The Great Halifax, Nova Scotia Explosion of 1917
By William F. Hanna
At a little before 9 o’clock on the morning of December 6, 1917, two big ships collided in a section of the Halifax, Nova Scotia harbor known as the Narrows. The Imo was a Belgian relief ship outbound for Europe and the Western Front, while the Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, was inbound toward an anchorage in the harbor. The collision caused some of the barrels on the deck of the Mont-Blanc to rupture, and the liquid spilling out quickly caught fire.
In smoky distress near the narrowest point in Halifax Harbor, the burning Mont- Blanc immediately attracted the attention of hundreds of people who ran to the vicinity of the waterfront. Deckhands on other vessels crowded the rails as thick black smoke billowed from the ship, while on shore, men and women going to work jockeyed with tardy schoolchildren for the best places to watch the show. Fire apparatus, sirens wailing, headed for the closest pier on the waterfront as the burning ship drifted toward it.
Onlookers may have found it curious that instead of fighting the fire, the crew, including the Mont-Blanc’s captain, quickly abandoned ship and rowed desperately away. In fact, however, this made perfect sense because they knew what almost no one else did: Below decks the Mont-Blanc was carrying 6,000 tons of high explosives. An earlier policy of requiring munitions ships to fly a red warning flag had been deemed too risky in light of the threat posed by German submarines, so the practice had been discontinued.
During World War I, as it had for two centuries, Halifax was playing a critical role in the most recent military crisis. With a wartime population of 60,000, its harbor served as an important embarkation point for Allied convoys departing for Europe. Fearing German sabotage or outright reprisal, both civilian and military authorities were in a constant state of vigilance. In the harbor, anti-submarine nets were closed at dark each afternoon and not reopened until morning, while armed patrol vessels were always on the lookout for German submarines or other signs of danger. And yet despite these efforts, in the bustle of war mistakes were made. The very worst of these — unimaginable to the thousands who were to become its victims — was about to occur.
It’s safe to say that no one who was in Halifax that day would ever forget what happened when the munitions in the cargo hold of the Mont-Blanc detonated. The ground shook on Cape Breton, 250 miles away, and on Prince Edward Island, 110 miles from Halifax, windowpanes shuddered as plates and glasses rattled on kitchen shelves.
In the Richmond section of Halifax, the awful blast was accompanied by a shower of debris, oil and aviation fuel from the now obliterated ammunition ship. John U. Bacon, in his excellent book, The Great Halifax Explosion (New York, 2017), writes that shock waves from the concussion rushed outward at 2,100 miles per hour, seven times faster than the most powerful tornado. This made it the most powerful man-made explosion in human history until the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. The blast was followed by a tsunami that inundated the already-devastated waterfront even as fires ignited by burning debris took hold in nearby streets.
The human toll taken by the explosion was catastrophic. At least 1,600 people were killed instantly, while John Bacon estimates that another 400–800 may have died in the months afterward. An additional 9,000 people were injured, many of them shredded by flying glass or buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings. To make matters even more dire, a blizzard — the worst in Halifax in a decade — descended on the city and its 25,000 homeless citizens that night and dumped 16 inches of snow on the rubble.
There were at least two Tauntonians in Halifax on the morning of the explosion, and both wrote letters home in the hours afterward. Stephen O’Neil, a resident of the Whittenton section of the city, was making business calls on behalf of a Boston firm. A couple of miles from the Halifax waterfront when the Mont-Blanc exploded, O’Neil wrote:
It was awful, many times louder and more terrific than any explosion or thunder report I had ever heard. This was followed by two other explosions. Men, women and children swarmed into the streets. Broken glass, boards and debris fell on all sides. I was thrown on my back and one of my legs [was] cut . . . Great pieces of wreckage seemed to rain out of the sky. All ran toward the south end of the city, as the north was burning. I started to run as soon as I could get to my feet . . . The whole thing was so terrible that one’s only thought was to rush out of the city. All believed it was a German air raid . . . The sights on every side were appalling. I saw many cut and bleeding from wounds received by flying pieces of glass.
Also in the city that morning was Earl W. Hodgkins, a sailor aboard the USS Old Colony, a former passenger steamer acquired by the U.S. Navy earlier in 1917. The ship was in Halifax preparing to sail for the United Kingdom, where it would be turned over to the Royal Navy. It was anchored about one mile from the explosion and its crew were among the first to give aid. Writing to his parents in Taunton, Hodgkins said he was one of 300 Massachusetts sailors aboard the ship that day. He continued:
The concussion was terrible, a shower of shot and shell fell all around us but none of us was hit, although we expected every moment that we would be. The effects of the explosion broke windows and doors on the ship, but that was the only damage we suffered.
I have never seen anything so bad in my life before, and do not want to again . . . There wasn’t a whole window left in Halifax. Hundreds of people were killed outright. I don’t believe there are a hundred people here who have not a cut or a wound on them.
As appalling as the disaster was, this story too has its heroes. Haligonians, many without heat or electricity, rose to the occasion and within hours were caring for the injured and providing shelter for their homeless neighbors. In this, and also as they rebuilt, they had vital aid from the United States, and especially from Massachusetts. By late afternoon on December 6, a relief train was underway from Boston to Nova Scotia, filled with medical supplies as well as doctors and nurses from the city’s hospitals. But this was just the advance guard of a legion of helpers, for even as the train made its way through the heavy snowstorm, state and local officials were organizing a more sustained relief effort.
Massachusetts was in an advantageous position to help Halifax because the state had efficiently mobilized in the days immediately after the U.S. entered the war. The state’s Committee on Public Safety was headed by shoe magnate Henry B. Endicott, and he was quickly in touch with similar local committees throughout the Bay State. The Taunton committee was notified that a state-wide campaign would be undertaken to raise money for Halifax relief, and Endicott instructed Taunton’s secretary, Frederick M. Atwood, to “make a good hard drive for funds.”
In order to place the Halifax relief campaign in perspective, it’s important to remember that throughout World War I, people on the home front were subjected to a steady barrage of fund raising. By December 1917, Congress had already approved two Liberty Loan drives, with more bond-selling on the way, and citizens were under constant pressure to do their part to support the war effort. Funds were solicited on the job and in movie theaters, while churches, social clubs, and ethnic organizations supported a multitude of their own worthy causes aimed at promoting the welfare of men in the armed services. During the week of the Halifax disaster, for example, the Taunton Knights of Columbus council was raising money to provide better recreational facilities for men stationed in army camps.
The same efforts were made to get help to the people of Halifax. The Taunton Committee on Public Safety identified every possible source of funds. Some of the city’s wealthier residents were approached directly, while broader appeals went to factories and schools. Additionally, a collection box was placed in the Bay State Street Railway’s waiting room, at the corner of Weir Street and the Taunton Green. The Red Cross volunteers who supervised the box noted that donors came from all walks of life, and they contributed amounts ranging from pennies to significantly larger sums.
In Taunton, the Halifax relief effort began on December 8, two days after the explosion, and it ended one week later when state officials announced that no more money was needed at that time. Despite the financial pressures exerted by the war, local people had contributed $3,156.74 to help their Canadian neighbors. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would equal more than $68,000 in 2019. The Bay State’s entire contribution, adjusted for inflation, would total more than $16 million today.
One of the recipients of that aid was Yvonne Bourque, just a few days short of her ninth birthday when the disaster occurred. Born in Sackville, New Brunswick, a few miles from Halifax, she was living in the city with her older sister and brother-in-law. At the time of the explosion she was walking to school with her friend, Babe Heisel, and when they heard a fire truck’s siren racing toward them, Babe said they should return home. Yvonne wanted to continue on to school, and so the girls separated. As Yvonne walked, a tremendous explosion threw her to the ground and sent her treasured red beret off into the distance, never to be found. Walking the streets in a panic she spotted a fireman pushing a cart piled high with dead bodies. She took no solace from him. He looked at her and demanded, “Hey, kid, what have you got to cry about? Would you rather be one of these?”
Yvonne eventually found herself in a public shelter because her sister’s house had been destroyed in the blast. She didn’t see her mother for two weeks, and she never again saw Babe Heisel. Life moved on and when she was 19, she came to Taunton with her brother and worked first as a waitress and later as a nanny. Later, she married Albert Gordon, raised four children and spent thirty years as the housekeeper at the former St. Joseph’s Parish rectory.
Yvonne died on November 6, 2011, at 102 years of age. Her kind of childhood trauma lasts forever, and she seldom talked about what she had seen and heard on that terrible day. Nevertheless, for the rest of her long life she remembered with gratitude how, as a frightened 9-year old, she was overwhelmed by the beautiful clothes that arrived for her thanks to the generosity of the people of Boston.