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The CBC Halifax Explosion Site

 

Main Page > Aftermath and Recovery > Relief

Relief

The city put together a Halifax Relief Committee in the first hours of the crisis. It worked well in the early days, but it was clear to everyone that the job of helping the hurt, bereaved and dispossessed would take months, even years.

For now, there were immediate and urgent challenges to be met.

As the temperature fell on December 6, people needed clothing right away. Thousands had nothing but whatever they had been wearing at 9 a.m.

Food and fuel supplies quickly ran short.

Social services were already stretched: How could ruptured families survive? And what about those who had been blinded or suffered loss of sight in the showers of flying glass?

The city was not alone. Outside help came from around the world.

The biggest job- rebuilding- was a three-headed monster: thousands of people needed short, medium and long term shelter.

Help from outside

By lunchtime, word had spread of the disaster at Halifax. The first train into the city that afternoon carried medical people who joined the train on its way from Truro. Help from the Maritimes and beyond followed close behind, and in the weeks to follow donations poured in from around the world.

Within 48 hours, trains from other parts of Canada sent carloads of food, clothing, building materials and skilled workers.

American emergency teams--most of them from Massachusetts—arrived as well. They remained for months, and became part of the rebuilding effort. Halifax was front-page news around the world. By one estimate, relief donations eventually topped $23 million.

Clothing


Many survivors had nothing but what they had been wearing at 9 a.m., and that was dirty, bloody and shredded by glass.

Clothing donations came from everywhere. Especially in the early days, relief workers didn't ration or keep track of who took what.

As Janet Kitz explains in Shattered City, “(The clothing committee) set up a clothing and footwear distribution depot at the Green Lantern Restaurant downtown…there was heavy two-way traffic: one line up of people donated clothing; the other took it.”

Food and Fuel

There were no supermarkets in 1917. Iceboxes kept food from spoiling for a few days. Most of the food in the Devastated Area was buried in wreckage, or ruined in showers of glass. Furnaces and stoves were destroyed, their supplies burned up in the fires or buried.

Restaurants and businesses donated food and meals, as did many individuals in Halifax-Dartmouth and outside it.

Volunteers fed six thousand people in the days after the Explosion, and fuel companies gave away their inventories.

Families, Orphans, Widows

Housewives who had seen their husbands off to work along the harbour that Thursday morning were now widows. Children were orphaned.

In the first four years after the Explosion, the Halifax Relief Commission paid out $1 million in pensions. The formula was sometimes complicated and loosely based on military pension programs. Per person, the money wasn't much: widows’ pensions were capped at $65 a month and most were much less. If survivors had been left with enough money to get by, they got no pension at all.

Canada and Newfoundland

Hundreds of wounded were crowded onto the first train to Truro on December 6, to be helped at the hospital there. The train passed others coming in from New Glasgow and Kentville with doctors, nurses and medical supplies.

Hospitals and communities throughout the region took in casualties, and sent supplies and personnel to Halifax. Contributions and supplies came from governments, individuals and businesses across the country.

The province of Ontario and the Bank of Nova Scotia each donated $100,000 to the relief effort.

In Newfoundland, cabinet voted $50,000 in aid and sent another $1800 worth of window glass. A public relief fund added $30,000 more.

Montreal sent top surgeons from the McGill medical school.The Canadian Red Cross was one of many community organizations that collected donations large and small from across the country.

In Toronto, Sir John Eaton sent a train with food and medical supplies. The T. Eaton Company later contributed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of clothing and household goods to survivors .Imperial Oil, with facilities in Dartmouth, turned over three bunkhouses for emergency shelter and donated $10,000.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, had a country estate on Cape Breton Island, more than 200 miles away from Halifax. Bell provisioned and sent a work crew by train to Halifax, to help with rescue and recovery efforts. Federal spending on Explosion recovery reached over $18 million by the spring of 1918. All money, including donations, was administered by the Halifax Relief Commission.

The Americans

Nova Scotia's American neighbours acted quickly to help. Several American naval ships were already on the scene when Mont-Blanc exploded. One, Old Colony, was converted into a hospital ship.

Forty-eight hours after the Explosion, the first medical teams and supplies arrived from the "Boston States," mainly Massachusetts. Governor Samuel W. McCall sent doctors, nurses, railroad and media people, Red Cross teams and medical supplies.

The doctors and nurses relieved their exhausted local colleagues and organizers set up temporary hospitals and aid stations, in cooperation with the local authorities.

Back in Boston, there were community relief drives collecting schoolchildren's pennies…and high society's dollars. Music hall legend Sir Harry Lauder was among the donors at one luncheon raising over $2000.

Opera fans contributed at another benefit featuring the Boston Symphony and the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba.

Did You Know

Newfoundland was not a province of Canada in 1917, but people there had a special desire to help Nova Scotians in a time of trouble. A fire in 1892 had razed much of the capital city, St. John's, and many Newfoundlanders remembered the help that had come from the province across the Cabot Strait.

Page Feature: Bank of Nova Scotia

The Bank of Nova Scotia was founded in Halifax in 1832. It had moved its operating headquarters to Toronto in 1900, but still considered itself a Nova Scotian company.

When rumours of a disaster at Halifax reached Toronto, the Toronto office telegraphed back east: "Presume rumours are greatly exaggerated." The general manager in Toronto, Nova Scotian H.A. Richardson, didn't get a response until late that night: the facts were worse than the rumours.

The bank contributed $100,000 to Explosion relief efforts--an amount equal to that sent by the Ontario provincial government.

Today, the bank is known as Scotiabank. Letters from the archives reflect memories of the day.

The typed letter (PDF format) from Halifax general manager H. A. Flemming was written to the bank's president in 1918, John Y. Payzant. The handwritten letter (PDF format) is from retired bank manager Leard Dawson Payzant to the bank's archivist, Betty Ann Hearn.

Archival materials courtesy of Scotiabank Group Archives.

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