December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion

On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the harbor of the Canadian province of Halifax in Nova Scotia resulting in a massive explosion that ultimately killed 2,000 people and injured thousands more. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic age.

During WWI, the port at Halifax was a beehive of activity. Ships loaded with troops, munitions, and supplies sailed in and out of Halifax harbor to support Allied war efforts. The morning of December 6th, the French freighter Mont Blanc prepared to join a military convoy that would escort it across the Atlantic. The ship was filled with tons of highly explosive materials including TNT, gasoline, picric acid, and gun cotton.

At the same time, another ship, the Norwegian relief vessel SS Imo, left its mooring headed for the open sea, and eventually New York. In an area known as the Narrows, the two ships collided, sparking a fire on the Mont Blanc. Realizing the danger, the crew of the Mont Blanc evacuated into lifeboats and began to row furiously toward the shore. Their burning ship drifted until it eventually brushed up against a pier, setting the pier on fire.

The flames attracted curious onlookers who came down to the shore or watched the tragedy unfold from their windows. At 9:04 a.m., the flames ignited the Mont Blanc‘s cargo resulting in a massive explosion. The ship was instantly obliterated and a super-heated shock wave flattened 300 acres, including most of the north end of Halifax. The detonation also caused a tsunami to roll over the waterfront.

One survivor described a scene worse than any battlefield. “I saw people lying around under timbers, stones, and other debris; some battered beyond recognition and others groaning in their last agonies…I groped about assisting some of the poor mothers and little ones who were running about screaming and searching vainly for lost ones, in many instances never to be seen by them again.”

The explosion blew down doors and shattered windows, sending shards of glass flying. Nearly 1000 people were blinded when exploding windows turned glass slivers into projectiles as they watched the fire from their homes. The disaster led to medical innovations to treat eye injuries and resulted in the formation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind the following year. Reconstruction of the devastated area took more than a year, but urban planners replaced the ruins with a design consisting of homes, businesses, and green space.

Investigations into the cause of the collision and subsequent explosion determined that both vessels were to blame. If you would like to learn more about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, or read more first-hand accounts, search Newspapers.com today!

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81 thoughts on “December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion

  1. An interesting article about an event I had no awareness of until today. WWII certainly ranks as perhaps the most consequential event of the 20th Century. As deserving a topic as it is, it would be interesting to read articles about discoveries and inventions over the last 150 years that have changed the world. Air Travel, Vaccines for Smallpox and Polio, the rise of Mass Communication and the emergence of a Global Economy.
    More subtle century old articles about early concerns over fresh air and water that would give rise to movements decades later. In summary every article can to one degree or another be adequately absorbed at a granular headline level where an explosion rocked a town and thousands were killed. At a macro level it could be seen as a need for the creation or tightening of maritime laws made necessary by a growing population.

      • It is popular to believe that WW-2 was the war that caused the great changes of the 20th Century, but consider a few points. WW1 was the war that had the tank, poison gas, radio/instantaneous communication, submarine warfare, aerial warfare, long distance bombardment, and the precursor to saturation bombing. Second, it was the war that finished off monarchs directing the majority of counties of Europe. It was the war in which, for the first time, military officers began in any significant numbers to be drawn from men who achieved, not born into leadership or who purchased officers’ commissions. So it was the end of being born i to power snd the real begins g of power going, in general, to those who earned by doing things well. Third, as impressive are the great military cemeteries of WW-2, the largest US European and the largest Pacific Theater cemeteries pale in the number interred compared to this of the First World War. There were dozens and dozens of days in WW-1 in which more men died in action than in the D-Day invasion of WW-2. Fourth, the United Nations idea came out of the League of Nations which was born out of WW-1. I could continue.

        What happened is that WW-2 was fought with film cameras, sound recording, and TV and hundreds of War movies made in the mid 1940’s through today. And, it was so much more recent. So the general public of the last 50 years knows WW-2, but not WW-1. WW-1 changed the world, WW-2 continued changes already started.

        • AJ, thanks for the extended history lesson. I’ve had little interest in world history, until now, and so really appreciate your thoughtful reply, and comparison between wars. Very, very interesting.

          • The disastrous Armistice agreement after WWI sewed the seeds for the emergence of Hitler and the 3rd Reich..read Jim Keynes book on that. WWI also created the conditiions for the Russian revolutiion to succeed.

        • Thank you for sharing such great insights of WW1. My history interests have been mostly post war in Europe. I have been researching some of my recent roots in my Family Tree so I do not have time to focus on the more recent conflicts. Thank you again!

    • Nova Scotians will never forget the explosion. Another angle was that the Dominion Atlantic Train was in the station at the time of the explosion and the General Manager who was in his business car “Nova Scotia” was the first to run to Rockingham station to send out the call for help to the rest of the province.
      http://dardpi.ca/wiki/index.php?title=DARSANSPAREIL

      Halifax has another amazing fact: did you know the unclaimed bodies from the Titanic sinking are buried there too?

      • Forget to mentions that the business car “Nova Scotia” is now in the Toronto Railway Museum.

      • My Dad was a young boy living in Halifax at the time of the explosion. Thankfully his large family was not hurt. They later immigrated to Boston. When we visited relatives graves in Halifax aBout 20 years ago, we saw the section where the Titanic victims were buried. After the release of the movie it became a tourist attraction.

      • I did. We were on a cruise that left Boston, MA and sailed up to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick. We visited the cemetery where these people from the Titanic are buried. I believe there are 122 people including children buried there. Living in the U.S. I had never heard about this explosion. We read all about it in Halifax. We then sailed to Bar Harbor, and then Portland, ME.

      • I personally went to the cemetery where the Titanic victims are buried. So sad.. The numbers on the headstones indicate the number of the body pulled from the water before they could identify them.

  2. My grandfather was a 14 year old orphan working at HM Dockyard shovelling coal onto an American hospital ship, the Old Colony. He was just taking a break when the explosion hit. Everyone else in the coal shed was killed. He helped with the rescue and recovery and ended up the following spring at the age of 15 joining the army, the Canadian Garison Regiment, and sent overseas following bayonet and gas training. I have written his story (self published). My brother actually has film of interviews he did with several of the survivors of the explosion years ago. In 1992, at age 89, my grandfather was on “Front Page Challenge” with Pierre Burton, Jack Webster, Alan Fotheringham and Betty Kennedy. He passed away just shy of age 96 in 1999.

    • Thank you for sharing your family’s story. Although so many perished during this tragedy, I’m very glad your Grandfather survived and that his story has been well documented. All best.

    • It’s really fascinating to hear “if things played out differently I would be here” stories! I’m glad he survived both horrendous events. He was certainly one of the lucky ones!

        • My self published book is called “I Believe in Guardian Angels” . My grandfather is telling his story to my son, and near the beginning he says: “ The town where I was born, near Halifax, is almost exclusively of Irish stock. They have some quaint notions, and one is that God protects an orphan. Now I’m not sure if that’s really true, but if it is, I kept my guardian angel busy over the years!” My grandfather came down with the mumps while overseas ( during the time of the Spanish flu). I guess they thought that was what he had. In any case he did not go with his battalion to the battle of Amiens, and many of his friends died in action. His life was spared on many occasions.

          • Where would I find a copy of the book about your grandfather?He sounds like an amazingly strong man with an interesting life – raised a child that raised an author! Congratulations! Can’t wait to read it!

    • God Bless your grandfather. I hope one day you put a film together for us. Obviously the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Thank you.

    • My grandfather’s older brother was a WW I veteran. He had his American Legion pin, his Veterans of Foreign Wars pin, and also the 40 and 8 pin. He explained that they travelled across France with 40 men and 8 mules pulling the supply wagons. He regarded those mules as his brothers in arms and just as important as the 40 men. He died in 1980 at the age of 83. I became a respiratory therapist in a hospital. It was an honor to take care of the WW I veterans. One of my patients was over 100 years old. He had avoided being hospitalized since getting a bullet in his leg during WW I. By the time I retired in 2016, the WW I vets were long gone.

    • What an incredible story and life your Grandfather had! He was definitely meant to live on; for a reason. And to have lived so long too is amazing. Thanks for sharing

    • What an incredible story and life your Grandfather had! He was definitely meant to live on; for a reason. And to have lived so long too is amazing. Thanks for sharing! I would like to read his story.

    • Wow. I wonder if he met my grandfather who was on another ship that was in harbour at the time? He was blown out of the water and was seriously injured. He spent a couple of years in the Seaman’s hospital. Because he wasn’t able to speak and couldn’t be identified, His mother couldn’t be informed that he was alive for years. In fact, she had no idea where he was, as he left his home in Liverpool, England one morning, and signed up illegally by falsifying his name and age. He was 15! Terrible that this should happen to him on his first trip with the Navy. He made it home 3 years later.

      • Wow! What amazing stories I am hearing! Glad your grandfather survived and finally made it home.

  3. The City of Boston sent relief supplies to Halifax and has received a large Christmas tree from the city, every year, as thanks.

    • I think this also had something to do with the way the people put themselves out for the air passengers stranded mid flight when the US closed its air space on 9/11.

      There are similar stories involving ammunition ships. The Port Chicago, CA explosion in WW II. In Bari, Italy, we had a ship filled with mustard gas, intended for use only if the Germans used poison gas first. Ironically, in bombing the harbor generally, the Germans hit the ship; much of the information on the incident was destroyed and the rest classified, so how many were killed is not known. You can have similar effects from ships carrying chemical fertilizers as we found out in Texas City TX.

        • Also in Halifax. I believe there were actually more planes in Halifax. The reason the Gander story is so moving is the population to passenger ratio. Halifax was about 400,000 people whereas Gander had (I’m guessing a bit here) 10,000 maybe. So, even Haligonians tip our hats to their remarkable efforts.

          • It is a great honor (or Honour if Canadian) to have your tree selected to go to Boston for the year. The tree tradition is solely due to the relief provided to help with the Halifax. As for 9/11 both cities provided wonderful assistance with many citizens in each area opening there homes for those stranded passengers. Explosion

  4. On that day, three employees of the Casavant organ building firm were installing a new organ in St. Joseph Church. They went down to the basement of the church to install the wind blowing motor. When they could get back up, there was no church left, in fact no neighbourhood at all! They stayed a couple of days to help with the rescue and managed to find a train back to Montreal with nothing left but their tool box.

  5. Very interesting story of a horrible time. I had no idea of the distance the disaster left on that area. The story needs to be made into a movie for the next generations to see! Thanks for sharing.

  6. My grandfather was 10 years old at the time of the explosion. He lost his hearing in one ear. The family business was destroyed resulting in their permanent move to Boston.

  7. It’s a stark reminder of just how far reaching the effects of war are.
    Just to point out Halifax isn’t a province. The article should say Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. So many people know little about Canadian history or geography, let’s at least get that right.

  8. This is so interesting. I grew up in Niagara Falls, New York side. And I’m 69 years old. I don’t remember ever hearing about this explosion. Like Pat Thompson said, it needs to be made into a movie.

    • There is a made for TV movie about the Halifax explosion. It’s called “The Shattered city”. You can google it. There are so many stories and history in the city of Halifax because it was a war time sea port for both wars WW l and WWll. My Great Grandfather was killed in the Halifax explosion. He was delivering milk that morning with his horse and wagon. I also have a treadle Singer sewing machine that was his family’s That was blown out of their house and went right across the street into another house. I visited his grave just last week to take a picture of his headstone for the family genealogy I’m working on. There are many people who died in the explosion as well as many who died on the Titantic buried in Halifax’s graveyards. We also did take in many stranded people in the planes from the 911 event. My family took two men from Germany in too. My daughter became a pen pal of one of the men’s daughters. They still have contact with each other today and have visited each other, here in Halifax as well as in Germany. All of these types of events created hardships and made history. Through these events, so many humanitarian stories have occurred That will stay with us for our life time.

  9. Great memories from all.
    We learned about the Halifax explosion 2 years ago when visiting the Halifax Maritime Museum. Very interesting place.
    My fraternal grandmothers family came thru Halifax on immigrating to the USA, so we have been digging since on Halifax history on the families time there.
    Sandran Mendes, what is your grandfathers name, and would you consider putting your self published book on Ancestry.com for those interested in reading it? I would be fascinated to learn more. Your Grandfather was an unsung hero among many all his life and should have his story out there.
    Thank you

    • My grandfather’s name is Walter Joseph Beck. I would love to get his story out there. He was an amazingly strong character. An orphan at 13, (both his parents died of tuberculosis) put his younger sister in an orphanage, took his mother’s body to the cemetery on a sleigh, worked on the docks, helped the rescue and recovery after the Halifax Explosion, enlisted at age 15, and went overseas as an underage soldier. After WWI he hopped a train west, met his wife and raised his family on the west coast (Vancouver and Victoria). Two of his 3 sons were in WWII . My father was a bit of a war hero. At 18, he was shot in the arm after volunteering to go ahead with 2 others to seek out where the “Gerries” were in the middle of Holland. He was awarded the Holland Liberation medal. His is a whole other story!

  10. That explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917 even surpassed the one which destroyed a large part of Beiruit last August, I understand — but not by much. . .

  11. This is the 2nd time I’ve read of this sad event. The first was yesterday when I read that Halifax still sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year as thanks for the doctors, supplies and additional assistance Boston sent to aid the recovery effort.

  12. We also visited Halifax and the Maritime Museum. They actually have two amazing maritime events. The city sent out rescue and recovery boats after the Titanic sank!
    We had never heard of the explosion until we were there. So many of the historical sites we visited told of the effect of the tragedy and how the building was used for the injured. At the museum I was fascinated by the collection of glass eyes and how many victims benefited from that recent invention.

  13. My great grandfather William McTaggart Orr was injured and was put on the ship Old Colony. He was found days later by my Great Grandmother. They lost their business Richmond Paper Company.
    His niece, Barbara Orr, lost her entire family and then lived with her aunt and uncle. The Bells at Ford Needham are in memory of Barbara’s family.

  14. My father lived in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia at the time of the explosion. He was eleven years old at the time of the explosion. He would often refer to the Halifax explosion and say, that they felt tremors in Yarmouth caused by the explosion, not knowing at the time the cause of the tremors.

  15. Amazing to see this event being recalled after 103 years. As a tour guide here in Halifax I would go on at length about the disaster. One small correction, the crew of the Mont Blanc rowed away from Halifax towards Dartmouth as the burning ship floated to Halifax. The annual memorial ceremony was cancelled today due to the Covid19 limit of out door gatherings of 5 people. The Christmas tree of appreciation for medical help did get sent to Boston as usual..

  16. My grandfather, William George Hull was a wounded WWI soldier on a troop ship filled with wounded Canadian men en route to hospitals in Canada a year after the explosion. He had shipped out to England through Halifax and said that like many of the men on board who could physically come onto the deck, he managed to reach a rail and to look out at the first sight of his home country. He said most of those men, had seen the worst devastations of war-torn towns and villages that had been bombed in France, but were shocked even then at the evidence of damage remaining in the Harbour and City of Halifax. Many, he said, were in tears.

  17. I only made enough copies of my book for family members. I guess maybe I should try to get it properly published……

    • I came across this thread via Ancestry.com but found it a jewel. There is a family book in my family of ancestors. It was only in print. I scanned it and then used Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to create a Word Document of it. I had to go though it and correct some errors from the process but I now have it in an electronic format. You might want to consider doing this. It will open all kinds of options for publishing. Even for distribution to extended family become easy.

      If the process is foreign to you then ask you grandchildren for help. 🙂

  18. Jim Hiegel, Thank you! I was going to retype the whole thing, but scanning and transferring to a Word document would be the way to go!

  19. j Damian, no the book on e-bay is not mine. Same title, different author. I just made a few copies of my book for family. It has not really been published, although I would like to pursue that.

  20. Aside from the relief efforts described here, is anyone aware of why there seems to be such a srtong link between Nova Scotia and Boston? I have family roots in NS, and several of my ancestors moved back and forth between the two, with several great aunts ultimately settling in Boston. It’s been a mystery as to what the connection is.

    • Boston citizens offered support after the tragedy sending lots and lots of glass. This is why Halifax sends us the tree. Some immigrants had to land in Canada when ships were full for Boston. Of Ny as well, or if the US wasnt accepting new immigrants. And my family used to summer there, from when my dad was a boy in NJ, the climate was much more pleasant! And the gulf stream made the beach waters manageable. As adluts my parents eventually moved ro RI, near Boston and continued to spend time up there summers, at the house his parents build on the ocean.

    • Boston citizens offered support after the tragedy sending lots and lots of glass. This is why Halifax sends us the tree. Some immigrants had to land in Canada when ships were full for Boston. Of Ny as well, or if the US wasnt accepting new immigrants. And my family used to summer there, from when my dad was a boy in NJ, the climate was much more pleasant! And the gulf stream made the beach waters manageable. As adluts my parents eventually moved to RI, near Boston and continued to spend time up there summers, at the house his parents build on the ocean.

  21. There was a very interesting article on this disaster published in the Smithsonian Magazine…. I’m sorry I don’t remember the issue. The Halifax explosion was surely one of the more horrendous events of the early twentieth century. But I’m puzzled by the comments above referring to “WWII” rather than WWI. 1917 was of course during the first World War.

  22. During multiple summers in Clyde River, NS as a teen, that many families in the area often went to the Boston area to work or to shop. There are entries in family diaries that don’t mention current events, but do list the annual visits to Boston. Many local residents appeared to work in the US during some point in every year. My uncle’s family emigrated in the 1930’s but he returned to the area after retiring from the US Navy.

    • Interesting. Now I’m wondering if my 2x Great grandmother may have been Irish and not Scot. Perhaps she had Irish relatives in Boston.

  23. “Lucy & the Hunt for the Mad Trapper” starts on that fateful day. Then tells the story of one of the most amazing women I have been privileged to read about. Authored by her brother she is one of Canada’s most famous persons.

  24. And yet no Canadian newspapers east of Montreal covered by newspapers.com. A Halifax newspaper would be a great addition.

  25. Another interesting fact relating to this article: Boston MA has for quite some time received a Christmas tree from Nova Scotia in thanks for the help Boston sent after the 1917 explosion. WBZ, Channel 4, a Boston news station reported it this way this year on Nov 20: “BOSTON (CBS) — A sure sign of the holiday season arrived on Boston Common Friday. For the 49th time, Nova Scotia gifted the city a Christmas tree for its relief efforts following the 1917 Halifax explosion.
    This year’s tree is a white spruce that’s 45 feet tall.

    ‘We thank Boston for their kindness during our time of need by sending a big, beautiful Nova Scotia Christmas tree. This important tradition symbolizes gratitude, friendship and remembrance,’ said Nova Scotia Lands and Forestry Minister Derek Mombourquette in a statement. ‘It’s also our way of honoring those who have worked so hard to keep us healthy and safe during the pandemic.’ ”

    • Yes! I was disappointed that the story above omitted that significant piece of the story. Boston shipped a whole bunch of glass up to help the people who had lost massive amounts of windows. Thats why Halifax sent, and continues to send us, a xmas tree each year! ❤️

  26. Yes, including many more of the largest papers and more variety of Canadian newspapers would induce more Canadians to subscribe!

  27. My dad was five when the Halifax explosion occurred. He told me about his little brother Jimmy who was a little past one year old at that time who was crying in his crib. He was picked up to be cuddled just as the explosion occurred and the ceiling fell in on his empty crib.

  28. Enjoyed the story and comments, My mother was born and raised in Nova Scotia, Went to Boston to work. met my father there, He was in the U, S, Navy, I have visited the cemetery where the Memorial for the explosion of Halifax and those from the Titanic. THANKS ever so much.

  29. The ship explosion in Beirut, Lebanon’s port compares to this, as well as the one in Galveston, Texas. All are unbelievable in the devastation they caused.
    Sadly, there are more to come. I will give two examples.

    First, there is a supertanker being held hostage by the Houthi tribe rebels/terrorists in Yemen (Their behavior demands this title). When, not if, it releases the crude oil it contains, it will dump it all over the Red Sea, the east coast of Africa, clear down to South Africa, along the southern coast of the Arabia Peninsula, & further. Time is rapidly running out.

    Next is a tanker that sank in deep water, over 400 feet, off the coast of Europe, directly off the border between Spain and France. It was an old, dual carrier, single hulled design, possibly one of the worst in history. It was carrying cement and crude oil! The cement took pn water, sinking the vessel. After decades on the seafloor, the crude oil is going to leak out. The nations involved, and various entities such as the EU, several UN related organizations, not to mention many uninformed, non-expert interest groups and others serm hell-bent on arguing rather than acting, and time is quickly running out. As someone who headed up the construction of the largest oil port/terminals, and who cleaned up the leaks in the Pursain Gulf, someone who has actually solved such problems, as well as founding and operating supertanker ports, and OSPAS (an organization that regulates and controls the movements of supertankers worldwide), I do have the solution. It is simple and proven/ Any objections to it are simply obstructionist, certain to lose a spill that will stretch from Norway and the British Isles clear down past the Horn of Africa to South Africa! You bury the whole ship in a mountain of concrete. This avoids trying to poke around the delicate, rusted hulk. It has been used by yours truly in numerous circumstances, some dating back to the mid-1970’s, It works, resisting even sea floor movements. It is amazingly cheap, and many companies have implemented it. It should be done at once, unilaterally, as it is in International waters, with funding shared out (argue about it later!) using disaster/superfund/military/navigation funds controlled by many of the above listed entities.

    This is a humble attempt to get the ball rolling. For shame, World!

    Me, I am a pessimist. Unless shaming and public pressure makes it happen, it won’t. Sad.

  30. I think both Nova Scotia and the Boston area employed a lot of mariners and fishermen. I know many of my relatives were fisherman then moved to Gloucester, a sea port north of Boston. Gradually relatives and friends followed.

  31. All the comments have been very interesting and informative to read.
    Thank you all.
    I first learned about the disaster in 1992, when Robert MacNeil (born in Montreal, was co-anchor of MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour-PBS) wrote a book called “Burden of Desire”.
    Although it’s a novel, it’s based on original stories told him by his mother, uncle and grandparents.

  32. I never heard about this until now. I’m from Pennsylvania, which isn’t that far away, and visited nova scotia twice.. what a tragedy!!

  33. I worked as a nurse in Halifax in the early 1970’s. it wasn’t unusual to care for patients who had survived the explosion. Many of them had injuries that dated back to Dec 6, 1917, such as amputated limbs and blindness. I felt very honoured and privileged that they would share their stories with me.

  34. If it had been a British or American ship, enough sailors would have stayed with the vessel to get it out of harms way. The cheese eating surrender monkeys hauled ass though.

  35. There is a great book about this event called “The Great Halifax Explosion” by John Bacon. It was published in 2017, the 100th anniversary of this tragedy. Like many, I was unaware of the Halifax tragedy until I heard an NPR review of the book. This excerpt from the book jacket: “…..a ticktock account of the fateful decisions that led to the doom, the human faces of the blast’s 11,000 casualties, and the equally moving individual stories of those who lived and selflessly threw themselves into the urgent rescue work that saved thousands.” Truly a fascinating read.

  36. Go to U-Tube and search for ‘Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion”. A two part docudrama.

  37. WOW ! These comments posted read like a good book. I couldnt stop till I got to the end. I can only imagine how good the book would be to read. Love the History lesson. My Father , unknown to me until I was 17 years old and my mother told me the story, was from Nova Scotia.A fisherman. I was doing some ancestry work and actually found the woman he was married to back when I was conceived. That is another story.. I later found out that my father was from a Boys home in Nova Scotia .. My father was born in July 26th of 1932. At the age of 18 he joined the Canadian Army. Served 2 tours in the Korean War. Was honorably discharged in 1956. His Name was Curtis Wilson Dedrick..

  38. My uncle, Donald M Myers was in the Navy on the USS Tacoma. As a member of the Medical Corp, he and his ship responded to the explosion and attended those in need of medical attention. My family never mentioned this to me (I was born almost 20 years later) and in my ancestry research discovered this information. This is such an interesting story and very tragic accident.

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