Time capsule to be 'a snapshot' of the Halifax Explosion

Ninety-nine years after the Halifax Explosion, with "virtually no survivors left," historian Janet Kitz wants people to bring forward their stories about the wartime accident that changed the city forever.

New time capsule for 100th anniversary of the disaster to replace one secreted away in 1985

The Norwegian steamship Imo is beached on the Dartmouth shore after the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Its collision with the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc sparked the fire that set off the explosion. (Nova Scotia Archives & Record Management/Canadian Press)

Ninety-nine years after the Halifax Explosion, with "virtually no survivors left," historian Janet Kitz wants people to bring forward their stories about the wartime accident that changed the city forever.

The municipality is collecting stories for a time capsule to mark the disaster's 100th anniversary next year.

"To ignore an event like that would be like ignoring World War One, in a way. They're all linked," Kitz said. "Countries should try to remember their history — and try not to repeat their mistakes."

The Halifax Explosion memorial at Fort Needham Park is the site of the 1985 time capsule. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

On Dec. 6, 1917, the munitions ship Mont-Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbour, almost obliterating the communities of Richmond and Turtle Grove. It killed 2,000 people and injured about 10,000 more.

This new time capsule will replace one that was encased in the memorial monument in Fort Needham Park, overlooking the explosion site, in 1985. The old one will be opened next year.

The Halifax Explosion time capsule, encased in the Fort Needham Park memorial, will be replaced for the 100th anniversary. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Members of the public are invited to a meeting in January to plan a replacement time capsule.

"People are sort of tickled by the idea," said Craig Walkington, chairman of the Halifax Explosion 100th anniversary advisory committee. "It's a snapshot of what things were."

'More or less ignored'

Even today, people dig shards of glass and bits of pottery out of gardens and find shrapnel lodged in old trees — small reminders of one of the largest non-nuclear man-made explosions in history.

After she moved to Nova Scotia in the 1970s, Kitz interviewed dozens of survivors, most of whom were children at the time of the explosion. The survivors said their parents often wouldn't talk about the trauma.

"I knew nothing about it, never heard of it," she said. "I was just amazed this could have been more or less ignored. It wasn't even in the school history syllabus."

Halifax Explosion historian Janet Kitz helped put together the original time capsule that's going to be opened next year. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

People had lost everything: spouses, children, friends and homes. But some of the younger ones found relief in sharing their stories, Kitz said, and by the 1980s they pushed to build the monument and the time capsule.

"The effect of the explosion is still there among the long-term residents, and I think it's a memory that people don't want to forget," said Alec McCleave, one of the original time capsule organizers.

"It's an event that sort of united the north end of Halifax."

Alec McCleave was on the original committee to build the monument and make the original time capsule. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

McCleave, who lives on Young Street, helped Kitz and others make the first time capsule, built from strong plastic.

The day of the 1985 ceremony, he took the box from a survivor to slide into the monument.

"I go to shove it inside and it wouldn't fit," he recalled. The Fiberglas tape that sealed the box made it too fat for the hole. It had to be sanded down a bit, first. To his frustration, the hiccup made the CBC evening news.

Lt. Victor Magnus had his camera at the ready in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. (Victor Magnus)

McCleave said he's looking forward to seeing what will be put in the new one. He and Kitz are two of only a few people left who helped with the original time capsule and monument construction.

"We always would meet here on the anniversary date, on the 6th, and Janet would say, 'Now remember, we got to open the capsule — don't forget that — on the 100th anniversary'," McCleave said. "I just felt a responsibility to make sure that capsule is pulled out.

"Why not continue on that tradition?"

The Halifax Explosion time capsule workshop is Jan. 7 from 9 a.m. to noon. at the Nova Scotia Community College campus on Leeds Street.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.