On 29th December, 1950, Cairnesk put into Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the first call of the ‘winter schedule’.
This was my first visit to the city with its huge natural harbour and ‘bottleneck’ entrance known as ‘The Narrows’.While talking with dockers unloading the ship, they told me about the ‘Great Explosion’ of 1917 and the devastating effect it had on the people of Halifax. This prompted me to find out more about the incident while I was there.
In the Fairview Cemetery, overlooking the harbour, there was a monument to commemorate ‘The Unidentified’ of the ‘Great Disaster’ as well as the graves of hundreds of other people killed during the explosion. I was also to learn that 125 victims of the sinking of the Titanic five years earlier in 1912 are buried in the same cemetery. A poignant reminder to myself, as we had steamed near to the position of the sinking of the Titanic a few days earlier, during our trip across the North Atlantic to Halifax. Unfortunately, my stay in Halifax was short, but in that time I had learned how the people of Halifax had seen more than their fair share of tragedy during the city’s short history.
The Halifax explosion of 1917 devastated the port and City of Halifax, Nova Scotia resulting in the deaths of over 1,600 people and the wounding and injuring of 9,000 others. Halifax was, at the time, booming and was at the centre of the Canadian immigrant trade with displaced persons entering from Europe into Canada. The onset of WW1 had also turned the port into an important naval base and cargo handling facility. Its huge natural protected harbour and important railway connections into Canada and the USA had prompted unparalleled expansion in trade, industrial and residential growth.
Optimism was high with prospects for further expansion as the impetus of WW1 escalated and the demands on the city and harbour facilities increased. With the movement of troops and military hardware for the ‘The Western Front’, the port became not only an increasingly important distribution centre and departure point for troops, but also a crucial convoy assembly point for ships leaving for Europe. Ironically, the war in Europe was proving an economic blessing for the city and its ever increasing population, (over 50,000 souls at the time of the disaster) and the prospects for future expansion and wealth looked good.
To this backdrop came the most devastating event in the City’s history. At 8.45am on the 6th of December, 1917, a collision occurred in ‘The Narrows’ between an unloaded Norwegian cargo ship Imo (5,043g/1889) which was leaving the harbour, and a French cargo vessel Mont-Blanc (3,122g/1899) loaded with a cargo of almost 3,000 tons of ‘munitions’ and explosives (Picric acid, TNT and drums of benzole) which was attempting to enter the harbour’s inner basin. The impact of the collision caused a fire amongst barrels of benzole stored on the fore deck of French cargo ship. Unable to reach the firefighting equipment and aware of the dangerous cargo on board, the crew abandoned ship on the Captain’s orders leaving the blazing vessel drifting helplessly towards the Halifax shore.
At this stage crews from Royal Navy and Canadian Navy vessels in the harbour began tackling the blaze unaware of the steamer’s lethal cargo. Attempts were made to tow the blazing ship out of harbour when just twenty minutes after the initial collision, the cargo of the Mont-Blanc exploded in one of the world’s largest ever man-made explosions.
The city was decimated. Churches, schools, dwelling houses, factories, docks and ships were totally destroyed by the effects of the blast. Large groups of workmen, children on their way to school and people watching the disaster enfold, unaware of the impending danger, were killed outright by the effects of the blast. Thousands of others were to suffer horrendous eye injuries, blinded from flying glass, wooden splinters and shrapnel.