Design and Development: Dwight Friesen, Richard Grasley, Richa Syal, Hannah Wise, William Wolfe-Wylie
Researchers/Writers: Katy Parsons, Andre Mayer, Rachel Ward
Narration: Adrienne Arsenault
Illustrations: Peter Kovalik
Editing: Brenda Witmer, Sarah Baptist
Historical consultant: Joel Zemel
Special thanks to: James Boxall and Cam Robertson, Department of Earth Sciences, Dalhousie University; Richard Sanderson, director, Naval Museum of Halifax; Roger Marsters, curator of Marine History, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic; Chris Camp, Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee; Africville Museum; Alan Ruffman; Amber Laurie; Jenny Nodelman; Canadian National Institute for the Blind; Cathy Martin; Dan Conlin; David A. Sutherland; David Woods; Diane Walker; Dirke Werle; Don (Byrd) Awalt; Don Snider; Garry Shutlak; GIS Centre, Dalhousie University Libraries; Halifax Fire Historical Society; Halifax Public Libraries; Halifax Municipality Archives; Jeff Brown; Jenny Nodelman; Jenna Marks; John Zareski; Krystal Tanner; Maritime Museum of the Atlantic; NFB; Patti Bannister; Philip Hartling; Randall House Museum; Richard MacMichael; Sean Garagan; Sunday Miller
A fraction of a second — that’s the duration of the explosion that blew apart the Mont-Blanc and caused such colossal damage in Halifax harbour. It is estimated the temperature at the epicentre of the blast reached 5,000 C, which vapourized the water immediately surrounding the ship. Astonishingly, the impact shattered windows more than 80 kilometres away.
The blast sent a fireball of hot gases into the air above the Mont-Blanc, eventually forming a narrow chimney of smoke. One witness, a judge named Benjamin Russell, wrote, “a gently curving column of fire, of all the colours that fire can assume, was ascending from the region of the dockyard, spreading and becoming wider and wider as it rose in height, but not scattering.”
As the smoke billowed, debris from the Mont-Blanc and fragments of the coal that had been on board drifted back down to earth — some witnesses referred to it as “dark rain.”
Location: Flynn Block, near the harbour
Amid the devastation, there were tiny miracles — the tiniest, perhaps, being 23-month-old Annie Liggins.
Annie’s family lived on Flynn Block, which was very close to the harbour. Her mother, Anne, and brother, Edwin, had been watching the ships, curious about the cause of the initial explosions. When the devastating blast happened, both were killed and their home was flattened.
The morning after, a soldier thought he heard a sound coming from the cellar of the house. Pte. Benjamin Henneberry, whose own children were missing, assumed it was one of his kids. In response to his shouts for help, troops rushed to assist.
Under the still-smouldering remains of the collapsed building, they found Annie — burned but very much alive. She had been under a stove, sheltered by an ash can. The heat from the stove kept her from freezing during the blizzard for 26 hours, and she became known as Ashpan Annie. Annie lived to be 95.
Location: Halifax Harbour
Edward McCrossan was an able seaman aboard the SS Curaca and would become a living witness to the greatest loss of life aboard any ship in the wake of the Halifax Explosion.
Named after a Dutch island (Curaçao) in the West Indies, the Curaca was a U.S.-owned cargo ship registered in London. On the morning of Dec. 6, it was moored at Pier 8 in Halifax, where crew members were loading grain and horses for the war effort.
McCrossan was eating breakfast below deck when he heard someone shout that there was about to be a collision in the harbour. He emerged to see the Imo run into the Mont-Blanc.
As fire sparked and spread on the Mont-Blanc, McCrossan saw its crew abandon ship and heard them yelling in French as they rowed away. As the flaming Mont-Blanc drifted closer, no one on the Curaca knew the danger they were in.
McCrossan said he ducked below decks for just a moment to roll a cigarette when he felt the deafening blast. The explosion wrenched the Curaca from its moorings on the pier and blew the ship across the Narrows. It partially sank near Tufts Cove, on the Dartmouth shore, one half of its gutted frame sticking out of the water.
According to the Royal Navy’s port convoy officer, the Curaca had been carried across either by “the explosion or the resulting wave.”
By McCrossan’s own account in the Evening Mail newspaper, of the 67 people who had been on board, 55 died.
McCrossan lived to tell his story. And it was his fateful detour below decks for a smoke that saved him.
Location: West Street
After the two ships collided, the first firefighters to arrive at the scene of the burning Mont-Blanc were the crew of the Patricia, Halifax’s state-of-the-art motorized pumper fire engine.
At the wheel was West Street firefighter Billy Wells, who would often race to dockyard fires against his brother, a firefighter at the Brunswick Street station, who was off duty the morning of the explosion.
As Billy Wells and the rest of the Patricia crew drew close to the blaze at Pier 6, they had to turn their faces away from the intensity of the heat.
And then the Mont-Blanc exploded.
Nine firefighters died in the blast, including fire Chief Edward Condon and deputy fire chief William Brunt. It was one of the single largest losses of firefighter life in one incident in Canadian history.
Miraculously, Wells survived. The blast initially flung him out of the truck and into a telegraph pole across the street. The force of the explosion blew off all his clothes, but somehow he hung on to part of the engine’s steering wheel.
Wells apparently lay on the street until a tidal wave caused by the explosion carried him up and down Richmond Hill, where he got tangled in telephone wires and nearly died.
According to a 1918 report on the explosion, “He was drenched and almost drowned and when picked up was not expected to live. He did, however, recover and regained his usual health."
Location: Richmond rail station
There were many heroes amid the carnage, but few as selfless as Vince Coleman.
The 44-year-old train dispatcher had just relieved the night shift telegrapher at the Richmond freight station, located mere metres from the harbour, when the Imo and the Mont-Blanc collided. After the Mont-Blanc caught fire, a sailor burst through the door of the station and warned everyone that the vessel was about to explode.
Coleman started to leave, but then paused — there were passenger trains expected in the stations shortly. He was particularly concerned about Train No. 10, an overnighter from New Brunswick with about 300 passengers aboard. It was due in Halifax at 8:55 a.m. and expected to pass along the tracks directly in front of the burning Mont-Blanc.
The dispatcher returned to his desk and immediately began to compose a message on his telegraph key to warn incoming trains. The wording of the message was reportedly, “Munitions ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye.”
Coleman’s message would have been heard by every station from Halifax to Truro, allowing the railway to quickly halt incoming trains and send help the day of the explosion. Moments after Coleman sent the message, the Mont-Blanc exploded, killing him instantly.
Next to Richmond, at the top of the Halifax peninsula and behind the bluff of Rockhead prison, was the predominantly black community of Africville. Its location partly sheltered it from the brunt of the blast, but it wasn’t spared casualties.
“We were horrified at the sight,” said A.J. Goldberg, describing the aftermath in Africville to reporter from the New York Times.
“The platform of the railway station was crowded with wounded people, most of them children. Many of the children were groping about. They could not see. Their eyes were filled with small bits of glass. I noticed, too, that most of the children were cut about the neck. It seemed just as if a keen-edge knife had slashed each little throat.”
According to records, four Africville residents died, including eight-year-old Aldora Andrews, whose house was later described in the Halifax Chronicle Herald as “so badly damaged that it was hardly fit to live in.” Aldora’s parents, Charles and Laura Andrews, both suffered injuries, according to a Halifax relief committee inspector.
The other Africville citizens who died, including 40-year-old James B. Allison and 20-year-old Charles H. Simonds, were likely at work elsewhere in the city when the explosion happened. Fifty-eight-year-old Esther Roan, a respected midwife, may have been attending a birth in the city’s north end.
The Chronicle Herald reported the Africville Baptist church was also severely damaged by the explosion. Africville received a small amount of relief assistance, but was not reconstructed to the same extent as other parts of the city.
Location: Mont-Blanc/Dartmouth shore
Before the vessel exploded, Capt. Aimé Le Médec, pilot Francis Mackey and the crew of the Mont-Blanc abandoned ship and rowed for the Dartmouth shore.
When the blast happened, fragments of the vessel were scattered far and wide — a 500-kilogram piece of anchor was found partially buried three kilometres away in Armdale. The explosion blew Le Médec and Mackey into a tree on the Dartmouth shore. They both survived — but it was only the beginning of an epic day for Mackey.
According to historian Janet Maybee, after dusting himself off, Mackey made his way through the “shambles” of Dartmouth, took a ferry across the channel and trekked through the clutter and confusion of Halifax to Robie Street looking for his family.
He found them shivering in Halifax Common — his oldest daughter was bleeding from glass fragments in her face. They returned to their home and, as Maybee writes, “Mackey installed storm windows over the gaping frames of his damaged house, swept up the glass shards and made a pot of tea around midnight.”
But Mackey’s heartache was far from over. As pilot of the Mont-Blanc, he was crucified in the press — many held him responsible for the tragedy.
He was eventually arrested, along with Le Médec, and charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence in the death of the Imo’s pilot, William Hayes. A Nova Scotia judge saw no merit in the charges and released Mackey from jail. Even so, Mackey had to explain his actions on that fateful day for much of the rest of his life.
Location: North Street
The Halifax Explosion not only led to mass death and the obliteration of countless buildings, but also has the tragic distinction of being the largest mass blinding in Canadian history. The blast shot all manner of glass and other debris into the air. More than 1,000 residents lost their sight that day as a result.
One of the victims was 13-year-old Frances Preece. Frances and her sister, Florence, had come from England several years earlier to learn to be domestic servants after the premature deaths of their parents.
Frances was working for a family on North Street when the blast occurred. Glass shards ended up in one of her eyes and she was immediately sent to hospital. Doctors had to remove the damaged eye and put in an artificial glass one.
In the weeks after the explosion, medical staff did approximately 250 such eye removals and hundreds more people were left with glass embedded in their eyes.
It is estimated one in 50 people in Halifax were blinded or had significant eye damage as a result of the explosion. This widespread tragedy led to the formation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in 1918.
Location: 18 Duffus St.
When the Mont-Blanc caught on fire and the ammunition on board started to go off, Mary (Minnie) Jackson McGrath, like many Haligonians, was curious to see what was making the racket.
McGrath lived with her parents and two-year-old son, Clifford, on Duffus Street. She had just fed Clifford breakfast and settled him down for a nap when she, her mother and her sister gathered by the window to watch the burning ship in the harbour.
McGrath’s mom suggested she go to alert neighbours to the spectacle. McGrath ran across the street and was just about to pound on the neighbours’ door when the massive explosion happened.
The force of the blast flung her into a field in the city’s north end. When McGrath came to, she didn’t recognize her surroundings. Not only that, but her clothes had been blown off and there was a huge piece of shrapnel in her leg. There was also a baby nearby – badly injured but still moving. Assuming it to be Clifford, McGrath picked the child up and started walking around. A man spotted her, wrapped his overcoat around her and took the dying baby from her arms.
McGrath was eventually put on a train to Truro and stayed in a convalescent home to ease her residual shock. Around Christmas, McGrath was visited by her Aunt Ada, the bearer of awful news: McGrath’s son, mother, sister and brother had all died in the explosion.
In November 1917, the Nova Scotia government informed residents of Tuft’s Cove (Mi’kmaq name: Maskwiekati Malpek) and Wright’s Cove (Malipekl) that they were going to be relocated from the Dartmouth shore to an area further inland. The community was jubilant. It meant they were finally going to have a permanent home.
Sadly, the Halifax disaster intervened — and decimated this Mi’kmaq settlement.
People in the area lived mainly in wigwams and framed houses. Some were year-round residents, while others were seasonal. One of the families there at the time was that of Joseph Cope, a trapper and guide. Cope and two of his sons had enlisted in the war, but his wife, Sarah, and their remaining children were there the morning of Dec. 6.
Rachel Cope and her brother were walking to school when they spotted the Mont-Blanc the ship burning in the harbour. Rachel remembered that the Halifax harbour shimmered before everything went black.
The blast and resulting tidal wave flattened most of the buildings in the settlement, including the school. Rachel survived – her brother and cousin did not. While Rachel was unconscious, a Catholic priest read her last rites, not knowing she was still alive. Rachel’s mother and youngest sister also survived, but another brother suffered severe burns and died 10 months later.
Little was written at the time about the destruction of the Mi’kmaq community. One of the few accounts in a 1918 commemorative booklet describes community members “pitifully making their way to [Dartmouth], carrying their dead and injured.”