The 1917 Halifax Explosion

Royal Navy Lt Victor Magnus was based in Halifax, Nova Scotia took this photo from his ship minutes after the explosion. Photo credit: Ross Dunn, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

One hundred and five years ago today the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was rocked by the largest non-nuclear, man-made explosion with the equivalent of 3,000 tons of TNT.  More than 325 acres were immediately destroyed from the shockwave emanating from the collision of two ships in the harbor.  Approximately 1,900 people lost their lives, while 9,000 were injured.  The news spread quickly by telegraph that initiated before the explosion (a great story in and of itself), although all means of communication and transportation into and out of Halifax were disrupted by the blast.

A Norwegian ship called the Imo was leaving the harbor heading south for New York to load war relief supplies for occupied Belgium.  The French steamship Mont Blanc was heading into the harbor when the two collided.  The Imo was at fault for the minor collision, but it was the Mont Blanc, laden with explosive materials, that caught fire and exploded shortly after 9 AM.

The captain and crew of the Mont Blanc abandoned ship and most were not harmed, while many of the crew of the Imo, including the captain, died.  Children were at school; the port was full of ships, shops and businesses were at work when the explosion occurred.  Most of the north end of Halifax was destroyed.  Hospitals were overwhelmed, many people were left homeless, and to add to the tragedy, a blizzard hit the following day leaving sixteen inches of snow on the devastated city.

Help was on the way almost immediately from far and wide.  A few people in Boston set to work to gather necessary medical personnel and supplies, which would set out for Halifax the same night.  Bostonians donated their money and time, even supplying and erecting temporary housing units.  The citizens of Halifax were moved by the depth and breadth of Boston’s response.  Each year since 1971, the people of Nova Scotia provide a huge Christmas tree for Boston that is placed on Boston Common.

As Canada’s largest port on the eastern shore lying approximately 475 miles east of Maine, Halifax had been a busy wartime port, being Canada’s primary military embarkation point for servicemen headed to the war in Europe.  Troops from the United States and Britain who were stationed or transiting the port joined the 5,000 Canadian troops in helping to organize and undertake relief efforts.

The devastation was unimaginable.  The shockwave was so great it broke windows fifty miles away and was felt in Sydney, Cape Breton, a distance of almost 200 miles.  Mont Blanc’s cannon was found nearly two miles from the blast site.  Fragments were found everywhere and many were kept as mementos of that fateful day.

A Canadian Government commission began investigating one week after the event and while blame moved between the two ships, in the end both ships were judged to be equally at fault and no individuals were charged.[1]

In 2019, James and I visited Nova Scotia.  For him it was a trip down memory lane to a place he had lived many years earlier, for me it was a new adventure.  He had given me a great book on the Halifax explosion called Curse of the Narrows in the months before we left so I knew many of the details of the tragic events.  It was sobering to see artifacts from the time at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in the exhibit called “Explosion in the Narrows.”

Information graphic in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic [taken by author, Oct. 2019] 

A fragment thought to be part of the rudder of the Mont Blanc, weighing over 660 pounds. [taken by author, Oct. 2019]

If you want to learn more visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic or the Nova Scotia Archives online.  The Archives include the fascinating W.G. MacLaughlan photo album containing 123 photos of buildings damaged, but still standing after the explosion.  The CBC has an interactive 3D experience here.

[1]  The Nova Scotia Museum, Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage. Halifax Explosion Info Sheet. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. 29 March 2009, accessed online 6 Dec 2022.

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