The Halifax Explosion: Ten objects that tell the story of a disaster

By , on November 30, 2017


A view across the devastation of Halifax two days after the explosion, looking toward the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Imo is visible aground on the far side of the harbour. (Photo By Unknown - Derivative of File:DNDHfxExplosion-2.jpg. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, Negative Number DNDHfxExplosion-2, Public Domain)
A view across the devastation of Halifax two days after the explosion, looking toward the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Imo is visible aground on the far side of the harbour. (Photo By Unknown – Derivative of File:DNDHfxExplosion-2.jpg. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, Negative Number DNDHfxExplosion-2, Public Domain)

HALIFAX — Across Halifax, a trove of artifacts tell of what happened one terrible day 100 years ago.

Just after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, the bustling city was shaken by a thunderous blast that cut a swath of unimaginable destruction through its north end.

Two ships, the SS Imo and the SS Mont Blanc, had collided in the harbour. As the Mont Blanc’s hull was sheared open, a shower of sparks set fire to its volatile cargo of bomb-making chemicals and ammunition.

Almost 2,000 people were killed by the Halifax Explosion. Another 9,000 were injured.

Inside two of the city’s museums, new exhibits help commemorate the disaster’s 100th anniversary on Dec. 6, showcasing relics that few have seen before:

No. 1: Handkerchiefs

As bodies were recovered from the blast site, those handling the remains were careful to collect all personal effects to help with identification.

Among the many items left unclaimed were the mundane, everyday objects found in people’s pockets. These items included silk handkerchiefs, workingmen’s bandannas and children’s hankies, some of which are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

“They’re pretty much exactly as they were when they were recovered from the rubble in the days after the blast,” says curator Roger Marsters. “They’re crumpled, they’re dirty, they’re rough … Every one of those has a story.”

One of the cotton handkerchiefs belonged to a girl, believed to be about 10 years old. She was identified as No. 256, with “light complexion” and “long dark hair.” She was wearing a dark dress with a red and black striped apron, and a light flannel petticoat.

No. 2: Prosthetic eyes.

As the Mont Blanc burned in Halifax harbour, hundreds of people watched the spectacle, unaware that the vessel was a floating time bomb.

When it exploded, the resulting shock wave blew out windows across the city, blinding hundreds of people.

About a dozen ophthalmologists treated 592 people suffering from eye injuries, which included performing 249 eye removals.

As part of its exhibit, the museum is displaying a unnerving collection of hand-painted prosthetic eyes, on loan from the Medical History Society of Nova Scotia.

No. 3: Vince Coleman’s possessions

After the Imo and Mont Blanc collided, the burning munitions ship drifted toward Pier 6, only 100 metres from where Vince Coleman was working as a telegraph dispatcher for the railway.

When he learned of its deadly cargo, he stayed at his post and transmitted messages warning approaching trains to stay clear of Halifax.

“Coleman knew that if the trains proceeded beyond that point on the narrows, they would be imperilled,” says Marsters. “He was instrumental in getting news of the explosion out to the broader world, and he died in the attempt.”

Among the items on display are Coleman’s watch, pen, wallet and his telegraph key.

No. 4: Twisted metal chunks

To understand the immense power of the explosion, one need only look to some of the huge pieces of twisted metal strewn across the city.

“They cut swaths through everything ahead of them,” says Marsters, recalling accounts of flaming pieces of metal raining down on the city, some of them the size of small cars.

Inside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, there is a large piece of hull plating from the Mont Blanc. At more than a metre long, it is so warped by intense heat that it looks like a piece of discarded modern art.

No. 5: Stopped watch

It was a Thursday morning, and the weather was clear at 8:45 a.m. when the SS Imo left the Bedford Basin, headed for New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium.

As it entered the narrowest part of Halifax harbour, it was met by the SS Mont Blanc, headed in the opposite direction.

When the two ships collided, the Imo’s bow tore into the Mont Blanc, sparking a fire and a catastrophic explosion.

The blast stopped many clocks at precisely 9:04 a.m., including one found mangled among rubble.

No. 6: Flying fragments

In the north end of Halifax and directly across the harbour in Dartmouth, gardeners have long harvested an unusual crop linked to the Halifax Explosion.

“Every year in the springtime, the frost heaves up pieces of the Mont Blanc,” says Marsters. “We get new offers of donations every year.”

The twisted pieces of metal also turn up in more unusual places.

During the recent renovation of a home in the city’s Armdale neighbourhood, several kilometres away from the blast site, contractors removing old siding found a piece of the Mont Blanc embedded in the wall.

No. 7: Photo album

One of the most important records of the Halifax Explosion can be found inside the Naval Museum of Halifax, which is also know as Admiralty House.

Original photos of the devastation and rebuilding efforts, taken by Col. Robert Lowe of Ottawa, have been collected in one remarkable album.

The stark, black-and-white pictures show shattered and burned homes, wrecked factories and crowds of soldiers, relief workers and residents searching for survivors and bodies amid twisted metal and wooden heaps covered in snow.

No. 8: Mortuary Bags

Halifax was no stranger to disasters by the early 1900s. Shipwrecks were common, as were deadly fires and coal mining calamities.

After RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, the city became the main destination for the 700 survivors and the hundreds of bodies found adrift at sea.

At the time, the local funeral homes developed a system for identifying victims, which included the collection of personal effects in so-called mortuary bags, all of which were numbered and carefully catalogued.

This system was also used after the Halifax Explosion.

No. 9: Diver’s helmet and medal

At the moment the massive blast wrecked Halifax’s north end, two Royal Canadian Navy divers were not far away, working under the water near the warship HMCS Niobe.

Wearing large, metal helmets and heavy boots, these “hard-hat divers” each relied on a crew of men at the surface to operate their air pumps.

Despite a blast-driven tsunami, Chief-Master-at-Arms John Thomas Gammon and a colleague worked under extreme conditions to rescue the two men.

For his devotion to duty, Gammon was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire, and his medal is on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

No. 10: Damaged beam

At the Naval Museum of Halifax, a new display includes a number of recently unearthed artifacts, some of which were gathered from the grounds of the stately old building.

“The building was devastated,” says Richard Sanderson, the museum’s director. “All the windows were blown out.”

Eventually, the top floor was rebuilt, but some of the damaged timbers in the attic were simply left behind in a heap.

Earlier this year, one of those pieces of wood was hauled from under the eaves and put on display in the museum.