The Current

'It's part of the DNA of Haligonians': 100 years after the Halifax Explosion

The Halifax explosion levelled most of the city, killing 2,000, and injuring 9,000.
The aftermath of the 1917 Halifax ship explosion is shown in a file photo. The disaster levelled much of the city 100 years ago and killed about 2,000 people. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)

Story transcript

"An absolute desolate wasteland."

That's how author Ken Cuthbertson described the scene in Halifax 100 years ago after the biggest man-made explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb, in his new book The Halifax Explosion: Canada's Worst Disaster.

On Dec. 6, 1917, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc collided with the Belgian relief ship Imo in Halifax Harbour, causing containers carrying airplane fuel on the top deck of the Mont-Blanc to catch fire. Below the deck were nearly 3,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives.

As the Mont-Blanc burned, some Haligonians went to their windows, and others headed to the harbour to watch the spectacle.

It was the case of a lot of safety nets being pulled away.- John Bacon

American historian John Bacon says the presence of a dangerous ship like the Mont-Blanc in a populated area like Halifax was caused by the growing anxiety and needs on the battlefields of Europe.

"It's World War One. Russia has just backed out of the war because of the Bolshevik revolutions," says Bacon, author of The Great Halifax Explosion.

"So the Allied powers, Britain, France and of course, Canada and the U.S. are terrified that the German will now plow through the Western Front, so they basically overdo it."

View of Halifax and its harbour as it would have looked on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917. (Library of Congress)

"They are not worried about the people in Halifax. They are worried about the people in the trenches of Europe. So a lot of the rules that would usually hold did not hold anymore in Halifax. So it was the case of a lot of safety nets being pulled away," says Bacon.

At 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded with the force of one fifth of the power of the atomic bomb that would destroy Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.

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)

The force of the blast knocked down houses and smashed in windows, sending glass spears into the eyes of people watching the burning ship from behind windows.

It was simply acres and acres of burning wood and rubble. There was nothing to describe.- Ken Cuthbertson.

The explosion was followed by a tsunami that roared onto shore and then dragged victims into the harbour where they would drown.

Fires broke out around the city as wood burning stoves toppled and set houses alight.

The explosion wiped out 325 acres, obliterating the Richmond neighbourhood and leaving 25,000 people — almost half the city — homeless. (City of Toronto Archives)

The explosion levelled most of the city, killing 2,000 and injuring 9,000.

"A reporter from the Toronto Star, who was dispatched to Halifax, reported in one of his stories that usually when he went to a disaster area, there was something to describe," says Cuthbertson.

"In this case, there was nothing to describe. It was simply acres and acres of burning wood and rubble. There was nothing to describe."

The city's suffering continued when one of the worst blizzards in years hit the stricken city.

'It's part of the DNA of Haligonians.'- Ken Cuthbertson

"The Halifax explosion has become part of what Halifax is really all about," says Cuthbertson.

"It's part of the DNA of Haligonians, and today, I think most Haligonians and most Nova Scotians look back on those terrible days with a sense of pride that they were so resilient and so tough to overcome what really was a devastating blow at the time."

Viola Desmond, one of the best-known Halifax explosion survivors

Civil rights icon Viola Desmond, right, with her sister Wanda Robson. Desmond was just three-years-old when she survived the Halifax Explosion. (Wanda Robson)

The civil rights icon, the first woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote — the $10 bill — was just three-years-old in December of 1917. 

Her experience that day became part of the family lore.  One her younger sister, Wanda Robson, now 90-years-old, vividly remembers through family conversations about the disaster and their survival.

Viola Desmond's sister recounts incredible Halifax Explosion survival story

5 years ago
Duration 4:55
Wanda Robson, who is Viola Desmond's youngest sister, recalls the many accounts she's heard over her 90 years from her older siblings. They were a young family at the time of the Halifax Explosion. Their story of survival is captivating.

Listen to the full conversation with both authors above.

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