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The CBC Halifax Explosion Site

 

Main Page > City in Shock > Devastation

Devastation

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.

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 their fire hoses couldn't be linked up to the Halifax taps and hydrants: they were different sizes and didn't fit.

Dartmouth

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.

Africville

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 in Dartmouth NS will be archiving the results as they become available.

Military

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.

Horrified: Billy Wells

Firefighter Billy Wells was the only member of his eight-man crew to survive the blast. Then he was caught in the tsunami and found himself some distance from the waterfront.

“The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm,” he said.

He made his way back to the waterfront, looking for his coworkers. “The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”

Source: Halifax Fire Department.

Mi’kmaq Settlement

Inside Tuft's Cove on the Dartmouth side of the harbour was the tiny Mi'kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove. Like Richmond, Turtle Grove faced the full force of the Explosion.

The recovery of nine bodies is recorded, but more people may have died. Newspapers and historians of the time wrote little about the complete destruction of the Mi'kmaq community.

The history of Turtle Grove, also known as Tuft's Cove after its location, is sketchy. Fewer than 20 families lived there in 1917, but the community dated back at least to the late 1700's.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Mi'kmaq and some Indian agents began lobbying for reserve status. In 1917, the government agreed to establish a reserve…but not on the water. Exactly one month before the Explosion, the order came to move the community to a location several kilometers away.

The move had not begun on December 6, when people in Turtle Grove, like others on both sides of the harbour, went to the shoreline to watch the fire.

One of the few accounts appeared in a commemorative booklet in 1918. It tells of the "remnant(s)" of Turtle Grove's population "pitifully making their way to Town (Dartmouth), carrying their dead and injured. The old time Indian wail could be heard for over a mile."

Most of the survivors dispersed, and none of them is thought to be alive today.

A lieutenant’s report

FROM: Lieutenant Sidney W. Baker, RNR
TO: Commanding Officer, HMS Changuinola
DATE: 7 December, 1917

At 9:30 a.m. on the 6 December, I landed in charge of my division under
Lieutenant Commander F.H.D. Clarke, RNR. On landing I received orders to employ my division in rescue work which comprised clearing debris and extracting bodies from ruins. Many cases were badly injured and survived minutes only. With improvised stretchers and any assistance we carried cases to what remained of a stone jetty. I obtained two tugs from Niobe, CD 14 and Togo, and proceeded to embark the injured. Thirty cases were conveyed in this manner to the hospital ship Old Colony.

The whole of the rescue work was made difficult owing to flames, smoke and falling timbers. My party was very much separated during the carrying process and rescue work, but the whole of my division worked splendidly.

At 2:45 all possible rescue work had ceased in the vicinity of the fire and I returned to jetty alongside Niobe. At 3 p.m. we returned to ship under Lieutenant Commander Clarke.

S.W BAKER
Lieutenant, RNR

Source: Bird, The Town That Died

Niobe, Highflyer and their heroes

HMCS[?] Niobe was a heavy cruiser converted to serve as Canadian naval headquarters in Halifax during the war. It was moored at HMC Dockyard[?]. It contained offices and depot space, and housed and fed hundreds.

The British light cruiser HMS[?] Highflyer was on convoy duty. In other circumstances it might have escorted Mont-Blanc across the ocean.

When the fire broke out on Mont-Blanc, each vessel sent a small boat and crew to investigate and help. No one knew what Mont-Blanc carried. They joined the captain and crew of the tug Stella Maris as they tried first to fight the fires, and then to tow Mont-Blanc away from the wharf.

The seven men from Niobe were never found. There was one survivor of the six men on Highflyer’s tender. The captain and 20 of the 25 crew members on Stella Maris died in the Explosion as well.

Royal Canadian Navy

On December 7, the navy's leaders counted their human casualties as well as the damage to their young fleet. The dockyard was a wreck, with move buildings damaged and many destroyed.

In his military history of the Explosion, John Griffith Armstrong writes

"Niobe looked as if she had been through a battle…Despite the obvious damage, the ship was structurally intact. Still, the job of putting her back in order would be a daunting challenge: clearing wreckage from the deck alone would occupy two full days."

Niobe had given partial shelter from the blast to some smaller RCN ships, but the damage was still extensive, and many sailors were hurt by flying glass.

Canada's Royal Naval College was a wreck. The students at the college were writing exams that week and the day' session was starting late: the change of schedule saved lives.

Both the college and the Fleet Wireless School were moved out of Halifax after the Explosion.

The roof of the military hospital at Admiralty House (now a military museum and archive) collapsed, but doctors continued to work until that night, when the building was finally evacuated and patients moved elsewhere.

Surgeon Joseph Rousseau was himself bleeding from cuts to his head, face, chest, arms, and jugular vein, but he carried on until he collapsed from loss of blood. When navy nurse Alice Boutin was carried off the job on the evening of December 6, she was found to have a fractured rib and a dislocated shoulder.

Army

Halifax had an army garrison as well as naval headquarters and facilities. It saw a steady stream of soldiers on their way to the war in Europe. Convoys which included troops for the front were scheduled to leave for Europe on December 7 and 10.

In all, there were about 5,000 soldiers in Halifax in December of 1917, or as military historian John Griffith Armstrong puts it, "one trained soldier for every ten civilians."

Armstrong notes that the garrison was well-equipped and well-prepared to defend the city, but wartime security concerns may have encouraged those in charge to keep a low profile. Even long after the Explosion, many people were unaware of the Army's contribution to rescue work.

Wellington Barracks, directly in the path of the explosion, suffered heavy damage. It housed militamen and military families from Nova Scotia and elsewhere in Canada.

Soldiers who were able made up many of the rescue and guard patrols on December 6 and in the days to follow.

Did you Know

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.

Page Feature: Barbara Orr Story

Barbara Orr could see the harbour from her family's dining room window. The 14-year-old and two of her five brothers and sisters were staying home from school. They were under quarantine for measles.

Around 8:30, Barbara saw that something odd was going on between two ships. It looked as if they might collide...and they did. Then a fire started on one of them.

The children's mother gave them permission to go out for a closer look. Barbara's little brother Ian and 6-year-old Isabel headed straight for the harbour, but Barbara went to a friend's to see if she would like to come too.

One moment, Barbara Orr was staring at the huge fire roaring up out of the harbour; the next she was lying on the ground at the top of Fort Needham, over a half a kilometer away.

She lay still for a few minutes. When she sat up, she found out that one of her boots was gone, and the foot and ankle that had worn it was crushed. She was cut all over, and covered in oil and dirt from the Explosion. So was everyone around her.

She struggled toward home, but soon saw that her entire neighbourhood was ablaze.

She wound up at her aunt's on Gottingen Street, where they didn't recognize her at first.

Her aunt asked where Barbara's family was.

And although no one yet knew for sure, she said, "They are all gone."

Barbara's aunt decided that Barbara should go to hospital. A makeshift ambulance --a wagon that delivered fish to the Orrs' house on normal days--made slow progress to Camp Hill, the new military hospital.

Barbara lay among others as the wagon passed what must have seemed like a bad dream: neighbourhood landmarks vanished or unrecognizable, wreckage in the streets, injured and confused people wandering in search of friends, relatives, and home.

She lay on a stretcher with others in a corridor for a while. It was very silent. She called out to an orderly as he passed.

"I thought they were all beyond hope," he told her, startled. He took her to a ward, where they cleaned and dressed her leg, then left her alone again.

Page Feature: James Pattison Story

James Pattison was an amateur student of the many ships that came into the harbour. The Pattisons lived near the drydock, and James, 13, had a talent for drawing and painting the many ships he saw on his travels between home and Richmond School.

He was on his way to school with his brothers Gordon and Alan on December 6 when they saw the new fire truck, Patricia, streak past. They saw smoke and heard a roaring noise coming from the harbour. But they couldn't see what was happening: too many buildings were in the way.

They chased the Patricia at a run.

James had been running past a high stone wall when a sudden, total silence fell. Then, after a few confusing, dreamlike moments where he felt he was flying, then drowning, he realized he had been caught in some trolley wires. He was lucky; the blast disconnected the wires and they weren't live.

James' nose was bleeding…and so was his hand, after he pulled a nail out of it. But he was alive, and so was his brother Gordon, who had fallen nearby. Neither of them was badly hurt.

They couldn't find their little brother Alan. The Acadia Sugar Refinery, where their father worked, was rubble, and there were fires everywhere.

As they tried to make their way home, soldiers sent them uphill. There were fears that a nearby ammunition magazine would blow up next. The boys would be safer on higher ground, the soldiers said.

James and his brother Gordon waited a while on the Commons as the soldiers had told them to. Then they made their way back downtown. They couldn't get near where their house had been, so they found a ride across the harbour.

They reached their grandparents' house in Dartmouth in the late afternoon.

After a good wash and a hot supper, they went to bed not knowing where their parents, brother and sister were.

Their grandfather had been searching, but there was no news.

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