On the morning of December 6, 1917, the world’s fourth-largest man-made non-nuclear explosion obliterated the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada. It is estimated that the blast, the result of an accident, released energy the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT. (“Little Boy,” the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, released about 19 kilotons.) In the photo above, the explosion reaches more than two miles up. It is the photo taken closest to the moment after the explosion.
The explosion, combined with a tsunami it created in Halifax Harbor, was the most devastating man-made blast until the nuclear age. Almost 2000 people were killed and many thousands more were injured.
The catastrophe took place during World War I. A French cargo ship, SS Mont-Blanc, was carrying weapons and armaments for the European front when a Norwegian ship, SS Imo, tried to squeeze past in the narrows between Halifax and Dartmouth. Contact was made, metal scraped along metal, and sparks from the collision started a fire on the weapons-heavy cargo ship. The crew on board Mont-Blanc realized that they could not extinguish the flames and that the ship itself was now a big bomb with a short wick, so they quickly abandoned the ship. Now without a captain or a crew, the burning Mont-Blanc drifted with the tide closer to shore, closer to Halifax’s downtown.
The explosion happened at 9:04 a.m. The ship’s 90 mm gun landed 3.5 miles north of the explosion, and its anchor (its anchor!) landed 2 miles (miles!) in the opposite direction, due south. SS Imo was launched across the harbor as a projectile and beached. SS Mont-Blanc itself was of course destroyed instantly, a part of a cloud of flame and smoke that reached 11,000 feet in the air.
The harbor was briefly emptied of all water, but a tsunami, 60 feet taller than the city’s high flood water mark, rushed in to fill the void.
Each building in the downtown part of the city, 12,000 buildings in a 1.5-mile radius, was instantly destroyed in the blast. The tsunami reached several city blocks, far further than any flood had ever reached.
Some 1600 were killed instantly and several hundred died soon after; it took two years to recover all of the bodies of those killed that day.
Most of the 9000 people who were injured suffered burns or were blinded by the blast because thousands of people had stopped what they were doing and watched the burning and drifting ship from inside their homes, their offices, or their shops, unaware of Mont-Blanc‘s explosive cargo. They watched safely behind windows, or so they thought. The explosion shattered all of those windows. What was learned about eye injuries as a result led to Halifax becoming a famous center of research about eye injuries and blindness, which it still is.
Mary Murphy, the last verified Halifax explosion survivor, died in July 2013, at the age of 98. She was a newborn when it happened. There are others still alive who claim to have been there, but their claims were never verified by the Canadian government nor were they awarded pensions for their injuries.
The city of Boston, Massachusetts, sent so much help that every year Halifax sends a 50-foot Christmas tree to the city as a thank you. This tradition had lapsed but in 1971 it was revived and continues to this day.
One of the killed was a railroad dispatcher, Vince Coleman, who learned what was aboard the burning Mont-Blanc and sent out this telegraph message:
Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.
A train that was due to arrive in the Halifax rail station with several hundred on board received the message and halted. It would have arrived in the downtown rail station at the same time the explosion took place and destroyed the rail station. Coleman’s message was the only delivery of news from Halifax to the outside world, so Canada’s Intercolonial Railway management was able to marshal resources and send rescue crews to the stricken city that same day.
Rescue and recovery efforts were briefly hindered the next day, as a snowstorm deposited sixteen inches of snow on the city.
There are memorials around Halifax, including one that features the remains of the anchor where it landed miles from Halifax Harbor. If you did not grow up in Canada, as I did not, this is one of those large historic events that can escape the attention of a pretty well-educated person. I had never heard of it until I was in my 30s and I happened to meet a person from Halifax and he mentioned the “Halifax Disaster” in a casual way (he was a co-worker and he gave it as a reason for not being able to get him on the phone on December 6), in the way we Americans make casual reference to taking Independence Day off or visiting Civil War memorials.
Film footage from that day, in which the fires are still burning, was discovered only this year, which CTV presented in a news article on November 25.
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Until the election of 1848, American voters cast their ballots throughout the month of November in election years.
The only Presidential election that concluded on December 6 is the election of 1820, in which President James Monroe was re-elected without opposition, the last time that this has happened. Unable to nominate a candidate for President, the Federalist Party, which had been the part of Washington and Adams, was all but dead and ceased operations by 1824.
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Lead Belly died on this date in 1949. A 1935 film of Lead Belly singing “Goodnight Irene” at a party to his wife, Martha:
Roy Orbison died on this date in 1988. “In Dreams” from Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night:
Pete Rozelle died 20 years ago today. Holly Woodlawn died one year ago today.
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David Ossman is 80 today. In this 1981 clip from An Evening at the Improv, Ossman is the member of The Firesign Theatre on the left side of the stage:
Pat Gerber-Relf, our WordPress friend Mrs. Angloswiss, who was one of the first “Daily Prompters” to support and encourage me here, is 70 today. Happy birthday, my dear friend.
Tom Hulce is 62. Steven Wright is 61.
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