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The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia sits on a peninsula between the Bedford Basin and the Atlantic Ocean. One hundred years ago, with Canada a vital member of the British Empire, she was a city at war. Every night, submarine nets were stretched along the opening of The Narrows, a thin strip of water that connected the basin to the great ocean and separated the cities of Halifax to the south and Dartmouth to the north. By the end of the day on December 6, 1917, the city would lay in ruins, the result of the largest man-made explosion before the invention of the atomic bomb.
At the heart of this story is two ships, the SS Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian SS Imo, then working for the Belgian Relief Commission. The Mont-Blanc was loaded with war supplies:
- 500,449 lbs. of TNT
- 3,527,396 lbs. of wet Picric Acid
- 1,200 lbs. of dry Picric Acid
- 12,345 lbs. of Nitrocellulose (also known as guncotton)
- 491,630 lbs. of Benzol
Normally, she would never have been allowed anywhere near the basin but she needed to hook up and take her place in the convoy to France.
As the Mont-Blanc entered The Narrows from the east, the Imo entered from the west. Traveling at excessive speed, the Imo had encounters with several other vessels that forced her too close to the northern side of The Narrows, putting her on a collision course with the Mont-Blanc. Neither pilot of the ships would yield. Both cut their engines and maneuvered but the empty Imo, sitting very high in the water and harder to steer, hit the French ship, causing barrels of the highly flammable benzol to spill across the ship’s deck and into her cargo hold. When the Imo reversed her engines to disengage, sparks flew setting the Mont-Blanc on fire.
The crew of the Mont-Blanc quickly abandoned ship but in those pre-radio days, they had no way to warn the onlookers on the shore of the imminent danger. When her cargo exploded, it did so with a ferocity unknown to man at the time — a blast yield now estimated to be three kilotons. It sent the hull of the three-ton ship 1,000 feet into the air. The temperature of the fireball is estimated to have been 9,000°F and evaporated the water around it in a 20-foot radius. It sent a tsunami barrelling down the narrows at a height of 60 feet.
The sonic boom blew out windows and sent debris flying. One of the ship’s guns was thrown 3.5 miles to the north and her anchor shank two miles to the south. All but one member of the crew of the Mont-Blanc survived, but 2,000 citizens did not.
When the city of Boston heard about the disaster via telegraph they moved quickly and did what good neighbors do: By 10 that evening, a train full of relief supplies and medical workers left the city, arriving in the early morning hours of the 8th. As a thank you for their efforts, the city of Halifax sent the city of Boston an enormous Christmas tree. This was revived in 1971 by Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association and is now perpetuated by the government of Nova Scotia.
For a closer look at the disaster:
The Halifax Explosion (The Nova Scotia Archives)