Nova Scotia

'He loved the railway and he loved his job': Halifax ferry dedicated to Vincent Coleman

A ferry named for a hero of the Halifax Explosion has been put into service in Halifax harbour. Train dispatcher Vince Coleman saved a trainload of passengers at the cost of his own life on Dec. 6, 1917.

Family members speak about sacrifice made by railway dispatcher Vincent Coleman during Halifax Explosion

Janette Snooks, left, and Ann Finlayson speak the dedication of the Halifax Harbour ferry named after their grandfather, Vincent Coleman. (CBC)

Vincent Coleman's grandchildren spoke Wednesday about how proud their grandmother would have been to see the newest Halifax Harbour ferry dedicated to the railway dispatcher who sacrificed his own life to save others during the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

"I am very, very proud and I am thinking of my grandmother today and how thrilled she would be, after so many years," Ann Finlayson said during the ferry dedication.

"Whenever our grandmother spoke of our grandfather, she always described him as a loving, family man, so proud of his children. They were proud north-enders. They lived on Russell, on the corner of Albert Street."

After realizing the munitions ship Mont-Blanc was going to blow after the collision with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo, Coleman sent frantic messages trying to stop a train full of passengers headed for the city. Moments later came word the message was received, but by then it was too late for Coleman to flee the blast.

The explosion killed nearly 2,000 people and injured nearly 9,000 others.

"He loved the railway and he loved his job," said Finlayson, who lives in Ottawa.

Halifax train dispatcher Vincent Coleman died after sending a message to stop an incoming train just before the Halifax Explosion. (Nova Scotia Archives photo)

The dedication comes shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. According to family records, Wednesday also marked Vincent Coleman's birthday. He was born March 14, 1873.

"I think it is quite an honour for us as a family, to have something that is going to be used by the people," said granddaugher Janette Snooks of Halifax.

"I am thinking about the family members who are not here and how proud they would be at this moment. I think it is wonderful that people still remember after 100 years."

The family recognized Coleman's sacrifice, "but at the same time, it was not dwelled upon because I think it brought back very sad memories for my grandmother and my uncle and my aunts. We lost so much, along with thousands of other people," Finlayson said.

The newest Halifax Harbour ferry was officially put into service on Thursday. (CBC)

She said her grandmother and aunt were seriously injured and the family was split up for a while.

"Our grandmother was a very resilient person. She got better from her injuries. She got all the children back together and she raised her four children. She enjoyed her grandchildren so much. Family get-togethers were a big thing with my grandmother," she said.

Coleman's wife, Frances Coleman, liked to travel by train throughout the Maritimes and as far as Montreal, her granddaughter recalled.

"She lived a very active life until she was age 92."

Hundreds of names were submitted in a contest held in the spring of 2017 to name the newest harbour ferry. Five were shortlisted and then voted on by members of the public, with 11,000 votes cast over a 10-day period. Vincent Coleman received the most votes.

A plaque commemorates Vincent Coleman and the ferry named after the railway dispatcher who sacrificed his own life to save others during the Halifax Explosion. (CBC)

Names chosen during previous contests were Viola Desmond in 2016, Craig Blake in 2015 and Christopher Stannix in 2014.

Mayor Mike Savage pointed out that Halifax Harbour has the oldest saltwater ferry operation in North America, and the second-oldest in the world, second only to the Mersey ferry in England.

Savage said on an average day, the Halifax service has 100 round trips and carries more than 6,000 passengers.

"This ferry, in my view, is as iconic as any symbol of our community." 

With files from Robert Guertin