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Society and Culture

The Halifax Explosion left few Nova Scotians untouched. Whether they felt the brunt of the blast or felt a trembling in the floor miles away, thousands of people have Explosion stories as part of their family history.

Today, news organizations would have live satellite feeds within hours from a disaster of this scale. In 1917, moving pictures were still in their early days and there is little motion picture film of the wreckage from December 6.

In the hours and days after the Halifax Explosion, a relatively small number of journalists and photographers filed what they saw to newspapers and magazines around the world. One of Canada's Group of Seven, Arthur Lismer was in Halifax and recorded his own impressions.

In the years following, historians, novelists and other writers, and visual artists have tried to describe what happened that day, or to imagine what it felt like to be there.


Newspapers around the world - even in Germany- carried headlines like “Explosion Horror” on their front pages in the days following.

Picture magazines like the Illustrated London News made the most of photography.

Postcard books were popular records of events in 1917, even of such unhappy sights as the north end of Halifax. Those collections are treasured archival material today.

Of course the Halifax papers carried exhaustive coverage of the disaster and its aftermath. The inquiry got blanket coverage, although editorial points of view were said to vary. Newsreels were in their early days. There is less than ten minutes’ worth of known moving-picture footage from the aftermath of the Explosion. It is preserved at Nova Scotia’s public archives.

The archives and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic own hundreds of still photographs, some of which appear in the archives' online exhibition, A Vision of Regeneration Will open a new window.

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History and Nonfiction

The first histories of the Explosion, both commissioned in the first days after the disaster, were lost for years.

Within days of the blast, Archibald MacMechan became head of the Halifax Disaster Record Office. His work never appeared in print until 1978, as part of Graham Metson’s book, “The Halifax Explosion.

A medical history of December 1917 was almost lost as well. The Relief Commission shelved the report, by Dr. David Fraser Harris. The commissioners were dissatisfied with the content. It was found by a Dalhousie Medical student in 1992.

Two survivors who later became authors, Thomas Raddall and Hugh MacLennan, wrote vividly about the day.

In 1967, Michael T. Bird wrote The Town That Died, a mix of fact and evocative imaginings of life in Halifax before and after December 6.

In 1989, Janet Kitz’s Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery combined a range of new research and extensive interviews with survivors. It started a rebirth of interest in the Explosion.

Scholars examined the topic at a conference in 1992, which resulted in “Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour.” They shed light on many previously unexamined topics.

In recent years a number of people have written general histories or studied specific aspects of the disaster. The first military history of the event appeared in 2002. In “The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue,” historian John Griffith Armstrong provides an inside look at preparedness for, and response to, the disaster at the heart of Canada’s navy.

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Published within a year of the catastrophe, A Romance of the Halifax Disaster was the first of several works of fiction built around December 6.

The first major novel of the Explosion was Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising. MacLennan was a Halifax schoolboy in 1917, and brought first-hand experience to the work.

Published in 1941, Barometer Rising was a groundbreaking book. As MacLennan himself noted in a foreword--"it is one of the first ever written to use Halifax, Nova Scotia, for its sole background…there is as yet no tradition of Canadian literature…"

More recently, Nova Scotia-born author and journalist Robert MacNeil's Burden of Desire made the best-seller lists. MacNeil’s presentation for the 1992 Ground Zero conference on the Explosion explores the process of "creating fiction out of (Explosion) fact." Other novels and short stories for children and adults contain Explosion themes and references. One of them, Love from Katie has been adapted for television and will air in fall 2003.

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Music and Poetry

The Explosion inspired professional artists and other people to mark the tragedy in some way. Newspapers across the country received submissions from readers who wrote emotional verses about the sadness they felt for people whom they had never met.

If some are not quite ready for the great anthologies, their sincerity shines through nonetheless.

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War Art From the Home Front

Leading Canadian artist Arthur Lismer was living in Halifax in 1917. The man who would become part of the country's famed Group of Seven was principal of the Victoria College of Art (today known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design: NSCAD Will open a new window).

The school on Argyle Street was a mess. The windows were broken, an interior wall had collapsed, and the upstairs gallery was badly damaged.

"Now all these are small things compared with the awful damage & death toll in the devastated area, that is indeed a woeful sight - & our 20,000 homeless (we are all caring for them& the numerous blinded people - & the little children - a sight of any of these would depress the tenderest soul…my school is full of coffins now & all boarded up."

--Lismer letter to the Art Gallery of Toronto, 1917

The artist was drawn to the stark scenes all around him. His sketches and drawings of the disaster appeared in the Canadian Courier weekly magazine, but only one of the originals survive today.

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Plays about the Explosion include dramatizations of Hugh MacLennan's novel Barometer Rising, which has been adapted for both stage and radio.

In 1992 Neptune Theatre playwright Jennette White wrote a play to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Explosion. It was presented at the Ground Zero conference and toured schools throughout Nova Scotia.

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TV and Radio

CBC Radio and CBC Television have broadcast many reports and specials on the subject of the Halifax Explosion. Some of them appear elsewhere on this website, including interviews with Francis Mackey, Barbara Orr and Helen Creighton, and a more recent report on the annual survivors’ trip around Halifax harbour.

The Digital Archive of CBC.ca is developing a section on the Explosion which will appear in the near future.

New programming from CBC Atlantic will air in October of 2003. It will be posted on this site afterwards.

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The City’s Soul

There are those who say Halifax has defined itself by the way it has dealt with disaster over the years. The city has seen more than its share of death on a mass scale, including the Titanic Will open a new windowdisaster, the Explosion, and Swissair Flight 111 . Nova Scotians take pride in their supportive community response to such events.

Some historians also argue that the Explosion affected the way people in Halifax and Dartmouth saw each other in the years afterwards. They say that the need for people of different backgrounds to work together put a dent into the rigid Victorian class, religious and racial divisions that were still part of daily life in 1917.

Many survivors never thought of December 6 as something to be built upon. They wanted to put it behind them completely and they never talked about it. It was the way of things then—and probably part of the reason the event itself faded from the public consciousness.

For most people, churches were an important part of the healing process. Most of those destroyed in the Explosion were rebuilt; and one grew out of two. Kaye Street Methodist and Grove Presbyterian had been hard hit on December 6.

As the cities rebuilt, the surviving parishioners shared a temporary building, and eventually decided to make it permanent. In 1920 the Kaye-Grove Church became the United Memorial ChurchWill open a new window , almost five years before Canadian Methodists and Presbyterians established the United Church of Canada.

The original bells from United Memorial now ring out from the Explosion memorial at Fort Needham. Continue >

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Interactive Features
Remembrance, interactive feature Halifax-Dartmouth today, interactive feature Historical Docu-Comic, interactive feature
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Continue to Media Gallery Continue to Image Gallery
View Halifax map in 1917 Arthur Lismer Arthur Lismer
The Group of Seven and the Halifax Harbour Explosion: Focus on Arthur Lismer.
  Songs and Music
Songs and Music
Remember me song written to commemorate the explosion.
  Janet Kitz
Janet Kitz
More than a Short Course.
Black silhouette of a woman Did you know

No unbroken glass wasted: In December of 1917, the Victoria College of Art's public gallery was showing a series of lithographs from the National Gallery in Ottawa. Much of the glass in the frames was smashed. Lismer arranged to use what survived: he used it to replace the college's own shattered windows.

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