At 9:04 a.m AST(Atlantic Standard Time) today, you, like me, were probably asleep. Ah, the blessing of a weekend sleep-in! For a moment, though, I want you to imagine that today had been a weekday instead. 9:04 a.m AST, which is 8:04 EST for my fellow Eastern Ontarians, is when I would normally be getting ready to walk to school. 100 years previous, in 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia, life for students wasn’t any different. Children back then at 9:04 would have been getting ready for school, too, maybe grabbing a quick bite of breakfast before hurrying out the door just like I do now in 2020. But the key difference I want to highlight between these weekday mornings in 20th-century Halifax and 21st-century Ontario is the harbour traffic.
In 1917, Canada was in the midst of the First World War. Due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, and the increased amount of ships that would be traveling to and from Europe, Halifax’s harbour was requisitioned to become a port of war. Ships carrying cargo ranging from building supplies to food and medicine now streamed in and out of it daily.
As disruptive as this new industry would have been to sleepy Halifax, by December 1917 such a strange sight was now commonplace. Children were still excited by the big ships, and young adults still enjoyed spending time with the never-ending flock of single seamen. For the most part, however, the residents of Halifax and neighbouring Dartmouth across the harbour were as used to this as if it’d been this way all along.
Even in a town full of drunk, smoking, immature teenaged sailors looking for fun, a ship on fire was something unusual and a little exciting. On the morning of December 6th, 1917, two ships called the Imo and the Mont-Blanc collided into each other. This collision caused the Mont-Blanc to become engulfed in flames, and the burning ship slowly drifted towards one of the piers on the Halifax side of the harbour after the crew had frantically abandoned ship. While the crew’s behaviour struck some passerby as strange, they were mostly intrigued by the fact that a ship was on fire. This had never happened before! So, as adults headed off to work and children headed off to school, large crowds began to form along the waterline. No one wanted to miss the chance to see the fire before it was extinguished, and many were willing to show up late to work or school to see it. But the burning ship would be one of the last things these people ever saw. Unbeknownst to all but a select few, the reason the Mont-Blanc had caught fire was because she was carrying a very dangerous cargo: explosives destined for the European trenches. The friction of the collision between the two ships had created sparks that ignited some of that deadly cargo, with no chance of putting it out before it exploded. So as the ship’s crew frantically rowed away, the crowds watching the spectacle stood blissfully unaware that the Mont-Blanc would blow any minute.
That minute came at 9:04 a.m. As the Mont-Blanc exploded, a shock wave travelled through the water and up into cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, and the Mi’kmaq settlement of Tufts Cove. In the blink of an eye, this fast-moving invisible wave caused houses to collapse in on themselves, creating unrecognizable ruins. People and debris were flung far and wide, and fires sprouted all over the place. In fact, this shock wave was so powerful that windows were shattered over 100km away, and the force of the blast was felt as far as Prince Edward Island.
As survivors registered what had happened, an oily rain began to fall that left permanent stains on some of their skin. Most were in a daze. Others were trapped beneath rubble. Some had had their clothes, eyes, and limbs torn off by the blast. Dockside areas, especially in the neighbourhood of Richmond, were more or less obliterated. Recovery efforts started almost immediately as people rushed home to find their family members, but these unofficial searches would be dogged by fire first and foremost, and later that night, one of the worst blizzards Halifax had ever seen. By final count, it’s estimated that the Halifax Explosion took close to 3,000 lives. Another 9,000 were injured, many by flying shards of glass and shrapnel. In fact, so many people lost sight in one or both eyes because of that glass and shrapnel that a school for the blind was opened specially for the victims.
Two of the recorded dead of the Halifax Explosion are my ancestors, Charles and Helena Davis. Without the convenience of instant messaging, modern record keeping, and social media, it is unknown where and how they sustained their injuries. All my family knows for sure is that Helena died on December 12th, 1917, aged 40, in a hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the explosion. Sadly, for Charles we don’t even know that much. His body was never recovered, or if it was, never positively identified. Most likely, he was heading to school (he was only 14) and had stopped to look at the burning Mont-Blanc when his death occurred. Whether he died from the shock wave, a fire, debris, or a tidal wave, though, is anyone’s guess.
What really hits me the hardest about my family connection this disaster is where my great-great grandfather Frank Davis Sr. was when it happened. Instead of working in Halifax as a motorman, he was serving overseas as a part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force; at the time of the explosion he had only just recently recovered from a mustard gas attack that would damage his lungs for life. With mail being slow to reach Europe from Canada, who knows how long it took for Frank to find out that his wife and eldest son were dead. And even once he did know, he had to sit with that knowledge for quite some time until transport was able to be arranged for him.
Because his surviving children needed a caretaker, Frank was discharged from the army as a special case. Essentially, he was being given a “get-out-of-war-free” card. But coming home early came at the cost of his wife and son. I can’t even imagine the inner turmoil he must have felt, the guilt that it was somehow his fault for wishing to be back home, and helplessness that he wasn’t able to be there for his family when they needed him most.
In February 1918, Frank finally made it back home, to a Halifax he barely recognized. Despite everything he’d been through, he managed to pick up the broken pieces of his life and start over. And part of that new start involved marrying again a few years later. Frank had three children with his second wife; the youngest of which grew up to become my great-grandpa Slim. Grandpa Slim married and became a father to several children, one of whom was my Poppa. My Poppa married and had two children, one of whom was my mother. My mother married and had two children, one of whom was me. So you can see just how incredible it is that I’m even sitting here writing this today. To put it in simpler terms, if Frank Davis Sr. hadn’t remarried, he wouldn’t have had my Grandpa Slim. Without Grandpa Slim, four generations of my family, and me along with it, would not exist.
Today, on December 6th, 2020, I remember these events, and the way it shaped my family. I remember those who I’m not related to, whose families were also altered drastically as a result of the explosion. Today, I remember the people who lost their lives and parts of themselves, and had to live through the horror that was the Halifax Explosion. But I also remember the hope, faith, love, and friendship that came out of the disaster. People across Canada and around the world pitched in to send donations and relief trains to Halifax and neighbouring Dartmouth in their hour of need. More familiar to some is the story of the sheer dedication and aid Halifax received from the people of Boston in the days, weeks, and months that followed December 6th, 1917. That, of course, is why Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year, even now, in gratitude for what they did.
I know this post is lengthy, but I’m not ashamed. The Halifax Explosion is the reason I’m sitting here today. Yet despite the drastic effects it had on our nation and the world, few people seem to know the full story. So I strongly encourage you to find out if you are so inclined. Try Sally M. Walker’s Blizzard Of Glass, or Dear Canada: No Safe Harbour by Julie Lawson for younger readers, or adult readers looking for a simpler description of events. For readers who can handle something weightier, I recommend Ken Cuthbertson’s The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster. All of these titles will reveal the fascinating facts and story of a vital part of our history.
To end off with, I am enclosing two videos below which will probably do a far better job at showing the devastation and impact of the Halifax Explosion than my words ever could. The first is archival footage of the aftermath of the explosion, filmed just one day after the event by W.G. MacLaughlan. Although the quality isn’t great (this is 1917 film footage, after all), this video shows an authentic look at the devastation from an insider’s perspective. Think of it as 1917’s Halifax Explosion news report without the reporters.
Finally, the second video is an amazing resource which was released in 2017 in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. This CBC video allows you to view a 360-degree walkthrough of the collision between the Mont-Blanc and the Imo, just as if you were right there as it happened. This video is practically living history! Words can only do so much to portray an event that occurred over a hundred years ago. Pictures can do a better job, to an extent. But this video… this is the real deal. In fact, this is the only video my Dad and I play for the senior citizens who come to our Halifax Explosion presentation that we show at retirement homes. If seniors can understand and appreciate it, so can you.
Thank you for staying with me throughout this post. As you can tell, this is a topic that I am very passionate about, and I love to share my enthusiasm for it with others. If you have any Halifax Explosion connections, or any questions or comments on the disaster, please feel free to leave them in the comment section at the end of this post. For now, though, I will conclude this story, as it is approaching 9:04 p.m EST here in Eastern Ontario. I certainly have a lot to reflect on before bedtime, as tonight is a school night. Tomorrow morning as I walk to school, I’ll be reflecting, too, on how different of a walk I am taking as opposed to the one my ancestor Charles Davis did. And as I cross a street where I can see part of Lake Ontario, I’ll double-check to make sure there aren’t any burning ships as I pass by. (I’m a little paranoid, don’t judge me!) Then, once that street is out of sight, I’ll continue on my way to school and think about how excited I am that we’re starting a study of Romeo and Juliet in my English class. Because as much as I love thinking and learning about the past, I need to live in the future, too.
The two videos I reference: