The Current

How reporter James Hickey broke the Halifax Explosion story, 30 minutes after blast

Canadian Press reporter James Hickey was the first to file a report on the Halifax Explosion, sending out a 100-word flash bulletin to the Associated Press.
A view of Halifax after the disaster, looking south, on Dec. 6, 1917. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

Story transcript

On Dec. 6, 1917, there were six newspapers in Halifax serving 50,000 people — five dailies and one weekly on the Dartmouth side.

Michael Dupuis, author of Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion, researched how journalists covered the story of that fateful morning Dec. 6, when an explosion engulfed the city of Halifax.

A smoke cloud billows from the Halifax Explosion, likely taken from McNabs Island. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Dupuis told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about James Hickey, the first reporter to write the story.

Michael Dupuis is the author of Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. (Michael Dupuis)
Michael Dupuis: He was a Halifax Chronicle editor. He was also the brand new superintendent of the Canadian Press Bureau in Halifax. His third job was the Halifax correspondent for The New York Times. 

When the explosion happened, he was in his office. The door blew off the hinges. He was rocketed out of his chair. He had cuts on his arm. He was on the floor, got to his feet and his first instinct was to find out what happened, so we went outside.

I mean, if you're a journalist and a reporter you want to find out the news. So he started walking looking for a telegraph wire. He had some information. He went to the CP telegraph office but it was in a shambles.

He bumped into a gentleman he knew that operated a cable company downtown [John Hagan, manager of the Halifax and Bermuda Cable Company]. They went back to his office [with] Mr. Hagen. They scrambled through the ruins of the room and Hagen said, "Look I've got a live wire here. Before it goes dead, let's get a story out."

Halifax Explosion: A city in ruins

3 years ago
Duration 6:09
The explosion levels most of Halifax.

Anna Maria Tremonti: So they literally had to send it over a telegraph.

MD: Yes, that was the only way that news could get out of the city in 1917 — one of the major ways that news was communicated.

AMT: He sent it to the Associated Press. 

MD: He did. It was about a hundred words. It was a flash bulletin. 

In a later recounting of it, he explained that it was done within 30 minutes of the blast, which is quite remarkable to be able to get that out in half an hour.

Willis recalls his own experience of the day that changed Halifax forever.

AMT: And he had just been made the bureau chief of the Canadian Press. It was brand new.

MD:  Yes 1917— in the beginning of September — is when Canadian Press started operations nationally. And there was a bureau, a very small one, that started in Halifax. 

Listen to the above conversation to find out about another reporter, John "Jack" Ronayne, who worked for the Halifax Morning Chronicle. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.