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Along the harbourfront and throughout the north end, those still alive and able tried to free others, or searched desperately for family whose fates they were afraid to imagine. Some had no idea what had hit them. They thought the city was under German attack.

Those who had seen Mont-Blanc tried to explain that the rumour was wrong…but there was no time for explanation. For almost two kilometers around the blast’s centre, there was total devastation.

Entire blocks of houses were burning. The north end's connections to the twentieth century--rail lines, telephones, cable telegraph, water and electricity--were gone. The busy sugar refinery, drydock and naval buildings, factories, foundries and shops had collapsed on top of the people inside.

Richmond & the Devastated Area

The Explosion wiped Richmond off the map. Nowhere was hit harder. Survivors were in shock, and rescue workers were horrified.

What had once been known as Richmond became part of what was called the Devastated Area. The destruction was so total that some people who had lived there all their lives wouldn’t recognize where their homes had been.

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Fighting fires

After the blast and the tsunami, the immediate danger was fire. All over the north end, wood stoves, furnaces, and lamps tipped burning fuel into the wreckage of wooden buildings. Entire streets were in flames, often with their residents still inside.

Of the firemen racing toward the fire on Mont-Blanc, nine died in the Explosion, including the fire chief and deputy chief.

Before the end of the day, firefighters from Springhill
and Amherst, Nova Scotia and from Moncton, New
Brunswick arrived with equipment to help fight the fires.
They were welcome, but some of their fire hoses couldn't be linked up to the Halifax taps and hydrants: they were different sizes and didn't fit.

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The Dartmouth side was less hard hit--but only in relative terms.

Almost a hundred people died on the less populated side of the harbour. A small Mi'kmaq community on its shore vanished in the blast.

The Dartmouth shore was a bit farther away from the Explosion, and less populated, but it still suffered a huge amount of damage…some areas more than others. As Dartmouth survivor Owen Sawler told Harry Chapman for the book Dartmouth's Day of Anguish, "Dartmouth got a good slapping but Halifax got the worst of it."

Researcher Alan Ruffman estimates that almost a hundred people died on the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The blast destroyed Oland's Brewery, parts of Starr Manufacturing and the Dartmouth skating rink. At the ropeworks, Consumer Cordage, the roof fell in and the windows shattered, but the factory was later repaired.

Throughout Dartmouth, windows shattered and many houses were badly damaged or wrecked.

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The black community of Africville was on the shore of Bedford Basin, at the top of the Halifax peninsula…and behind the bluff of Rockhead prison.

The topography saved Africville from the worst of the Explosion's destructive force. As in most other parts of the area, windows shattered and a number of people suffered cuts.

There are few records of additional damage. There are questions about whether this means there was none, or just that it was not reported by white officials.

Separate black communities like Africville existed all over Nova Scotia in 1917. Many still exist today.

Several people are working on research in this area, and the Black Cultural Centre Will open a new windowin Dartmouth NS will be archiving the results as they become available.

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With its military garrison and naval headquarters in the midst of war, Halifax counted ten percent of its population in the military. Within minutes, soldiers and sailors who were able took stock and started forming rescue parties.

Practices and protocols unheard of in civilian life were standard procedure to the men in uniform.

Young sailors and their officers had died trying to fight the fire on Mont-Blanc; there were many other military casualties all along the waterfront.

Three nations had naval ships in Halifax harbour on December 6: Britain’s Royal Navy, the United States Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy. Sailors and soldiers fanned out across the city to help civilians.

The city's military history would both unify and divide it. Disciplined soldiers and sailors pitched in with a will to help their civilian neighbours. Later, at the inquiry, politics pitted admiral against mayor and Ottawa bureaucrats against the newspapers, as a battered citizenry demanded answers and looked to place blame. Continue >

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Interactive Features
Devastation detail, interactive feature The Devastated Area, interactive feature Thomas Raddall - An Innocent Standing By, interactive feature
Flash and QuickTime players required

Continue to Media Gallery Continue to Image Gallery
View Halifax map in 1917 Barbra Orr Story
Barbara Orr
Was 14 years old at the time of the explosion ..
  James Pattison Story James Pattison
Account on the day of the explosion.
Black silhouette of a man

Election postponed: The Explosion happened ten days before a federal general election. The MP for Halifax was Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden.

The December 17 vote was postponed in Nova Scotia because of the Explosion. Later, the new member for Halifax, Alexander Maclean, was elected by acclamation.

Borden ran and won in a different Nova Scotia riding in that election.

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