Destitute, unemployed and an impostor: My family's journey after the Halifax Explosion
The Halifax Explosion forced some families to leave Nova Scotia during the city's slow recovery
Nellie was giving her baby a bath when she heard a muffled bang.
Her ears were stuffed with cotton, a treatment for an ear condition. She leaned over to pull Charlie from the tub so she could investigate the noise when the house exploded.
It was just after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917.
Nellie and Charlie were at 50 Veith St., in the heart of what was called Richmond at the time.
They were about 300 metres away from the Mont-Blanc — ground zero.
This is the story of three sisters: Emma, Laura and Nellie.
The trio, who were in their twenties, ran a music studio teaching piano to people in Halifax's north end.
All of them survived that gruesome day.
Emma was my great-grandmother.
I was born and raised in Toronto, but all my life I've known that Dec. 6 was an important day in my family's history.
I can remember telling my friends about it at school when I was a kid. To our generation, the explosion was something mentioned in a popular Heritage Minute that told of Vince Coleman's sacrifice.
It wasn't until a few weeks ago, as I pored over the Halifax newspapers from the days that followed the explosion, that I realized just how remarkable it is that every member of my family survived.
This disaster, which claimed a comparable number of lives as the 9/11 attacks, changed my family's future.
While they did survive, the next year was one of struggles. They were homeless, injured and at times, destitute. Eventually it forced them to leave Nova Scotia behind.
As Halifax crumbled, the city filled with stories of horror and miraculous survival. For reporters covering the disaster, it seems no sentence was too sensational to grasp the gravity of what had happened.
"Every street of the North End contains the mutilated bodies of men, women and children whose lives were blotted in an instant," the Herald reported.
"A returned soldier who had been in France said he never saw anything like the scenes he witnessed yesterday during all the time he was in the fighting zone."
Life beyond the 'dead line'
On Veith Street, there was nothing left. The book Too Many to Mourn estimates 95 per cent of the people on the street were dead.
"A chill lay at every heart as the thought of the possibility of living victims pinned under the ruins," the Daily Echo newspaper said. "Almost hourly, new bodies are found."
Nellie, my great-grandmother's sister, and baby Charlie were two of the scattered few who made it out of the rubble with just cuts and bruises.
That tub became a shelter, protecting them from the wood, glass and debris as the house disappeared. Nellie's hearing was also intact, saved by the cotton balls in her ears.
All three sisters were in the north end that day, an area that was later described in papers as beyond the "dead line."
If it wasn't for my father's cousin, Rob Milson, many of the details of what happened next would be lost. He spent years researching and recording what happened.
I've also spent days at the Nova Scotia Archives, trying to find my family's case files to try to piece it all together.
The search proved to be far harder than I imagined. Their names were repeatedly spelled wrong and the addresses also had inconsistencies. We still haven't found Emma's paperwork.
In a sign of the times, the files focused on what happened to the men.
Nellie and Laura's husbands were stevedores working on the dock and both survived. Nellie's husband was hit on the head, likely concussed, but they didn't realize it at the time. Laura's husband was hit on his back by debris and went missing for days. Emma's husband was in the army, and was safe on a base.
Leaving the city
All around them, there was unbelievable loss. Most of their friends were gone.
As help arrived on trains, the mayor issued a plea, asking people to leave the city and clear the way. The men in my family, who were struggling with their injuries, couldn't help with the rescues.
The three couples followed the mayor's advice and went to Enfield, just outside the city, where they moved into a vacant home next to a relative's farm.
They were monitored by the relief committee's Robert Dexter, who first visited them in early January 1918.
"Found things in a very sad condition — very little food, and one of the women had to go into Halifax to get food," he wrote in one report. "It seems as though it were absolutely necessary to make an allowance for this family for two or three months at least."
They were given one outfit each and a pair of boots. They had coupons for food that could be used at the store in Enfield.
An impostor in the family
While Dexter was on their side, it seems their file had been flagged.
Laura's husband, Alfred Henry, was known as a freeloader of sorts. His employer told the commission "he would rather loaf than work."
The commission decided "this matter to be seriously investigated before anything is done." Three months after the blast, his support payments stopped.
While the commission believed the men should be strong enough to work, their doctor repeatedly had to send notes vouching that they weren't faking their injuries.
Alfred's medical reports describe his problem as "tuberculosis of the kidneys" and "functional nervous disorder, resulting from the explosion." Nellie's husband had constant headaches.
The sisters had no means to bring in an income. Their three pianos, an organ and gramophone, valued at $1,550, were gone.
Four months after the explosion, Nellie's husband was to go to Halifax to see a specialist from the United States about his headaches. They were so poor, he couldn't afford the $1.55 round trip on the train.
"He is absolutely destitute," wrote Dexter, who urged the commission to cover his transportation costs, which it did.
After months of medical evaluations, the committee finally agreed that the families should receive further compensation. There was a disability payment of $300.
It was under these conditions that my grandmother was born, just shy of the one-year anniversary of the blast.
While the recovery efforts were aggressive, they were also slow.
Aerial photographs taken four years after the explosion show just a few buildings on Veith Street. The three sisters and their husbands decided they couldn't stay in Nova Scotia.
We've been told they saw an advertisement in the paper for explosion survivors, offering jobs in Hespeler, Ont., just outside of Guelph. It was a relocation plan that would provide work for the unemployed men and a fresh start for families still waiting to find a new normal.
In 1919, when my grandmother was a just few months old, the family packed up what few items they had.
Before they left, they posed for a photo at the farmhouse. It's the only photo I've seen that shows their Nova Scotia connection, before my family started calling Ontario home.
Notes in their files said they would receive compensation for their lost furniture and items "when they returned to Halifax." But they never did.