I thought I might mark this day (while also St. Nicholas day) by posting something else about another important think I (we) recognize on this day, here in Halifax.
I make no attempt to veil or anonymize the fact that I am from Halifax. I was born in the Maritimes, but essentially grew up about 20 minutes outside of the city. It is only recently that I’ve realized, through friends who have moved abroad, that this particular event is reasonably unknown outside of the Maritime provinces. From very early on in school we are taught about it, around this time of year, and we would often observe a moment of silence in school to mark the occasion. I remember once, when I was quite young, a classmate whose Grandmother survived the explosion came to speak to us.
But, as someone on my Facebook feed this morning let people know, he was surprised to find that even as close as Calgary people are largely ignorant of the event.
Halifax, because of its deep and accessible harbour, and because of its strategic placement (cf. Liverpool, Caribbean) has long been a heavily used harbour in times of war. It has been the launching ground for many important events in history (e.g. the siege and capture of Quebec City under Gen. James Wolfe) and has for both WWI and WWII been used as a re-fitting, re-supply, and stopover point for any European bound naval vessels. Ships returning to North America were required to stop into Halifax for inspections.
There is ample literature on the subject both in print and online, and I will undoubtedly not do the whole story justice but will reiterate what
I know and how I’ve heard it (working in the tourism industry embeds it well). Through an unfortunate series
of events, two particular ships found themselves within the bounds of Halifax harbour on the evening of December 5th. In order to protect the harbour from u-boats a ‘submarine net’ was strung between both shores and an island in the middle, during the night there was no getting in or out. Two ships which found themselves within the bounds of the net on the 5th of December, when by the proper schedule they shouldn’t have ever met, were the Dutch ship SS Imo bound for New York to be resupplied in order to return with relief to Belgium, and the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc which was fully loaded with a plethora of explosives and munitions and which was to meet up with a convoy bound to Europe the next day.
What follows was a bit unclear especially as to the cause of the exact cause of the misdirection. What is clear is that there were some severe miscommunications made on the morning of the 6th. Any ship wishing to enter the Bedford Basin (Pictured above) or leave the Basin heading for open water (the horizon of the photo) had to pass through the narrow bottle-neck just above all of the ships in the photograph–commonly called The Narrows. Both the Mont-Blanc and the Imo, through miscommunication and misdirection found themselves bearing down on each other on the same side of the harbour shortly after 8am. Harbour traffic was heavy, and the Imo had been directed to stay to one side of the harbour (and was forced to for longer than expected due to traffic). The Mont-Blanc, who was, unlike the Imo, leaving the harbour that morning was directed to steer to the right side of the harbour (from the perspective above). The Mont-Blanc warned the Imo that she had right-of-way, but the Imo returned the horn-blasts indicating that she had right-of-way. The captain of the Mont-Blanc stopped the engines and attempted to steer the ship toward the other side of the harbour. It was simply not done soon enough.
At around 8:35am the ships collided and set alight, sailors abandoned ship and ran ashore yelling to those that would hear them to clear away from the shores and run to safety, but few realized how grave the situation was. The ships drifted together for some time in the harbour while people on the shore came out from their houses and offices to watch. The North-End of the city, where the Narrows cut through was densely populated and the burning ships were quite a spectacle. If people were not out on the street, they were at their windows watching.
At exactly 9:04:35AM on December 6th, which is known because clocks all across the city were halted from the explosion, the fire reached the hold of the Mont-Blanc and the two ships exploded. What followed was the largest man made explosion to that point in history, and remained the largest until Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The explosion killed 1,500 instantly and the casualty count was up to and exceeding 9,000. The North End of the city was flattened, and eye-witness accounts say that for a moment the floor of the harbour was made visible by the vaporization and force of the explosion pushing water out.
The explosion was felt as far away as Cape Breton 360km (220m) east. My Great-Grandparents, who were from Cape Breton (now a 4 hour drive away) remember the plates rattling on the walls.
Those who stood in their windows to watch, if they were outside of the immediate blast, were blinded by shattered glass (I heard of one such person whose body would still push shards of glass out decades later). Following the explosion the tidal wave crashed on shore and swept anything or anyone who might have survived back with it to the sea. What remained of houses were set alight by knocked over stoves and lanterns; and as if to add insult to injury the following day a blizzard hit the city and put down 16 inches of snow, severely halting rescue efforts and burying survivors under snow, on top of rubble.
The relief poured in from Canada, and almost as soon as news reached the United States a train was loaded with nurses, doctors and relief workers in Boston and sent to Halifax. In fact, to this day to show our appreciation for the aid given to us the province cuts down and sends a Christmas tree to Boston to adorn their Boston Commons as the city’s official Christmas tree.