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The CBC Halifax Explosion Site

 

Main Page > Connections > Society and Culture

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

Journalism

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 .

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 1982, 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.

Fiction

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.

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.

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 ).

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.

Theatre

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.

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 web site, 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.

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 disaster, 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 Church , 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.

The Only Conference

As the 75th anniversary of the Explosion approached in 1992, the Gorsebrook Institute at St. Mary’s University in Halifax sponsored the first-ever academic conference on the Explosion.

The conference discussed a range of issues from emergency response, physics and explosives science to literature, town planning, and the legal fallout from the disaster.

Twenty-nine presentations were published in Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour.

As the editors Alan Ruffman and Colin Howell noted, before the conference “there (had) been little discussion of the scientific aspects of the Explosion….or comparison of this great tragedy to similar disasters elsewhere…

"More work remains to be done.”

Alan Ruffman has done extensive work on the scientific aspects of the Explosion. Among his projects: settling the question of the exact time Mont-Blanc blew up.

Ruffman and a colleague found the seismographic records that finally settled the debate. The data sheets had made their way from Dalhousie University to a storage room at Columbia University in New York. Under microscopic examination, the researchers narrowed the time to within 10 seconds of 9:04:35.

Hugh MacLennan: Concussion

Before Hugh MacLennan wrote his most famous novel, Barometer Rising, about the Halifax Explosion, he published a short non-fiction remembrance of the day, called Concussion. It seems to have created no waves after its appearance in a small literary journal, where researcher Alan Ruffman found it.

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.

Page Feature: The Group of Seven and the Halifax Harbour Explosion: Focus on Arthur Lismer

Halifax was an important harbour town during the “Great War” - World War I. The harbour, in turn, proved to be a central subject at a critical moment in the development of Arthur Lismer’s work, and the Harbour Explosion was a key event in the history of the War. Lismer’s difficulties and efforts to represent the town in a time of war led to his commission as one of the first Canadian War Artists, specifically to represent the “home front”.

Two of his close friends, A.Y. Jackson, and Lawren Harris, other members of what was to become the best-known Canadian artists’ group - the Group of Seven, had enlisted in the Canadian forces. They too became war artists and painted powerful responses to the action overseas, eventually visiting Lismer in Halifax at the end of the war to help collect images to portray the return from War.

The Canadian War Art program was the formal genesis of artistic response to conflict and war by Canadian artists, which continues to this day, through exhibits such as Garry Neill Kennedy’s response to the war in Iraq in 2003.

We’re not the first ones to make this connection between the work of Arthur Lismer and Garry Neill Kennedy, though. The parallels in their lives, including the impact they each had on the Canadian world of art, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, as well as the differences in their approach to similar topics, were explored in exhibitions such as “Dazzle Ships and Figure Paintings” in 1999.

From 1916 to 1919, Arthur Lismer lived in Bedford. Here, he first developed his broad-based approach to art education, while running the then-Victoria School of Art (now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), increasing enrolment five-fold in his first year. To this day, the “Saturday morning” art classes for children are still held at the College, and not until the arrival of Garry Neill Kennedy to head up the College in the 1960s was there such a significant sea-change in approach and size at this now internationally-renowned art school.

Lismer also actively generated a wide interest in Canadian visual arts by bringing significant exhibitions from what became the National Gallery of Canada , and elsewhere, to the then-Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts, (now the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia ), and by producing work that was circulated widely in Canada and internationally. He helped bring the region to the attention of central Canada for something other than its transportation and defense facilities.

Today, the cultural industry in the region is a significant part of the economy as well as an active centre for the creation of fine art and craft.

Some of the most compelling images to be generated and widely circulated immediately following the Halifax Explosion were Lismer’s sketches and illustrations of the devastation. About 20 are known to have been published - several in the Canadian Courier newspaper in late 1917, and several in a book called “Drama of a City: The Story of Stricken Halifax” (New York City: Gerald E. Weir, 1918). Some of these images appeared in an exhibition in 1990, entitled “Grim Visions: Arthur Lismer and the Halifax Explosion”, Alan Ruffman, Guest Curator, at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.

For more information about this fascinating artist, you can read an excerpt from an extraordinary catalogue documenting Lismer’s time in the Halifax area. The essay was written by Gemey Kelly, now the Curator of the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, NB, for an exhibition at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery, of the seminal work Lismer did in this PDF.

Page Feature: Songs and Music

Halifax singer-songwriter Dan McKinnon is perhaps best known in the city as a busker at the Saturday morning market. In 1997, in cooperation with the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, he recorded an album of songs about Nova Scotia history.

The lyrics of one song, "Remember Me," are a composite of Explosion survivors' stories. The chorus tells of a small china mug found undamaged in the wreckage of Richmond.

It said, "Remember Me."

Inscribed in its side were two words to abide by--"Remember Me."

You can listen to the lyrics by visiting Dan McKinnon site.

Lyrics to the song Remember Me

I remember it well it was the calmest of days
I remember the sky looked so blue
Mommy and Carmen were practicing hymns
And the light from the window shone through
With a flash the earth trembled the flooring gave way
The ceiling and walls tumbled down
The only thing saved from our old house but me
Was this wonderful cup they found
It said....

Chorus:
Remember Me Remember Me
Inscrived on its' side were two words to abide by
Remember Me

We had just enough time to make school by nine
You could feel tension spark in the air
Alarms shrieked and howled. We followed the sound
As the new fire engine roared by
With Gordon running second and Alan in third
The world come apart at the seams
I awoke on the ground, found Gordon.
We looked round
Three days later Alan's body was found.

Chorus:
Remember Me Remember Me
Inscribed on its' side were two words to abide by
Remember Me

In the city's north end with the pealing of bells
We remember that most tragic day
The whole world responded with heartfelt kindness
A debt we can never repay
Still stories are told of bravery and sacrifice
A work of God? Who's to say
But the one thing that helps keep the lost ones so dear
Was that wonderful cup found that day
It says...

Chorus:
Remember Me Remember Me
Inscribed on its' side were two words to abide by
Remember Me

Remember Me Remember Me
Inscribed on its' side were two words to abide by
Remember Me Remember Me

Page Feature: Janet Kitz: More than a Short Course

Janet Kitz never planned to become an expert on the Halifax Explosion.

She was taking a course in anthropology at Saint Mary's University in 1980 and decided to write a paper on the disaster. In no time she was immersed in it.

She was especially drawn to the many personal stories hidden in the "mortuary bags" --small cloth sacks of unclaimed personal effects from 1917, which had been sitting untouched for decades in a basement.

Kitz wanted to know more. She spoke with many survivors who had been children in 1917 and never talked about it, often out of respect for their parents' grief.

She also pored over records of the Halifax Relief Commission, which had recently arrived at the provincial archives. She studied the inquiry transcripts and collected Explosion photographs and artifacts in second-hand stores, where they lay forgotten.

Her archival research is the backbone, and the survivors' stories the heart, of her book Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery. Published in 1989, it sparked a new interest in the Halifax Explosion.

At a recent get-together in Halifax, James Pattison, now 98, said that for many years, "if you mentioned the Explosion, (people would) say, ‘what was that?’ But once Mrs. Kitz came on the scene, history was recorded…All my congratulations and every thanks.”

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