December 6th is a somber day for my family. As well as it being the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, it also marks the anniversary of a disaster that aligned the stars so we could be born- the Halifax Explosion.
During the First World War, Halifax, Nova Scotia, became a port of war. Ships would travel to Halifax to join a convoy, and they would make Halifax their first stop on the way back from Europe. Ships would be loaded with supplies for the war effort, and troops would come to embark on ships that would take them to the battlefields of France. Needless to say, the Halifax Harbour was a very busy place. Two of these ships, the Mont-Blanc, and the Imo, crashed into each other on December 6th, 1917.
The Imo was carrying relief supplies, like food and medicine for families in Belgium who had been displaced due to the fighting there. But the Mont-Blanc was carrying something far more deadly- explosives. The collision between the ships caused some containers of picric acid to ignite, and the Mont-Blanc was immediately engulfed in flames. Now, even in wartime Halifax, ships had never caught on fire before, so everyone stopped what they were doing to look. But because the Mont-Blanc had not raised a signal flag indicating that it was carrying explosives, very few people knew that the ship was going to explode. That’s why, when the Mont-Blanc exploded at 9:04 in the morning, over 2,000 people were killed, and over 9,000 injured. Two of the fatalities of the Explosion were my relatives Helena and Charles. Charles was 14, and his body was never recovered. Most likely his body was crushed by debris, vaporized in the blast, or burned in the fires that spread across the city. Helena was 40, and died 6 days after the explosion from her injuries. The reason why that matters is because she was married to a man named Frank, my Great-Great-Grandfather, who was serving overseas. After the war, he remarried. One of the children he had with his second wife was my great-grandfather. One of my great-grandfather’s children was my grandfather. He was the father of my mother, who gave birth to me. So, if Helena hadn’t died in the explosion, Frank never would’ve remarried, and 4 generations of my family would not have existed. I don’t want to say that I’m glad that the Halifax Explosion happened, but I will acknowledge that it’s the reason that I’m sitting here writing this today.
Once I found all of this out, I wanted to find out more about the disaster. This book provided me with a lot of answers:
Blizzard of Glass by Sally M. Walker:
This was one of the most informative books that I have ever read about the explosion. Basically, it tells the story of the explosion with lots of pictures to engage younger readers, and well-worded descriptions of the events that took place.
I liked this book a lot growing up. At the library, I would check this book out almost every other week I was there. So, my family, who was tired of this charade, gave it to me for my birthday one year.
But this book also helped to add another piece to our Halifax Explosion puzzle. In one part of the book, it shows a picture of a YMCA on Barrington Street that had been turned into a makeshift hospital. When I started talking about it, my mother mentioned that she had once stayed at a youth hostel on Barrington Street. I’d already learned from the Halifax Explosion Book Of Remembrance(which has records on all of the explosion victims) that Charles and Helena had lived on Barrington Street, too, so I looked up the hostel to see if their house was close to it. Lo and behold, they were one and the same! Their house had survived the explosion, and many years later my mother had stayed there without realizing it! She can’t remember if she ever went up to the third floor, which is the part of the house where they lived in, though.
Positive Impacts of the Halifax Explosion:
Although the explosion was a terrible tragedy, a few good things did come out of it. Boston was one of the first cities to come to Halifax’s aid, and sent down a train filled with doctors, medicine, clothes, and building supplies as soon as they could. In gratitude, Halifax sent them a Christmas tree in December 1918. The tradition started up again in 1971, and has continued every year since. The two cities maintain a close kinship to this day.
After the explosion, the city of Halifax decided to make some safety improvements. A material called hydrostone was used to build houses that would be less flammable, and new laws were created to better regulate shipping traffic. For example, it is now mandatory to raise a red flag if a ship is carrying explosives. Because of the new rules, it will be much, much harder for a similar disaster to happen today.
The Halifax Explosion in the Media:
With the 100th anniversary of the explosion in 2017, the story resurfaced in the media. Articles were written, and books were published. The city of Halifax even named one of their ferry boats, which I got to ride on, after a hero of the Halifax Explosion: Vincent Coleman.
Vincent Coleman worked as a train dispatcher, someone who helped to direct the movement of trains. He was one of the only people in Halifax who knew that the Mont-Blanc was carrying explosives. So, when he heard that she had caught on fire, he sacrificed his life to warn an oncoming train of the imminent explosion. The telegraph he sent read, Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye Boys. Coleman died in the explosion, but his warning saved the lives of the 300 passengers on the train, and also alerted people to the fact that something had happened in Halifax. Without the telegraph, it would have been hours before people came to investigate why Halifax’s communication lines had gone silent, and many more people would have died. I was lucky enough to have the chance to view his gravestone at Halifax’s Mount Olivet Cemetery one summer, allowing me to pay my respects to him and his actions.
Even though this happened over a hundred years ago, the Halifax Explosion is still a very important part of Canadian history. There’s also a chance that it could have impacted your family’s history! Both sides of my family, not just my mother’s, were affected by the explosion. My paternal Great-Great-Grandfather served on the CSS Acadia, and received a 3-day pass to visit a girl in Sydney. While he was away, he rented out his apartment to another sailor. His apartment was destroyed, and the sailor killed in the explosion. If my Great-Great-Grandfather hadn’t gotten a pass, he likely would have been killed too. Then, my father would not have been born, and I wouldn’t have been born, either.
Truly, life is just really weird sometimes. What strange things happened that changed your family’s history?