, a Christmas tree is gifted by the Nova Scotian government to Boston every year, just as in 1918, during the holiday season. This tree is Boston’s official Christmas tree and is lit up in Boston Common outside the State Capitol.

Canada’s ‘Heritage Minute’ infomercials (for those who grew up during the 90s in Canada, you know what I am talking about) featured the story of Vince Coleman, a train dispatcher in Halifax on that fateful day. Coleman learned that the Mont-Blanc was carrying explosive cargo in its hold and aware it could explode at any minute after the ships collided. Vince Coleman stayed at his post to warn an incoming train from Saint John, New Brunswick via Morse code of the impending explosion in Halifax Harbour and to stop the train immediately. Many variations of the message transmitted to the train have been reported, but they all typically appear similar to the following:

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

Coleman’s message saved this inbound train from proceeding further to Halifax, as well as warning all other inbound trains to Halifax. Hundreds of lives were saved by Coleman’s warning to the trains. Sadly, Vince Coleman perished in Halifax. Here is a link to the Canadian ‘Heritage Minute’ for the Halifax Explosion: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/halifax-explosion?media_type=41&.

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