Wrecked homes on Campbell Road in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)
For the first time, Nova Scotia’s annual Christmas tree gift to the city of Boston will make a thank-you stop in Maine to mark the tragedy’s centennial and Maine’s assistance.
On a morning in Maine 100 years ago, people felt a little rumble that rattled windows, if they noticed anything at all. Some in Vermont wondered if an earthquake caused their shelves to jiggle.
But hundreds of miles away, on that gorgeous day in December 1917, a good portion of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, blew up.
A collision in the harbor caused a munitions ship headed for Europe and World War I to explode with a man-made force the world had never seen before and would not see again until the first nuclear test in New Mexico in 1945.
It remains the largest accidental blast in history and the third deadliest of any non-natural burst in history, behind only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities destroyed by American atom bombs.
The force of the explosion flattened houses for miles as glass shards and shrapnel whizzed through neighborhoods surrounding the harbor. Shock waves were felt for hundreds of miles.
Visiting Boston businessman W.H. Walker that morning saw a cone of smoke spreading upward from the harbor, adults with blood streaming from grievous wounds, babies lying dead in the street and buildings “collapsed like cards” in every direction. Fires soon swept through the debris, he told a reporter.
The disaster killed a couple thousand people and left many more mangled, slashed, blinded and burned, creating a humanitarian crisis that caused doctors and aid workers to rush swiftly from Boston — and Maine as well — to offer succor to the survivors.
Maine Gov. Carl Milliken was among the first to reach out.
Within hours, he told Nova Scotians, “I extend to you the deepest sympathy of the people of Maine in the terrible disaster that has struck Halifax. Any help Maine can give is yours.”
Milliken quickly ordered 2,000 blankets and 1,000 cots sent from the state’s military stores, and rounded up another 8,000 blankets in Bangor for the Red Cross to distribute in Halifax. Massachusetts rallied even faster and sent even more.
As a thank-you for the assistance, Halifax has been sending a Christmas tree to Boston Commons annually for many years, shipping them south each November to recognize the charity it received in those dire days.
This year, to mark the centennial of the tragedy, the tree will make its first ceremonial stop in Maine along the way, with a Nov. 20 event in Augusta that will include speeches from Canadian and Maine officials, songs and a reception.
The idea, said Sam Howes, a state archivist who suggested the ceremony, is to remind Mainers of one of the region’s great tragedies, a horrible moment that few remember.
“It’s a part of our history too,” Howes said.
Leo Glavine, minister of communities, culture and heritage for Nova Scotia, said his province was pleased to add the ceremony in Maine.
“This special tree for Boston is a decades-old annual tradition that represents our gratitude for help provided us in our time of need, in 1917, just as the generosity of the people of Maine is kindly remembered and honored at this unique commemoration in Augusta,” Glavine said.
HALIFAX AND BOSTON: TWIN BEACONS
A hundred years ago, Halifax stood as an unofficial of capital of the Canadian maritime provinces, a 50,000-person city with thriving commerce and close ties to New England to its south. Fishing boats from Gloucester, Massachusetts, Maine and Nova Scotia mixed freely on the open ocean and people traveled back and forth frequently.
As the North American port closest to Europe with a large harbor and transcontinental rail connections, Halifax benefited from the extra business created by the war, which the United States had only recently entered. Commercial opportunity drew many to it in those years.
Halifax and Boston served as the twin beacons of a common community spread along the coast from Cape Cod to Newfoundland. They were familiar to everyone in the region.
So when disaster hit Halifax, everyone felt the blow.
It happened on a pretty Thursday morning — Dec. 6, 1917 — in a port bustling with activity, a gathering spot for vessels filled with men and supplies before they headed east in convoys, where military ships offered them protection from German submarines.
The night before, the SS Mont-Blanc, a French freighter, arrived outside of Halifax from New York, headed for Europe. It was loaded with gun cotton, TNT and picric acid, both used for explosives, and benzol, a liquid coal tar product. It was effectively a gigantic, floating bomb.
The next day, the Mont-Blanc got moving not long after sunrise, leaving potentially dangerous open water off Halifax for the inner harbor, the gathering spot for the convoy and a place where submarines posed no threat.
Another vessel got underway that morning, too. The SS Imo, a Belgian relief ship, was leaving the inner harbor, sailing through The Narrows, a crowded “neck” leading to the outer harbor.
Heading in opposite directions, the two ships approached one another.
Criminal investigations, maritime panels and countless others have tried to provide a second-by-second account of what happened as the Mont-Blanc and Imo drew ever closer. The bottom line, though, is that they collided at 8:45 a.m.
Barrels of benzol toppled on deck and the high-octane oil flowed down into the hold. As the Imo pulled away, sparks ignited vapors and a fire began to roar, spreading from one barrel to the next in a hopeless chain reaction.
As black smoke poured into the air, the Mont-Blanc’s panicked crew evacuated in lifeboats, shouting in French to the growing crowds who gathered to watch the unfolding events. In the chaos, few understood the danger.
People on the shore stood transfixed by the scene or gaped from the windows of homes, offices and shops overlooking the harbor. They saw the burning, abandoned ship drift to the end of a pier as the Imo churned away.
At 9:04, just under 20 minutes after the ships smacked into each other, the Mont-Blanc disintegrated in a brilliant flash, blown to bits by a blast that reached more than 9,000 degrees.
It sounded like “the screaming of a million shells,” survivor Phyllis Gordon told The Boston Globe.
Watching from a little distance, schoolgirl Barbara Orr saw the flaming ship and then the burst, soundless at first.
“It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field. And then I thought ‘Oh, something awful is going to happen,’” she told Canada’s Oral History Forum.
The next moment she had “the sensation that I was going down into deep holes and up all the time” and blacked out.
The explosion tossed down buildings, hurled people and debris into the sky and created a tidal wave in the harbor that flooded the devastated sections along the shore, drowning many of those trying to hang on to life.
The scene, combat veteran Duncan Grey told The New York Times, was “a thousand times worse and far more pathetic” than anything he’d seen on the battlefields of Europe.
“I saw people lying under timbers, stones and other debris,” he said, “some battered beyond recognition and others groaning in their last agonies.”
Another veteran, Lt. Col. Good of Fredericton, told the Times that for miles around the site of the explosion he saw “burning buildings, great mounds of iron and brick in the street, dead bodies strewn along the sidewalks — men, women and children — the living with the dead.”
“Death was everywhere,” Grey said.
Whole families vanished in an instant. Hundreds of others were trapped beneath the wreckage, which began to catch fire from leaking gas lines and oil burners.
Survivors quickly began working to save the injured and collect the dead, gruesome work in terrible circumstances.
Jean Holder, who was 6 at the time, recalled seeing “low sleighs piled high with the load covered” with tarps that didn’t quite hide the fact they were loaded down with bodies for a morgue created at her school.
“I thought that all the legs and arms were covered with black stockings,” she said. She realized only years afterward that she’d witnessed burned, frozen human flesh.
MAINE AND BOSTON RESPOND
Within hours, after Maine offered its help, Boston medical workers, already mobilized for the war effort, were on a train north with supplies to lend a hand, reaching their destination 700 miles away in a day and a half. More followed.
But that first night, Halifax remained on its own. That night, a blizzard hit, with freezing winds and heavy snow that stalled relief efforts and contributed even more to the death toll among the injured.
The next day, help began pouring into the city from elsewhere in Canada and across New England. Boston alone filled an entire warehouse with goods for free distribution in Halifax that it replenished for months to follow.
A state of Maine military unit brought 110 doctors, four nurses and 10 non-medical staff to the relief effort. They set up a 500-bed hospital.
It’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what Mainers did, because the archives don’t have much, Howe said. Even the records from the Governor’s Office have vanished, he said.
But scores of Mainers raced to lend a hand and communities across the state collected clothing, blankets, medicine and more for the struggling survivors.
One of the rescue workers from Connecticut, J.A. Meisner of Hartford, told a reporter he’d seen “destruction and wreckage” all over, including a house leveled nine miles from the harbor.
“Not a window remains,” Walker told The Boston Globe.
“Everywhere were men, women and children with their eyes out” because of all the flying glass, Meisner said.
The dock where the relief ship had started off its day, he said, had vanished completely in the blast, leaving behind “nothing but earth and blown timbers.”
Meisner said he noticed a half-ton anchor that had flown two miles through the air from the force of the explosion. It landed in a cemetery.
For months afterward, aid workers cleared debris and worked to heal the injured, among them the schoolgirl who blacked out as the explosion rolled out from the harbor.
When Orr awoke, her tight-laced boots had been blown off her feet.
Though she couldn’t walk again “for months and months” before finally getting better, she considered herself lucky. Most of her family, friends and neighbors died.
Visiting some days after the catastrophe, the Rev. Austen DeBlois of Boston’s First Baptist Church said he was struck by something unusual.
Halifax, he said, had become “a city of silence.”
Soon enough, Halifax rebuilt. But it’s never forgotten the nightmare it experienced. Memorials dot the city, including the anchor that remains where it fell that morning.
One thing that has changed is that ships crossing through the Narrows where the Mont-Blanc and Imo crossed paths are now required to go one at a time.
The city’s not taking any chances.
“No one could have, with mere imagination, drawn the story of what has occurred in all its horrible details. No one could think of such a conjunction of unexpected things. It has to occur before it can be described.
“The only fact that is to offset the awful suffering is the quick response from a sympathetic public.
“A calamity turns the light upon the virtues that are given opportunity to prove their existence. Everything will be done that can be done to relieve the suffering, in which noble work, the Red Cross, as usual, has taken the lead.
“The cities of Maine and Massachusetts being nearest had the privilege of rendering first aid, which they splendidly did.”
— Former U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, three days after the explosion in Halifax
Coffins piled outside a Halifax undertaker’s establishment in December 1917. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)
Destruction in Halifax, December 1917 (State Library of Massachusetts)
The 53-foot white spruce in Cape Breton chosen this year by Nova Scotia officials as the tree they will donate to the city of Boston as an annual thank-you for the city’s help after the explosion on Dec. 6, 1917, killed 2,000 people. (Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources)
The Christmas tree
When a train pulled into Halifax two days after an explosion destroyed much of the city in December of 1917, survivors felt immense gratitude to find it loaded with supplies and medical professionals from Boston who had rushed north to lend a hand without waiting for an official request.
In the days that followed, more help arrived, much of it dispatched from New England’s largest city. Boston sent a stream of ships and trains stuffed with supplies.
In 1918, with World War I over and Halifax showing signs of recovery, Nova Scotians decided to send a Christmas tree to Boston as a thank-you for the assistance it provided during the province’s worst disaster.
What started off as a one-time gesture became something more permanent in 1971 when the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, seeking to promote its trees, shipped a large one for free to place on Boston Common as a goodwill gift that it traced back to the help provided years earlier.
The Nova Scotia government has since taken over the selection and shipping of the tree each year.
“Nova Scotia will never forget the support Boston provided in 1917, and to say thank you, the province will once again give the people of Boston the gift of a beautiful Christmas tree,” the province declared last week.
The province recently announced that this year it will send a 53-foot white spruce from Cape Breton to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion.
The tree’s owner, Bob Campbell, said it “represents something very special to our province and its relationship with Boston. We have been blessed to have a tree worthy of donation in recognition of the speedy and compassionate response by the people of Boston to the Halifax explosion.”
He added, “Our family is thrilled to be part of the Nova Scotia tradition of honoring Boston’s relief efforts, especially on the 100th anniversary of this tragic event.”
A Nov. 15 gathering is planned on the Campbell’s property — complete with drumming by We’koqma’qewiskwa, a drum group from the Waycobah First Nation, and a performance by Cape Breton fiddler Kyle MacDonald — during which the tree will be cut before getting trucked to Halifax.
The tree will be a featured part of Halifax’s Parade of Lights on Nov. 17 before heading to Boston.
It is supposed to reach Bangor by Sunday evening, Nov. 19, and arrive in Augusta in time for a 10 a.m. public ceremony in Capitol Park, which will feature addresses from the town crier of Halifax, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and other dignitaries.
By lunchtime, the tree — which will remain bound to a flatbed truck — will be on its way to Boston for delivery to a site on Boston Common on Nov. 21. A lighting ceremony will be held there on Nov. 30.
Following the ceremony in Augusta, there will be an open reception in the Maine State Archives lobby in the Cultural Building, where people are invited to enjoy refreshments and view the World War I Centennial exhibit that will include some items related to the Halifax explosion.
This is one of many trees donated by Nova Scotia to the city of Boston over the last 100 years to thank the city for helping out after the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion that devastated Halifax. The year of the photo is unknown. (Provided by Maine Secretary of State’s Office)
Halifax in ruins after the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion (State Library of Massachusetts)
Wreckage in Halifax, December 1917 (State Library of Massachusetts)
Damage from the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)
Relief team from Boston arrives in Halifax to help survivors of the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)
Norwegian steamer Imo, tossed on the shore of Halifax harbor following the Dec. 6, 1917, explosion that killed 2,000 people. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)
Smoke rises from the explosion in Halifax harbor, Dec. 6, 1917. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)