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by John Cardiff

On 6 Dec 1917 the largest explosion the world had ever known occurred on Canada's east coast, following the collision of two WWI ships in Halifax harbor.

The blast collapsed buildings and caused fires that wrecked Halifax, killed some 1,500 and injured thousands more. Medical resources were overwhelmed. Many homeless  and injured were left without shelter in the snow and biting cold wind storm that followed.

Neither of Norfolk's surviving weekly newspapers published that day mentioned it. Both the Simcoe Reformer and the Waterford Star published follow up articles a week later. Edited transcriptions follow.

A lightly edited transcript of an item published on page 4 of the 13 Dec 1917 Simcoe Reformer.

Several former Port Dover residents are known to have been in or near Halifax when the explosion occurred, namely, Mrs. Macdonald (nee King), Capt. Robert Wood, 
Mrs. and Mrs. Milton Janes, and Hugh Allen.

We understand that no word has been received from any of the above. 

It is feared Captain Janes was one of the victims as a Captain James -- the names being so similar -- occupying the position Capt. Janes held, was reported killed. 


An edited and abridged transcript of a page 3 article in the 13 Dec 1917 Waterford Star.

HALIFAX ASKS $25,000,000 

Material Damage Exceeds This 
Dominion Government Grants $1,000,000
All Germans in the City Being Arrested 
1,050 Dead Recovered

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dec. 9 -- Police began arresting all German citizens of Halifax today, whether man or woman. By six o'clock, seven men and one woman had been locked up, and police were after others, who will be jailed as fast as they can be found.


Halifax, Dec. 9 -- An appeal for $25,000,000 was made to the people of Canada by the Mayors of Halifax and Dartmouth today. This figure represents only a part of the material damage done by the explosion of the cargo of the Mont Blanc last Thursday.

Sir Robert Borden announced that pending a full consideration of the needs of those who have suffered by the calamity, the Dominion Government had made a preliminary appropriation of $1,000,000 for immediate relief. The amount will be immediately at the disposal of the local relief committee.

Today, after another terrible night when the wind blew a hurricane and the rain fell in torrents, relief work and the search for dead continued. Many more bodies have been found. The number at the various morgues is 1,050. No definite statement can be made about the total number of dead.

Non-residents not engaged in relief work or here on business of extreme emergency today were asked by Mayor Martin to leave the city at once because of the serious lack of accommodation and the shortage of food supplies. He also urged those not on relief missions to stay away from Halifax for the next two weeks.

Those generously desiring to donate food, clothing or building materials should first telegraph the relief committee in Halifax stating the character and quantity of goods offered, so control of the Halifax situation with respect to immediate need and distribution can be maintained.

Halifax's cup of misery was filled Saturday night, when after two days of horror caused by the explosion and the blizzard that followed, making rescue work almost impossible, the temperature dropped as a rain and wind storm broke over the city.

Refugees unable unable to secure accommodation in already overcrowded homes were housed in tents on Citadel Hill and Common until wind blew the tents down and rain drenched the occupants. 

Many had to spend the night in pitch dark open fields  until relief parties found them and escorted them to buildings where they could at least stand up out of the rain, although wind blew through those windowless buildings at 50 miles an hour.

Today a warm rain was falling, partially melting three feet of snow, causing each street to become a torrent and hampering automobiles with supplies from getting to their destinations.

Notwithstanding the awful conditions, 500 sailors from the Navy Department tolled among the ruins, searching for bodies.

With the passing of the blizzard today it became possible for the first time to make a comprehensive tour of the city, to gain a detailed conception of the frightful devastation, which seems more complete that ever effected in France or Flanders.

Beginning at the southern sections of the city, which were least injured, one notices the broken window panes. The main store section of the city, Barrington Street more particularly, show by their broken plate glass windows where the wave of concussion rushed by with decreasing velocity.

Around a number of large buildings in this section of the ruined city, between 100 and 200 people stand, in the misery of their appearance looking like refugees from a hastily evacuated war area. On the side of the historic Citadel Hill are the tents housing these homeless folk.

At schools used as temporary morgues, little processions of soldiers carry barely covered bodies, while despairing women and children search among the blackened ruins for missing relatives, Many of them weary from shock, lack of sleep, and much walking from hospital to hospital in their fruitless search.

Closer to the spots most affected, the destruction is more complete. Houses brushed off their foundations, roofs distorted and crumpling, streets bulging as if an earthquake had struck. Outstanding ruins were the large pants of the Dominion Textile Company and the Halifax Exhibition buildings. The great grandstand, completed only last year at a cost of $50,000, lays scattered around like matchwood.

The Richmond section of the city, where the fullest force of the blow was felt, and where before 9 o'clock Thursday hundred of rows of houses stood, was still smoldering and hissing under its mantle of snow, but no fragment of wall above three feet is left.

Here plucky soldiers were searching for bodies. Side by side with some of the bodies were fragments of the Mount Blanc, blown two miles, which happily seem to have caused instant death, saving the victims from lingering suffering.

The waterfront, being lower that the Richmond district, appeared to have escaped perfect ruin. The direction of the holocaust was upward from the Mont Blanc, which is lying in an amphitheatre composed of two sides of the Narrows. 

It will be possible to repair most of the wholesale business parts of the city, as the buildings were built of substantial brick.

A military hospital on one of the piers was tumbled down. It was hit by a 25-foot chain from the Mont Blanc, which traveled a mile and a half over the harbor.

Steamers alongside the wharves showed gashed sides and bent funnels, while the paint seemed to have been rubbed off their sides.

An outstanding exception was the cruiser Noble, which was lying tied up at its berth, much the same as the writer had seen her many times since she completed her tips to sea. Around her lay the tangled masts, steel ropes and plates welded into a fantastic mass of scrap to two steamers that had been in the graving dock a few feet away and which had not been made such stern stuff as the ancient cruiser.

Roofless, the Government railway station completes the ruin in this locality.

From the side of bleak desolation that was Halifax, the eye travels to the opposite side of the Narrows. Lying on the shore, only a short distance from one another, the blasted Mont Blanc and the Imo, lifted by the 40-foot tidal wave and blown 40 feet up the rocky beach.

The fan-like waves of the explosion that spread from the Mont Blanc seem to have ripped through Halifax like a cheese-cutter. Only a few feet way, the ruined frame houses of the negro settlement known as Africiaville were all standing. 

With the arrival of relief parties from the United States last night, the grim work of fighting the aftermath of the explosion was begun.

The relief committee which was appointed last night lost no time in organizing its work. The committee which will have charge of repairs and reconstruction appointed Colonel R. S. Low of Ottawa as manager, and Hamilton Lindsay his assistant. Col. Low built the camps at Valcartier and Borden, Ontario.

A request was issued to all donors of building material to wire Col. Low, Halifax, giving a reasonably accurate description of the materials offered and await an answer before shipping. Building materials of all description, particularly board and roofing paper, are urgently required. The railways are asked to expedite shipment of material and to label cars "Halifax Relief, Rush."

The administrative situation in Halifax, as can well be imagined, is extremely strained, and the outpouring of assistance, personal and material, from outside points is temporarily adding to the difficulty of the situation.

Therefore, the relief committee requests that doctors and nurses and other voluntary helpers, kindly do not come to Halifax without first being advised by telegraph or correspondence that their benevolent services can be immediately and serviceably used.

At the suggestion of the Mayor, no church services were held here today in order to give the citizens an opportunity to render relief work. All the store were kept open to facilitate the distribution of foodstuffs.

Representatives of both political organizations today  urged their followers to drop the election fight for the two seats in Halifax. The suggestion is made that Dr. Blackadder, representing the Liberals and Hon. A. K. MacLean, minister without portfolio in the Borden administration, be elected by acclamation.


Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Ded. 9 -- This town on the opposite shore to Halifax, caught the edge of the destructive blast from the munitions ship Mont Blanc. A number of manufacturing plants were destroyed and several rows of houses were blown down. The loss of life was 150.


A lightly edited transcript of an article published on page 3 of the 13 Dec 1917 Waterford Star.

Saved Halifax from Total Ruin
Heroic Captain put out fire on Munitions Ship

Halifax, Dec. 9 -- The narrow escape the City of Halifax had from complete destruction, with possibly the loss of 20,000 lives, was disclosed today, when a description of how a fire which broke out on the munitions ship Picton was put out before it could reach its cargo,

The Picton caught fire following the explosion on the Mont Blanc, and at the time was lying in a position much nearer the heart of the port that the Mont Blanc.

Credit for extinguishing the flames on the ship and placing her in a position where. even had she exploded, she would have done little harm, is given to Captain James W. Harrison, formerly a British skipper, now marine superintendent of the Furness-Withy Line in Halifax.

A short while ago the Picton, while on a voyage with munitions from an American port to Great Britain, lost its rudder off Halifax in a storm. She was towed here for repairs.

These had been completed and she was moored off the Acadia Sugar Refinery, about a mile straight across from the heart of the city, waiting the order to proceed to sea.

The skipper of the ship and his crew were watching the fire on the Mont Blanc and were nearly all killed when the explosion took place. Those who survived, knowing the nature of the cargo of their own vessel, and seeing it ablaze from the effects of the explosion, made haste to desert her and place themselves in safety.

Captain Harrison, seeing the ship on fire and recognizing that Halifax would be utterly destroyed if its cargo of munitions exploded, went aboard and single-handed began the hazardous work of placing the steamer as far away from the city as possible.

He cut the hawsers and the ship began to drift away on the tide. He then fitted up a hose and played it on the fire.

Fortunately the flames were attacking a section of the ship where they we easily accessible, and owing to the captain's timely work they were kept away from the munitions in the cargo holds.

Captain Harrison stuck to his task until he could get assistance to completely extinguish the flames. The ship was then taken outside the danger zone.

In addition to saving the city from the effects of a second explosion, the captain apparently also saved her valuable cargo. The ship, it is thought, beyond being badly strained and partially burned, can soon be rendered fit for service again. 


Copyright 2014 John Cardiff