Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”
Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,
“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.
A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”
Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:
Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.
In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.
After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.
As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.
The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.
Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.
Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.
Deck Chair from the Titanic
Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.
Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.
It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.
Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.
Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.
By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.
The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.
The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.
Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.
By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.
Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.
Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.
The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.
There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.
The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.
Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.
So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.
Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.
Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.
The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.
Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.
Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.
When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.
The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.
So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.
The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.
At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.
Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.
Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.
Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.
Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,
An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.
With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.