I first heard about the Great Halifax Explosion over on Naomi’s blog, Consumed by Ink. I was pretty surprised that I had never heard about what was the biggest man-made explosion ever, at least until the dropping of the atomic bombs. My coworker, a fellow history buff, had never heard about it either, which made me feel slightly better. December 6, 2017, marked the 100-year anniversary of the explosion, and I decided to read more about it. What struck me most was the realization that the Halifax Explosion was so much more devastating than the terror attacks on September 11, and yet of all the people I’ve asked about it (all non-Canadians), only two had heard about it: my husband who remembers everything anyone ever says to him and a coworker whose family is from Maine. Considering how people are already forgetting about 9/11, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or really any other monumental event in recent history, I shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t know about the Halifax Explosion, but I still find it sad.
Halifax has the third-largest natural harbor in the world, and during World War I, lots of cross-Atlantic convoys began and ended there. Because of the threat of a German submarine attack, a number of precautions were taken to prevent the U-boats from sneaking in. Unfortunately, these precautions were partly to blame for the Halifax disaster. No ships were allowed to leave or enter the harbor at night; it was closed off with steel nets. Ships carrying explosives usually had to have a flag alerting others to its dangerous cargo; however, in order to not draw the attention of the enemy, these flags were not required in the harbor area. Further, communication between harbor pilots did not always work properly, and a lack of funds from both the government and the military ensured that the office responsible for managing traffic in and out of the harbor was chronically understaffed. Add into this the narrow straits leading up to the harbor’s berths, a ship with relief supplies (the SS Imo) itching to leave for Belgium, and a ship filled to the brim with explosives (the SS Mont-Blanc) impatient to reach the relative safety of Halifax Harbor, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
After a detour to the historical significance of Halifax (which I found really interesting) and to the trenches in France (which was less interesting because it didn’t add anything to the story of the explosion itself), the author finally came to a minute-by-minute description of the day of the disaster. This part of the book is absolutely gripping. When the Imo and the Mont-Blanc collided, the latter did not immediately explode. The crew jumped ship and allowed the Mont-Blanc to drift to one of the harbor’s piers. The burning ship became a spectacle and drew lots of curious Halligonians. Since no one knew that the ship carried explosives, no one was aware of the danger that grew unfettered for 20 agonizing minutes. I felt horrible as I read about mothers who allowed their children to run down to the harbor to get a look at the fire before going to school and imagined the guilt they must have been feeling afterwards.
As it turns out, the mothers were as unlikely to survive as their children. The explosion was so powerful that people were thrown through the air for almost a mile. Their clothes were torn off, and oil, tar, and debris were embedded in their skin. Those were the lucky ones! The pressure wave from the explosion broke windows up to 50 miles away, and the 60-foot tsunami that followed wiped out anything close to sea level across the area. No piece of the SS Mont-Blanc was ever found because the ship was instantly incinerated.
The only lucky break was that an employee of the railroad had called a neighboring station to warn them about a fire at the harbor. With all telephone and telegraph lines in the area severed after the explosion, this was the only communication outsiders had to understand that Halifax needed immediate help. Relief efforts started the next day, although they were hampered by one of the worst blizzards in Halifax history that began the day after the explosion. As breathtaking as it was to read about the disaster, it was just as fascinating to hear about the relief efforts. People from across Canada and the northeastern United States worked tirelessly to help Haligonians recover and rebuild, and after all the destruction the book describes, all the terrible injuries sustained, it was good to read about people coming together and working together to help each other.
There is much I haven’t mentioned here about the explosion, so you should definitely read up on it. If you decide to pick up this particular book, you might need a little perseverance in the beginning, but once you reach the point where the SS Mont-Blanc gets ready to enter Halifax Harbor, you won’t be able to put it down.
If you prefer fiction, check out Naomi’s reading list of books that feature this event.