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Halifax Journal: Century After Halifax’s Great Explosion, City Marks Anniversary

Reminders of the explosion’s centennial were impossible to escape this week. Two more histories have been added to the dozens of other books, including one of Canada’s best-known novels, on the disaster. Plays, special exhibitions, films and events, as well as shop windows commemorating the anniversary, are spread throughout the city.


About 180 yellow stakes mark the graves of some the explosion’s victims at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

On Wednesday morning, as is the case every Dec. 6, a crowd gathered amid heavy rain in the heart of the blast zone, a portion of which was left unbuilt to serve as a memorial park.

“Here in Halifax there’s almost been perverse civic pride in the blast in the sense it shows we can face extreme hardship,” said Roger Marsters, the curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Halifax’s unusually large, deep and easy-to-protect natural harbor led the British to build a fortress here in 1749, and Canada to found its navy in its harbor in 1910. But the outbreak of World War I in 1914 transformed the city.


A 1,140-pound piece of anchor was thrown more than two miles when the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, exploded in 1917. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

About 10,000 to 20,000 people poured in to a place with a population of about 47,000 people. Canadian troops and supplies passed through the port on their way to Europe, while the injured were sent back to convalesce in city hospitals.

“The First World War sort of gave Halifax a renewed sense of purpose overnight,” Mr. Marsters said.

The colliding ships had both arrived from New York. There, under tight control, the French-owned Mont Blanc had been stuffed with an array of military explosives and had barrels of benzol, a volatile aviation fuel, added for good measure.

The Imo, from neutral Norway, had been chartered by a group founded by the future president Herbert Hoover and provided wartime food aid to Belgium. To try to ward off German U-boats, the Imo bore signs reading, “Belgium Relief” along its sides.

While passing through the only narrow section of the harbor, the Imo’s stern struck the Mont Blanc’s bow. The Imo was largely undamaged, but a fire broke out on the floating bomb that was the Mont Blanc. Its crew fled in lifeboats as the crippled ship drifted toward the Halifax shoreline.

The commotion soon brought out crowds in the largely working-class neighborhood along the narrows. Some survivors’ accounts described the immediate aftermath almost as if it were a fireworks display, with exploding barrels of benzol bursting in the sky. Many people, to their later harm, peered down at the harbor from the hillside neighborhood through windows.


Passengers boarding a train in Halifax this month. Moments before the 1917 explosion, a train dispatcher warned an approaching passenger train, saving the lives of hundreds of people. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

Vince Coleman, the dispatcher for the rail line that ran along the front, feared the worst and telegraphed a stop order to a train heading for the city: “Munitions ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye.” He died almost immediately afterward. The city, which was a hub for undersea cables from Europe, lost all communications with the rest of the world.

Despite endless litigation and an investigation, exactly who was to blame for the explosion still remains unclear.

This year, some effort is being made to tell stories that have long been overlooked.

Unusually for a Canadian city at the time, Halifax had a large black population concentrated in a neighborhood known as Africville. A centennial research grant allowed David Woods, a local playwright, to show that the extent of the destruction of Africville had been greatly understated and that black residents were consistently given substantially less compensation for rebuilding than whites, or often nothing at all.

Mr. Woods also found that at least upward of 11 more black residents died than the four commonly reported.


Catherine Martin on the shores of her ancestors’ former community in Halifax. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

Across the narrows from Halifax at Tufts Cove, a Mi’kmaw community of about two dozen families was hit by the explosion and the tidal wave it created. Not long before the blast, their land had been expropriated and they were preparing for a forced relocation.

“To me, it’s all sacred land,” said Catherine Martin, a Mi’kmaw filmmaker and storyteller who descended from Tufts Cove survivors.

A decade ago, Ms. Martin began holding a Mi’kmaw remembrance ceremony at the site every year on Dec. 6. Sometimes, she has been the only person in attendance. Last year, about 75 people attended.

“After the explosion, the Mi’kmaw were left to fend for themselves,” she said.


A Canadian Navy ship being built in the Halifax Shipyard. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times

Halifax remains a military center and working port. Earlier this decade, a huge warships factory costing 400 million Canadian dollars was built on the site of the blast. Outside of it this week, a Royal Canadian Navy frigate was undergoing routine maintenance in a dry dock that was about the only thing in the area that survived the blast.

Contractors, or the heaving of the earth, still turn up bits of the Mont Blanc, often miles from the narrows, like munitions in the former WWI battlefields of France and Belgium.

“The effects of the blast are still with us in a way,” Mr. Marster said. “It will be good to do the 100th anniversary and make it known. But I’m actually rather hoping that it will fade somewhat thereafter. I really don’t think it needs to be the primary way of identifying Halifax and its experience.”

Source: NYT > World

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