Halifax Explosion
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Stories

Destruction caused by the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Devastating force

The explosion destroyed 2.59 square kilometres, including 1,630 buildings and 7 ships. 12,000 buildings were damaged.
Destruction caused by the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Tragic loss

The deadly blast instantly killed 1,650 people. It injured 9,000 others and left 6,000 homeless. 25,000 were left without adequate shelter, in a metropolitan area of 65,000 people.
Annie Liggins, 18 months, after rescue from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The miraculous Ashpan Baby

Only 23-months old, Annie Welsh was found in the wreckage of a home, sheltered in the ash pan of a stove. One of the oldest survivors of the explosion, she lived to age 95.
Mont Blanc anchor monument in Halifax, NS.

Hurled 4km by the blast

This piece of the Mont Blanc’s anchor weighs 502kg. It was blown beyond the Northwest Arm to where it sits today, off Anchor Drive in Regatta Point, Halifax.
Truck transporting the Boston Tree from Halifax, NS.

Forever grateful

Every year Nova Scotia sends a tree to Boston for the holidays. A symbol of gratitude for their response during the Halifax Explosion, it has been an annual tradition since 1971.
The Stella Maris minesweeper vessel.

Heroism aboard the Stella Maris

As fire raged on the Mont Blanc, the crew of the Stella Maris was attempting to tow her away from Pier 6. The explosion threw the Stella Maris onto shore. Nineteen crewmembers perished.
Film footage of the destruction of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The day after, captured on film

This rare footage provides a glimpse of the devastation and rebuilding efforts after the explosion. It was captured in eerie silence by cameraman W.G. McLaughlan
Relief supplies sent following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

A vast supply of generosity

The Relief Fund from Massachusetts contributed $750,000 in goods, furniture and assistance. That’s more than $15 million in today’s dollars.
Map of the Halifax Explosion blast radius.

Ground zero

The Mont Blanc exploded at Pier 6, directly below the area known at the time as Richmond District. Not one piece of the ship remained on the dock.
First World War Publicity Poster from the Nova Scotia Archives.

A first for the Canadian Red Cross

The Halifax Explosion marked the first Canadian Red Cross involvement in disaster relief. After 1917 it became a core element of the society’s work.
Cloud of smoke from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The monstrous blast

The shockwave produced by the detonation was the equivalent of 2,989 tons of TNT. The blast shattered windows 100km away in Truro. It was heard on Prince Edward Island.
Halifax City Hall clock.

Etched in time

The Halifax city hall clock stopped at the precise moment of the explosion: 9:04:35am December 6, 1917. Today, the building's clock is a replica that forever serves as a reminder of the fateful moment.
Portrait of A.C. Ratshesky

Remembering A.C. Ratshesky

On the day of the explosion, Abraham ‘Captain’ Ratshesky left Boston on a relief train bound for Halifax. Within two weeks he became a hero to the citizens of Halifax and Boston.
George Arthur, wounded in the explosion, sits with nurse Elizabeth Choate, A.C. Ratshesky and an unnamed man.

Eye injury crisis

Flying glass and debris left thousands with eye injuries. Volunteer groups came together to help survivors and aid in recovery. The effort sparked the formation of the CNIB.
Monument for firefighters at Station 4 in Halifax, NS.

It would be their last alarm

Nine members of the Halifax Fire Department lost their lives fighting the fire on the Mont Blanc. A monument in their honour stands tall at Station 4 on Lady Hammond Road.
First responders following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Courageous first responders

In the horrific aftermath, the response of the military was immediate and swift. Thousands of soldiers took to the streets rescuing the buried and tending to the wounded.
Halifax North Memorial Public Library.

Built in memory of the victims

The Halifax North Memorial Public Library on Gottingen St. was built in 1964 with $100,000 support from the Halifax Relief Commission. The branch honours the victims of the explosion.
YMCA Emergency Hospital following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

From the classroom to the front lines

With Halifax in a state of emergency, students at Dalhousie Medical School were rushed in to help with hospital care. Some had only been in classes for three months.
Names of the identified victims of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

A book that speaks volumes

The names of 1,951 victims are listed in The Book of Remembrance at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. A page is turned every two weeks to display each name throughout the year.
Vincent Coleman

Vincent Coleman, true bravery

Urged to abandon his post at the railway office, Vincent Coleman stayed to send a telegraph to warn an incoming train. It would be his last message.
Bell Tower Memorial at Fort Needham Park, Halifax NS.

A towering reminder

The Memorial Bell Tower at Fort Needham Park overlooks the area devastated by the explosion. It commemorates the victims and honours the survivors.
Portrait of Barbara Orr.

The bells of Barbara Orr

Barbara Orr lost her entire family in the explosion. The Memorial Bell Tower houses a carillon of bells, originally donated by Orr to the United Memorial Church in memory of the tragedy.
Volunteer medical personal who helped after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Medical help pours in

Within hours of the explosion, trains arrived with doctors and nurses from Amherst, Truro, Kentville and New Glasgow. Others followed from New Brunswick, Massachusetts and across Canada.
Relief hospital created to deal with the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The vital work of relief hospitals

With hospitals overflowing, temporary relief hospitals were crucial in saving lives. They were set up in locations such as the YMCA, schools and military facilities.
The former area of Richmond, which was destroyed during the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Rebuilding Richmond

The work of reconstructing the North End of Halifax was massive. A 23-acre area called Merkelsfield was central to the plan. It is known today as the Hydrostone District.
Blocks used to construct the Hydrostone District following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Building blocks of the reconstruction

The Hydrostone District got its name from the patented concrete blocks used to build the houses. A plant in Eastern Passage produced up to 4,000 Hydrostone blocks per day.
The Hydrostone District, which was built following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Rising from the ashes

The Hydrostone was a turning point for Halifax. The English-style garden suburb was described as modern and bright. It held the promise of a new start after the darkest times.
Stone monument honouring the historically significant Hydrostone District in Halifax, NS.

A national historic site

The Hydrostone District was Canada’s first public housing project. It was designated a national historic site for its unique design and connection to the explosion.
News article about the work of the Halifax Relief Commission following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Leading the way

The Halifax Relief Commission was established to lead recovery efforts. It administered a $30 million fund for medical care, compensation and reconstruction.
McCall apartments constructed as temporary housing following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Housing the homeless.

Thousands were left homeless by the explosion. Reconstruction needed time. The McCall apartments were built as temporary housing at the corner of Robie and Almon streets.
The Mont Blanc, vessel from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Doomsday cargo

Only the crew knew what the Mont Blanc carried that day. The ship’s deadly cargo included 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzol.
The ship Imo ashore in Dartmouth after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Headed for disaster

The Imo was departing for New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium. In the tight Narrows of the Halifax harbour, she encountered the Mont Blanc.
Norwegian steamship Imo in the harbour after the Halifax Explosion, 1917. 

Collision, fire, havoc

The Imo struck the bow of the Mont Blanc. Fire broke out immediately. The Mont Blanc burned for 20 minutes as crowds watched, unaware of the explosive cargo.
Children at a Christmas party in 1917.

Generous hearts

Children in Brantford, Ontario gave up their Christmas presents to raise money for the children of Halifax. The community sent $15,000 for Halifax relief.
US naval ship in Halifax during the explosion of 1917.

Floating hospital

Sailors on the USS Old Colony were quick to open their ship to civilian casualties. Hundreds were brought on board for treatment. It became a floating hospital.
New Glasgow fire chief Doug Dort stands with a fire engine sent Halifax following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.  

Pictou County answers the call

Surgeons, nurses, firemen and a coal-powered fire truck were rushed to Halifax from Pictou County. Westside School was turned into a temporary hospital.
Melted glass that was unearthed in a backyard in north-end of Halifax.

Unearthing history

From shattered glass to fragments of the Mont Blanc, telltale artifacts from the explosion continue to be discovered around Halifax today.
HMCS Niobe.

Daring rescue attempt

Anchored 700 yards from the burning Mont Blanc, the HMCS Niobe sent a boat with eight men to her aid. The explosion killed all of the boat’s crew.
"The Hour of Horror in Devastated Richmond", 1918, pen and ink drawing.

Grim visions

A founding member of the Group of Seven, Arthur Lismer lived in Halifax in 1917. His sketches depicted some of the most compelling images of the explosion.
Portrait of Samuel W. McCall (1916-1919).

McCall’s pledge

Upon hearing of the tragedy, Governor Samuel McCall sent his word to Halifax: “Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of.”
The devastated neighbourhood of Richmond after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Richmond. Gone.

The explosion wiped Richmond off the map. Houses, schools and factories were reduced to kindling. It was described as a “field of horrors.”
Gottingen Street after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Inferno in the North End

All over the North End, hot furnaces and upset stoves ignited the wreckage. Entire streets were in flames with residents trapped inside homes.
Destroyed home after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Halifax wrecked

Evidence of the explosion’s power was everywhere. Collapsed buildings and piles of rubble dominated the landscape. Few structures escaped damage.
Destroyed school following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Grief in the ruins

88 students of Richmond School lost their lives in the explosion. Many had gone down to the waterfront to watch the burning ship.
Plaque for the Protestant Orphanage where Veith House is now located.

Memory of Veith Street

With panic in the air, the matron of the Protestant Orphanage rushed 26 children to the basement. Miraculously, seven survived the explosion. Today the site is home to Veith House.
Wrecked Houses in Dartmouth following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Dartmouth destruction

Although not as hard hit as Halifax, Dartmouth suffered widespread damage. Buildings along the shore collapsed. Almost 100 people died.
Destroyed school at Turtle Grove following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Tragedy at Turtle Grove

Tufts Cove in Dartmouth felt the full impact of the explosion. The blast and resulting tsunami destroyed the Mi’kmaq settlement at Turtle Grove killing most of its residents.
Women walking from Africville towards Halifax, on Campbell Road near Hanover Street

Africville impact

The elevated land to the south saved Africville from the direct force of the blast. Many homes were heavily damaged. Five known deaths were recorded.
Ruins of the Provincial Exhibition Building after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Fallen landmark.

Only ruins remained of the once grand Provincial Exhibition building at the corner of Windsor and Young streets. The Halifax Forum was built on the grounds in 1927.
Chebucto School. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Built 1910.

The great blast smote the place

At the moment of the explosion, writer Thomas H. Raddall was in Grade 9 at Chebucto School in Halifax. He described his experience in a vivid memoir.
Broken window at St. Paul's Anglican Church following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Ghost Window

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Halifax, the explosion shattered a window leaving a silhouette that is said to resemble a former priest. It remains in place today.
Ceramic mug recovered from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Eternal reminder

Dorothy Swetnam lost her mother and brother when the family’s home collapsed. This delicate mug with the words ‘Remember Me’ was found intact in the ruins.
Portrait of Georgina Curry Miner.

Unsung heroes

Nova Scotian nurses like Georgina Curry Miner worked long hours caring for the wounded. She came to Halifax on a relief train with medical volunteers from Wolfville and Kentville.
The Pacific Building, on Barrington Street in Halifax, 1941.

First aid at the YMCA

YMCA volunteers were at work within the hour helping with dressings, food and medicine. The building on Barrington Street was used as a hospital, with 2500 people receiving treatment.

Caring for the children

Many infants were orphaned by the explosion. The YMCA cared for babies and injured children rescued from the wreckage in the North End.
Portrait of Fletcher Bartlett.

Emergency duty

Young soldiers like Bombardier Fletcher Bartlett of the Halifax Garrison spent many days recovering the dead, rescuing the injured and providing shelter for the homeless.
Watchman's clock recovered after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Marking the moment

This watchman’s clock was found at the bottom of the Graving Dock at the Halifax Shipyard. Its hands are frozen at the instant of the disaster: 9:04:35am.
Metal fragment of the Mont Blanc from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Fragments of history

The Mont Blanc was literally blown to bits. This piece of the hull was found a mile away. The explosion twisted the steel around a sheared off pan rivet.
Portrait of Colonel W.E. Thompson.

Leading the relief effort

The Halifax Garrison provided the largest recovery effort in the aftermath of the explosion. 3,300 soldiers were organized under the direction of Colonel W.E. Thompson.
Portrait of Lt. Col. McKelvie Bell.

Medical force

The most extensive military response came in the form of medical services. Lt. Col. McKelvie Bell was appointed to lead the Medical Relief Committee and co-ordinate all medical support.
Museum exhibit featuring a Ross Rifle from the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The sentry’s rifle

Recovered outside Wellington Barracks, this Ross Rifle is said to have been in the hands of the sentry on duty at the instant of the explosion. It is on display at the Army Museum Halifax Citadel.
Excerpt from the Halifax Herald from April 1918.

Read all about it

Stories of devastation, rescue and survival filled the pages of the Halifax Herald in April of 1918. The paper held a story contest for eyewitness accounts, awarding prizes to the top entries.
The motor fire engine "Patricia" following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Sole Survivor

The crew of the Patricia, Halifax’s new motorized fire engine, was first to arrive at the scene of the burning Mont Blanc. Only the driver, Billy Wells, survived the explosion.
Portrait of Horatio Brannen.

Shelburne County’s legendary captain

Captain Horatio Brannen of Woods Harbour was commander of the Stella Maris. He was leading the heroic effort to reach the Mont Blanc, when catastrophe struck.
Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Day two: blizzard

Winter arrived in full force on December 7th, dropping 40 centimeters of snow. Almost a third of the population lacked proper shelter. Thousands needed food and clothing.
Following the Halifax Explosion, 1917, survivors sought shelter in canvas tents.

Shelter from the storm

Rows of army canvas tents on the Commons provided emergency shelter from the blizzard. People who still had their homes, covered broken windows with anything they could find.
People waiting for food supplies at Armouries following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Aid at the Armouries

Food and supplies were distributed at the Halifax Armouries throughout the winter. The “bread line” was a common sight outside the building.
A medical aid station following the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

A defining moment in medical care

The explosion highlighted Canada’s lack of a national emergency plan or public health care strategy. It contributed to the creation of the federal Department of Health in 1919.
Surgeon William E. Ladd treating children injured during the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Pioneer in pediatrics

Surgeon William E. Ladd treated hundreds of children injured in the explosion. He went on to become a pioneer in the specialty of pediatric surgery.
Portrait of Mandee D'Entremont.

Fortunate twist of fate

Mandee D’Entremont’s ship was scheduled to be in Halifax on December 5th, the day before the explosion. A chance decision to remain at sea for one more day spared the crew from the disaster.
Portrait of Benjamin Smith.

Lucky survivor from Trinity Bay

A sailor with the British Navy, Ben Smith was below decks on the Niobe at the moment of the blast. It likely saved his life as many shipmates on deck were injured or killed.
USS Tacoma circa the early 1900s. 

U.S. naval ships to the rescue

At sea 80km away, the USS Tacoma and Von Steuben felt the blast and saw the smoke cloud. The ships changed course for Halifax to help with rescue efforts.
Screen capture of Gordon Boyd.

“Nothing but stumps”

In a video interview, Gordon Boyd recalls the devastation he witnessed first-hand after the explosion. He was serving aboard the SS Grampian in Bedford Basin.
Page of Frank Baker's diary, written in pencil.

Diary discovery

Patrolman Frank Baker kept a detailed diary of his experiences during the explosion. It sat for years in a desk drawer in Australia, until 2016 when his son donated it to the Dartmouth Heritage Museum.
Hand written letter by H.M. Rosenberg, Dartmouth. 

Ferry passenger’s tale

Henry Rosenberg was on the 9:00am ferry to Halifax the morning of the explosion. He saw flames from the Mont Blanc shoot high in the air and then suddenly he was thrown to the deck.
Halifax Hotel, 1917.

“There came from every door a casualty”

A.H. Chipman was at breakfast at the Halifax Hotel when glass came crashing down in all directions. In a letter to his brother, he described what he saw after the explosion.
Halifax Explosion survivor Verna Jeffries.

Centenarian survivor

At 18 months old, Verna Jeffries was trapped in her home, covered in soot and shards of glass. She was rescued by her mother and turned 100 in June 2016.
Reminiscence of Jean Holder 6 December, 1985.

“It’s the end of the world”

On her way to school, 6 year-old Jean Hodder was thrown into the veranda of a nearby house by the force of the explosion. She survived what she feared was the end of the world, to share her story.
United Memorial Church, Kaye Street, Halifax, shortly after completion .

United by disaster

The explosion destroyed Kaye Street Methodist Church and Grove Presbyterian Church. 250 members were lost. Together, the congregations built the United Memorial Church in 1921.
Argyle Street at the corner of George Street, Halifax, showing pine coffins supplied to Snow & Co., Undertakers, for victims of the explosion.

Somber sight

The Victoria School of Art and Design at the corner of Argyle and George streets was used to store coffins for victims. Today, the historic building houses the Five Fishermen Restaurant.
Artist Laurie Swim, working on her project.

Monumental memorial quilt

Five years in the making, the Hope and Survival quilt by Lunenburg artist Laurie Swim commemorates the explosion. It includes the names of victims in Braille, in recognition of those blinded by the blast.
Portrait of Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell.

City Hall takes action

As chaos gripped Halifax, Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell and civic leaders quickly assembled at City Hall. Detailed minutes document the swift response to issues such as transportation, food and mortuary services.
Samuel W. McCall of Massachusetts visits Halifax, November 8-10, 1918.

A thankful visit

In November 1918, Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall visited Halifax to tour the reconstruction. Haligonians showered the Governor with thanks for the explosion relief that came from Massachusetts.
Page from the War-Cry, a newsletter by the Salvation Army (1918).

Salvation from disaster

The Halifax Explosion was the first time the Salvation Army of Canada responded to a disaster. The Emergency and Disaster Services unit provided front-line aid including food, clothing, shelter and spiritual support.
Screen capture from video, What Happened to Esther, by Jenna Marks.

What happened to Esther

A respected midwife of Africville, Esther Roan was injured in the explosion and later died in a Truro hospital. NSCAD student Jenna Marks told her story in an animated short film.
Portrait of Mary Hinch.

Morning of mourning

Mary Jean Hinch lost her husband and ten children in the explosion. Pregnant at the time, she and her unborn son were the only survivors of her family. Mary was rescued after being pinned under lumber for 24 hours.
Entrance to Admiralty House Grounds. 

Navy helps Halifax carry on

From 1920 to 1924 the Royal Canadian Navy provided free use of the Naval Hospital in Admiralty House to the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Commission. It provided a wealth of medical services and healthcare for the public.
Children getting food from a relief station after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Born of compassion

The compassionate relief efforts following the explosion led to the birth of the United Way Halifax. It began as a community chest fund created to raise money for local agencies meeting needs on the ground.
Douglas Snair, 100 years old and survivor of the Halifax Explosion.

Living to tell the tale

As a one-year old, Douglas Snair escaped the explosion with scars from a shattered window. At age 100, he shares his story from his home in Arnprior, Ontario.
Kaye Chapman, 104, holds a photo of her parents and siblings taken a few years after the Halifax explosion of 1917. 

“As young as I was, I can see everything”

Kaye Chapman is one of the oldest survivors of the explosion. At age 104, she vividly recalls the details of that fateful day when she was five years old.
HMS Highflyer under sail.

Highflyer’s feats

Volunteers from the HMS Highflyer rowed to the Mont Blanc to offer assistance. All but one perished in the explosion. The blast also killed three aboard the Highflyer and wounded 50 others.
Albert Medal, presented to Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kenneth Triggs. 

Honouring the sacrifice

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Triggs of the Highflyer was awarded the gold medal for gallantry in life saving. Leading a crew to assist the Mont Blanc, he sacrificed his life to save others.
Image of the bow of the steamship Curaca sticking out of the water at Tufts Cove in Dartmouth after the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Curaca suffers heavy casualties

The British ship Curaca was loading horses at Pier 8. It was blown across the harbour by the explosion and sank at Tufts Cove. 45 crewmembers were killed.
Portrait of Boston Banker, J.J. Phelan.

First word reaches Boston

The morning of December 6, Boston banker J.J. Phelan received an urgent telegraph from an employee in Halifax. It began with the words “Organize a relief train.” He left his office to inform the governor.
Portrait of Eric Davidson.

Inspiring perseverance

As a toddler, Eric Davidson was blinded in the explosion. He went on to become a licensed auto mechanic, fixing cars by sound and touch. He lived to age 94.
Photograph of Cecilia Coolen.

Just born. Lucky to be alive.

Cecilia Coolen was only 10 days old on the morning of the explosion. Her cradle was thrown upside down. She was discovered underneath it in the aftermath.
Book cover, Too Many to Mourn: One Family's Tragedy in the Halifax Explosion.

One family's tragedy

46 members of the Jackson family died in the explosion – the largest loss of life in a single family. After almost a century, descendants of the family reunited in Halifax in 2015.
Screen capture of Kathleen MacDonald.

“My mother was 3 days finding us all”

Survivor Kathleen MacDonald shares her first-hand account of the explosion. At 6 years old she was blown into the bathtub and rescued by soldiers at Wellington Barracks.
Article from the New York Times, titled "Fund for the Blind".

Worldwide charity

By Spring 1918, global donations for Halifax relief totalled more than $23 million. Newspapers ran campaigns. Clubs, schools and cities held fundraisers. Contributions came from as far away as Australia.
City of Halifax before the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

City life before the explosion

In December 1917, Halifax was in the midst of an industrial and residential boom. During World War I the harbour was crowded with wartime shipping. The population swelled with troops, workers and families.