The Halifax Explosion was a calamity that occurred on December 6, 1917, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. In the Narrows, a passage connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin, the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian freighter SS Imo. A fire on board the Mont-Blanc resulted in a tremendous explosion that wreaked havoc on Halifax’s Richmond neighborhood. But did you know that explosions were then measured in Halifaxes?
The Halifax Explosion was the most massive man-made explosion in recorded history. After that, explosives were measured in “Halifaxes.” The very first atomic explosion was recorded to be at ten Halifaxes.
The Continental Crossroads
Halifax is the closest significant port in North America to Europe. In times of transatlantic strife, this status gave it disproportionate importance. Rail lines flowing from marine cargo terminals into the continental heartland formed the shoreline of the Halifax Harbour Narrows.
The railway, the factories, and the shoreline were all critical to residents in the nearby settlements of Richmond and Africville. This was a historic African-Nova Scotian hamlet founded in the early 1800s. The Narrows offered views eastward to the sea and westward to the towns of central Canada and the Prairie wheat fields. During the First World War, Halifax became Canada’s primary gateway to the European battlefronts.
The rail and shipping infrastructure of the city was swiftly integrated into the nation’s war effort. Hundreds of thousands of service people departed from Halifax’s Deepwater Terminals for the battlefields of Europe, making it Canada’s major military embarkation port. Halifax was as deeply involved in the war as any North American city before December 6th, 1917.
People from all around the world came to Halifax during the war and the economic boom that followed. Many were visitors:
- British, Scandinavian, and South Asian seamen in port for a few days
- Italian and Ukrainian railway navvies
- Nomadic dock workers remitting pay to a remote family
Others came and stayed, including Greek merchants and Chinese businesspeople. (Source: Maritime Museum)
The Relief Operations Following the Explosion
Uninjured residents near the disaster supplied first aid, transported hurt persons to safety, and worked to liberate others trapped in the rubble. Many initial responders were soldiers and sailors from damaged barracks and ships in port from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. On the day of the explosion, six relief trains came from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. As word of the Halifax Harbour Explosion spread, people worldwide took action to alleviate the widespread suffering.
School children and heads of state donated money. Medical assistance arrived throughout Canada and the United States, bolstering local responders’ efforts and offering specialist treatment of severe injuries. (Source: Maritime Museum)
Memories Of the Horror
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic created a temporary exhibit called A Moment in Time in 1987, recognizing the significance of the 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion as part of Nova Scotian history.
The show drew such a large crowd that the museum decided to embark on a huge endeavor to create Halifax Wrecked, a permanent exhibit dedicated to the explosion, in 1994. Explosion in The Narrows, an updated version of this exhibit that premiered in 2019, attempts to broaden public knowledge of the many diverse communities affected by these events, Mi’kmaw, African-Nova Scotian, recent migrant, and military. (Source: Maritime Museum)