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The CBC Halifax Explosion Site


Main Page > City in Shock > The Destruction

The Destruction

Twelve thousand buildings were severely damaged in the Explosion. 1630 were completely destroyed.

Six thousand people were completely homeless, and the homes of many thousands more needed major repairs. What to do with so many people? They couldn't stay in temporary shelters for the winter.

At the disaster site, the supply system for the war had taken a body blow, and the heart of a major business and industrial area was rubble.

Almost every building in Halifax had some damage….and there wasn't enough glass in the Maritimes to replace the jagged holes that had once been windows. That would take months.

Finding Shelter

A collection of more than 30 temporary shelters sprang up through the afternoon of December 6. Some were planned, like church halls, but people stayed anywhere warm, dry and unlikely to catch fire. One family would spend 12 days in a railway boxcar before moving in with relatives.

Everyone shared one problem, whether they knew it or not: there was scarcely a window left in Halifax…and a blizzard was coming.

People who were still in their homes had to cover their broken windows somehow. With no glass to be had, shops sold out of tarpaper in short order. Carpets came off the floors and mattresses off the beds as anything that could provide a windbreak was nailed over, or jammed into, gaping window frames.

Business and Industry

The toll on business and industry was substantial.

The industrial districts of Halifax and Dartmouth were nearly obliterated by the Explosion:

  • Acadia Sugar Refinery
  • Foundries (Halifax and Dartmouth)
  • Dominion Textiles
  • Dockyard
  • Oland's in Dartmouth
  • Richmond Printing Company
  • Richmond railway yards
  • Hillis and Sons Foundry

Hundreds of employees of these businesses died under falling beams or in fires. What had been a bustling area employing hundreds of people had vanished.

A working dockyard would have more business than it could handle. But the dockyard was itself a casualty.

There has never been an exhaustive tally of the financial cost of the Halifax Explosion. A commonly cited estimate for total property loss is $35 million US--in 1917 dollars.

The $35 million estimate includes losses to government, shipping and railways, houses, churches, manufacturing plants and inventories and personal belongings.

A very rough conversion of this amount to current dollars would come to more than $430 million today*, but it would be difficult to translate the component amounts that go into that total. The cargo of Mont-Blanc alone was valued at $3.6 million in 1917.

*Source: US government Consumer Price Index conversion formula, 2000

Did You Know

Massachusetts Glass: The state of Massachusetts made major contributions to relief efforts in Halifax. One of the first shipments to arrive from Boston was full of window glass.

The glass also came with trained glaziers to install the new panes.

Page Feature: Mrs. Bellew’s letter

There was an element of luck in surviving the Explosion . Some people walked away without a scratch from buildings where everyone else died, as the stories in this letter show. Mrs. James Bellew, of 30-32 Artz St in the north end wrote to her friend Hattie Dixon Burrill in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, two weeks after the Explosion.

People in those days used some terms we find offensive today; however they are a part of history. Mrs. Bellew’s way of referring to Africville was common practice at the time.

Halifax NS
Dec 21st [1917]

[From] Mrs. J. Bellew

Hattie, Hattie, Thank God that you & baby are – where you are! I’ll never to my dying day (which was indeed near) forget that Awful Crash it is ringing in my ears night & day – I can’t forget it. I’m not naturally nervous although I’ve been sick enough at times but this has broken my nerve.

My bruises & cuts are slight. I’m the only one that was at all touched. I was blown across the bed room with the window sashes, glass, blinds, curtains all on top of me & my glasses blown to pieces on my face, it’s a wonder I wasn’t blinded – I was stunned for a minute. I don’t know where I struck but my head hurts yet & I was bleeding dreadfully from flying glass. I cut three fingers of my right hand so I couldn’t write before.

I remember hearing the Patricia & the rest of the fire department go past the corner & they were flying so I said to myself ‘Gee Whizz there must be a big fire near us’ – & I was still listening to the roar of what I thought was the engines & the next I knew everyone was out on the street screaming & cut & bruised & poor little Marie Marshall badly scalded. The first death in the neighbourhood was a Miss Dimbrack who fell dead on Dr. Campbell’s steps & then the news of others began to pour in. Our homes were all badly ruined – ours stood it best – of course doors, windows, plaster, dishes, pictures & some furniture got badly damaged & if Mama had not been sleeping in the boys room she would have been killed as everything in her room was on the bed, beauro, windows, doors, plaster, table & everything – papa had a narrow escape for there are three windows in his room & they, with all the plaster, were on top of him, he just sit up quietly & said “What the devils all this?” but I was glad to hear him speak for I thought he was killed. – We all thought it was an air raid. – I called Vera who was in my bed & was just about to get up to go to school at recess, & I’m glad now that she was there for she wasn’t hurt, while a lot of the school girls lost their eyesight & had broken limbs & she said, “Oh Mum are you hit” – she picked me up & I said – “make for the cellar quick” – well she was in her night dress, & bare footed. She picked her way with me through the broken glass etc. & the doors all hanging off it was cold, but my senses came back while.

we were crawling down stairs & I remembered the engines – & I said “go back dear & dress, the fire has caused some explosion” & I thought then of the Power House at North St. & thought perhaps it was that. In fact no body knew what it was – until after a few hours. – The military ordered us all out on the Commons until the Magazine at the Dock Yard was flooded, as that meant another explosion. Well Hattie there were some pitiful, & some laughable sights. We didn’t laugh then but we did after.

One old man – something like papa – was wondering around the Commons with his wife’s clothes on & his own in his arms – & he had his own hat on first & her hat on top with a big paddy green ostrich plume flying bravely in the breeze – he looked too comical for anything but he had such a woebegone face that one had to pity him too. I suppose when things began to fly he grabbed the first thing on hand.

And as Bert came running home he heard a fellow up in a four storey window calling “Say fellow – it struck here! – it struck here!” – I suppose he thought it was a single bomb & that he was the only one that knew where it hit – & all the town in ruins – nobody paid any attention to him. Bert says that perhaps he is there yet.& Frank had a working party digging at the ruins of the old Sugar Refinery about a week later – and a little dog kept annoying the men by getting under their feet & barking at a certain pile of brick wall, they chased him away about a doz. times but back he came again, so they decided to dig where he was barking at – & after digging about ten feet through they came to four men all huddled in a hole in the wall not hurt but cramped & nearly frozen for the weather was awful. – The little dog went nearly wild his “boss” was one of the men & in spite of their condition they had to laugh at the dog’s crazy antics – & he was nearly starved too for he must have been there all week. But what made Frank laugh was the comical look of the first man that crawled out, and the way he said “Who shoved this thing over on us anyhow?”

But what amused me is this – a friend of ours I won’t say who – had every stitch blown off and he ran clean to Mount St. Vincent – to the Sisters who had to put him to bed until the Relief Committee could get him some clothes & he had to stay there a week & not a scratch on him. – He said after wards leave it to the Sisters to feed a fellow. – He was sorry when his clothes arrived. The Mount is full of patients mostly children.

Oh Hattie there was an awful lot of little ones killed.

One woman was in to see me – a Mrs. Joe Hinch – she has just come out of Hospital. She & her sister alone survive out of fifty-two relatives. Her own particular family consisted of Mother, two brothers, one sister, her husband & ten children ranging from 20 years to 5 yrs all gone & the sister who was with her – Mrs. Moore lost her husband & five children & of course the same Mother, sister & brothers. Connie & poor Grace Dumaresq are burned to death also Grace’s two uncles Frank & Will over in Turtle Grove.

I go nearly mad when I think – I’ll never feel safe in old Halifax any more. I suppose you saw lots of names your recognized in the papers – if there is anyone you wish to know about perhaps I can let you know. I pity poor May & the Kiddies. – Syd was in to say good bye & he looks fine.

Milton got home for four days, the poor boy was near sick from suspense. He heard that Artz St. was all gone, he didn’t get our “wires”, he was afraid to come in when he got here early in the morning. Hattie there is nothing left from the bridge to Nigger Settlement, the houses blew away or burned down. You left l87 Lockman St. in good time! Gladys Harvey got cut pretty badly in the back, she threw herself across the baby carriage to protect the baby who didn’t get hurt thanks to her Mother but I guess Donny will lose one eye.

Poor Stan Hisler & George Richardson are gone & Jack Ronane & dozens of others we all know.The old home at 31 is almost past repair. May told papa to keep an eye to it. George’s stuff is pretty well battered up. I doubt if much of it is any good. Cass’s house is badly smashed up but I think still stay & fix up. Mrs. Kelly is in part of our house (the front room & Vers room). Mrs. Ferguson has left, Hibbetts, & Ashes, Nolans are still there and all on our side are hanging it out, I don’t know for how long.

Our place is looking fairly good now as papa has put in all the glass – & Hattie he made me laugh. – When we were all ordered out – he came back after we were all gone and when I asked him what he wanted socks for he said “oh to take the ashes out of the base burner & fill her up again – in case we don’t have to leave for good” & I tell you we were glad when we did get back to find a warm corner even if everything was in “smitherines” – he is the limit Gosh if that Magazine had gone up where would he have been.

Well now honey I’ve said enough for now – but I could talk all day – so give my love to baby & remember me to Emily, so with fond love to you I say by by.

Mrs. B.

From: Yarmouth County Museum Archives

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