Nova Scotia

A century after it documented the Halifax Explosion, a sailor's diary returns

Frank Baker's diary, handwritten between October 1917 and January 1918, chronicles his experience working on a patrol vessel in Halifax harbour.

Diary penned by Frank Baker between October 1917 and January 1918 details horror of disaster

Frank Baker, seated on the left with a camera, wrote the diary between October 1917 and January 1918. (The Baker Family)

A sailor's first-hand account of the Halifax Explosion has been returned to the city — nearly a century after it was written.

Frank Baker's diary, handwritten between October 1917 and January 1918, chronicles his experiences working on a patrol vessel inspecting the cargo and passengers of ships entering and leaving Halifax harbour.

Before he died, Baker left the diary to his son, Rex Baker. Decades later, Rex emailed Bonnie Elliott, executive director of the Dartmouth Heritage Museum, from Busselton, Australia.

"He said, 'My father was with the Royal Navy during the First World War, he kept a diary and wrote about life on ship, and he wrote about this horrible disaster that happened in the harbour, are you interested in having the diary,'" Elliott said. "And I leapt up and said, 'Yes! Let's have a look at it.'"

Elliott said as soon as she read a transcript of the diary, copied from the original by Rex Baker's wife, there was "no question" about its significance.

Frank Baker, seated bottom right, was on the Acadia when the explosion took place. (The Baker Family)

In May 2016, Rex Baker brought the diary to Halifax himself. While he was in town, he visited CSS Acadia — the same vessel his father had served on in 1917.

It was the greatest miracle in the world that we were not all killed.- Frank Baker

"[Rex] was really quite moved by the experience, because it's a wonderful record of life on board," said Elliott.

Frank Baker had been on the Acadia when the explosion happened on Dec. 6, 1917, and describes the moment in his diary:

  • "The first thud shook the ship from stern to stern and the second one seemed to spin us all around, landing some under the gun carriage and others flying in all directions all over the deck. Our first impression was that we were being attacked by submarines, and we all rushed for the upper deck, where we saw a veritable mountain of smoke of a yellowish hue and huge pieces of iron were flying all around us. A shower of shrapnel passed over the Forecastle, shattering the glass in the engine room and chart room to smithereens, which came crashing down into the alleyways. It was the greatest miracle in the world that we were not all killed."

Baker describes a city in ruins following the explosion: fires "springing up all over the city" and buildings destroyed, including the hospital, which was windowless and flooded from burst pipes.

Baker writes of "a flaming inferno, charred bodies being dragged from the debris and those poor devils who were left still lingering were piled into motor wagons and conveyed to one of the improvised hospitals."

The Imo struck the Mont Blanc the morning of Dec. 6, 1917. The Imo survived the explosion. In 1921, a drunk captain crashed it into rocks off the Falkland Islands, where it sank. (Nova Scotia Archives & Record Management/Canadian Press)

Baker was British, but had made friends in Nova Scotia. In particular, he he was worried about a family he had met from Hester Street in Dartmouth, Elliott said.

"When the explosion happened, he was very concerned about how the family fared because Hester Street is in the north end, it's not far from the narrows."

Nearly a week after the explosion happened, Baker made his way to visit the family, and describes finding many of the buildings on Hester Street flattened or badly damaged. Yet the family he had befriended — whose identity is not now known — was unhurt. He writes:

  • Their "escape was indeed a miraculous one as the house was completely wrecked except for the kitchen and dining room which appeared to be intact. I was overjoyed at finding them safe and they were very cheerful under the circumstances. This was the only family in the street that escaped without injury, which was indeed a miracle."

Soldiers search the ruins after the disaster. (Courtesy Maritime Command useum)

The diary will be on display at Evergreen House in Dartmouth until January, as part of an exhibit about the impact of the Halifax Explosion on Dartmouth.

The exhibit also features chunks of twisted metal from the Mont Blanc and a shattered set of eyeglasses belonging to a survivor of the blast. 

"This exhibit is about how we do remember, why people do keep artifacts," said Elliott. "It's a tangible way of [giving] the history  — and this case the horrific history — something to remember by, and then hand on to future generations."

With files from CBC's Information Morning