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Cover of the Washington Times Newspaper from 1917 featuring the Halifax Explosion
Cover of the Washington Times Newspaper from 1917 featuring the Halifax Explosion

Boston’s heroic role in the Halifax Explosion of 1917

PortandTerminal.com, December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: I grew up listening to stories about the Halifax Explosion. Both of my grandfathers we’re lucky to have survived it. One of them spent three days wandering through the ruins of the city looking for his mother and sister (he found them). On behalf of both my grandfathers, neither of whom are living any longer and the people of Halifax, I want to thank the people of Boston for their generosity, kindness and support when it was most needed.

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Today, December 6th, is the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion of 1917. The Halifax Explosion was a maritime disaster that caused the largest man-made explosion the world had ever known up until the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.

Two ships collided in busy Halifax harbour early in the morning on December 6, 1917. By day’s end, almost 2,000 people in a city of just 65,000 would be dead. An additional 9,000 people were injured and 6,000 left homeless. The north end of Halifax had been literally blown off of the map.

Black and white photo of people sifting through the wreckage of homes destroyed in the Halifax Explosion
The north end of Halifax, which was closest to the explosion was blown off of the map

The ships that collided were the Norwegian vessel SS Imo and the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives for the WWI military effort.

“The town was literally ablaze, the dry dock and dockyard buildings completely demolished and everywhere wounded and dead,”

Eyewitness account

The force of the explosion caused by the collision igniting the SS Mont-Blanc’s cargo of nitroglycerine was unprecedented.

Survivors of the Halifax Explosion standing behind a fence and looking at rows of caskets containing victims of the explosion
Survivors look in stunned silence on at rows of caskets containing victims of the explosion

Mont-Blanc‘s forward 90-mm gun was launched into the air by its force and landed 3.5 miles north of the explosion site with its barrel melted away. The shank of Mont-Blanc‘s anchor, weighing half a ton, landed 2.0 miles away in another part of the city.

Boston’s response to the crisis

Boston quickly learned of the explosion in Halifax by telegraph message shortly after it happened at 9:04 am on December 7th.

Once the magnitude of the tragedy was understood, municipal and state leaders of the day mobilized quickly. By 10:00 pm that same evening, the City of Boston had already dispatched an unsolicited relief train to Halifax to help.

Survivors of the Halifax Explosion walking along paths covered in snow and looking at demolished buildings
Shortly after the explosion, a winter storm struck leaving those left homeless by the disaster even more vulnerable.

The train headed up the coast to Nova Scotia carrying medical supplies and other goods, American Red Cross representatives, surgeons, additional doctors and nurses. Specialists included an anaesthetist and ophthalmologist dispatched to help treat a myriad of eye injuries caused by flying glass.

“In a time when we’re seeing hostility and tension across the world, we’re especially thankful for these friendships,” he said. “We set an example for the rest of the world on how we take care of each other, especially in times of need.”

Mike Savage, current Mayor of Halifax speaking about Boston help

The train from Massachusetts was not the only mode of transportation used to provide help for Nova Scotia’s capital. Supply ships from Boston steamed toward the city as well.

Even the arts community responded and did what it could, too: the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a benefit concert for Halifax in the days following the catastrophe.

Without Boston’s help and compassion in the dark days following the disaster many more would have surely lost their lives or suffered.

Halifax thanks Boston

A photograph of a large decorated Christmas tree in the evening standing in a snowy Boston Commons

The Boston Christmas Tree is the City of Boston, Massachusetts’ official Christmas tree. A tree has been lit each year since 1941, and since 1971 it has been given to the people of Boston by the people of Nova Scotia in thanks for their assistance after the 1917 Halifax Explosion. The tree is lit in the Boston Common throughout the Christmas season.

“Nova Scotia will never forget the support, kindness and quick response the people of Boston provided after the explosion. To say thank you, the province gives Boston the gift of a Christmas tree every year”

Government of Nova Scotia official website

The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources Christmas Tree Specialist has the responsibility for selecting the tree each year. The trees do not usually come from tree farms, but from open land where they can grow tall and full. It is sometimes donated in memory of a family member who died in the explosion.

A large Christmas tree tied down on a truck with a flag of Nova Scotia on the side and a banner saying The Nova Scotia Tree for Boston

The tree travels over 750 miles to Boston, with a stop at the Grand Parade in Halifax for a public send-off ceremony. In 2013, the tree was led out of Halifax by a group of runners in honor of victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

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