The Halifax Christmas Disaster of 1917

By B. Francis Morlan

Editor’s Note: Every December the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia sends a Christmas tree to the City of Boston, Massachusetts. This story explains how that came about.

December of 1917 was a time when the world was in transition. The horrors of World War I were known and the prospects of a merry Christmas were subdued in communities across the world as men and women left the safety of home to engage in the world’s first truly modern war.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the cares of the world felt a bit distant. A busy seaport, it couldn’t help but see how the world outside was changing as ships and their cargo bespoke of a world in conflict. But for them, the world was largely unchanged as they hung their Christmas decorations, stockpiled their fuel for the cold Canadian winter, and prepared for their first snows of their traditional white Christmas.

They had no way of knowing that their world would shatter in an instant.

Two ships – the Norwegian Imo , a relief ship running empty, — and the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc – collided after an attempt to evade each other in the narrowest portion of the harbor failed. The Imo attempted to reverse its engines, pushing the prow of the ship into the bow of the Mont-Blanc, setting fire to munitions stored on deck as the steel hulls scraped together in a brilliant fountain of sparks.

What happened next was a tragic chain of events that forever changed the face of Halifax.

The resulting fire and smoke drew the attention of bystanders on shore, who gathered to watch the spectacle as the two ships slowly drifted towards shore. They were completely unaware of the cargo of the Mont-Blanc, as were the hundreds of spectators who pressed their faces against the glass of windows in shops, businesses and homes.

The crew of the Mont-Blanc, knowing the volatile nature of their cargo, abandoned ship and attempted to row ashore all the while calling to the gathered crowds of the impending danger. Their cries in French were not understood by the mostly English-speaking bystanders.

As the ships drifted towards the pier the heat of the fire jumped to shore causing local fire engine companies to spring into action.

Within minutes, the Mont-Blanc’s highly explosive cargo of TNT, picric acid, and benzol fuel finally reached a tipping point, and the ship exploded in a ball of fire. Modern estimates place the force of the blast equivalent to 3 kilotons of TNT, a far cry from the 15 kilotons estimated for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but still the largest man-made explosion ever recorded at that time.

The devastation was almost as complete as the instant nature of the event. Nothing within 2 miles of the explosion site was unaffected. Those onshore aware of the Mont-Blanc’s cargo had attempted to organize an evacuation and even had the presence of mind to wire a train station several miles away to hold off bringing new passengers into the city. But their efforts to do anything else to avoid disaster were fruitless. They just ran out of time before the ship blew.

A cubic mile of air was consumed by the terrific explosion, whose force was sufficient to annihilate the Mont-Blanc and push the sea away, exposing the harbor floor for an instant. An estimated 1,000 people were killed instantly by the blast, which tore buildings to pieces and shattered every window within fifty miles. Flying glass and splintered wood caused numerous gruesome injuries throughout the city as the pressure wave shredded many of the city’s wooden structures. Doors were blasted open, and wood stoves were toppled, touching off fires throughout the city. The intense heat of the explosion caused cyclones around the harbor, wreaking further destruction.

A sight unseen before shocked those at a distance as a gigantic mushroom cloud loomed over Halifax after the explosion. American ships at sea immediately reversed course to return to port to provide assistance.

Immediately after the initial blast, the twisted, red-hot remains of the Mont-Blanc began to rain upon Halifax, as well as the city of Dartmouth across the harbor. People blown off their feet by the explosion were soon clinging to whatever they could as a tsunami of water rushed over the shoreline and through the dockyard. The sea was brought to eighteen meters above the high water mark, toppling smokestacks and wrenching buildings from their foundations as a mushroom cloud hung overhead.

Life further inland away from the shore was quickly affected, too. The blast impact sent debris in the form of hot metal, broken glass, jagged pieces of wood, severed arms and legs and mutilated body parts raining down with the soot from the mushroom cloud. Most buildings were leveled, leaving many who might have survived the blast buried in the exposed cold of December. To make matters worse, an approaching storm dumped 16 inches of fresh snow on the devastated city of Halifax by the morning of December 7th.

In the wake of all this disaster and series of devastating events, 2000 people died and another 9000 were severely injured.

News of the event rocked the world. Towns, cities and villages up and down the Atlantic coast sprang into action to provide aid, none more so than the largest and most populated metropolitan closest to Halifax – Boston, Massachusetts. By 10pm on the day of the explosion a large relief train filled with medical supplies, food, emergency essentials and much needed medical professionals left Boston and fought through blizzard conditions to arrive a day later. In the days and weeks ahead, the trains from Boston kept coming – bringing relief and necessary supplies.

They also brought Christmas. As can be imagined, there was little hope or room for celebration amidst such devastation in 1917. But by Christmas 1918 Halifax was on the road to recovery and wanted to express their thanks to their new sister city of Boston. Efforts were organized to send them a beautiful, giant Halifax fir to serve as a community Christmas tree in Boston Common.

In 1971, the city of Halifax marked the anniversary of the tragic event by reviving the tradition of sending a Christmas tree to Boston, a tradition that has continued each December to this day.

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