The Halifax Explosion of 1917

remesToday is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, one of the worst maritime disasters in Canadian history. Two thousand people died and 9,000 were hurt when the SS Mont-Blanc, full of a cargo of explosives, collided with the SS Imo, a Norwegian steamship, in the narrows of the city’s harbor.

The blast set off by the ships may have been the largest man-made explosion in history up to that time. It triggered a tsunami that destroyed a nearby Mi’kmaq community and damaged coastal areas. It also left 25,0000 people in and around Halifax homeless.

As Jacob A. C. Remes writes in his recent book, “For those who started in the North End, it was clear from the beginning that something major had happened. The explosion knocked down houses and sent shards of glass flying like daggers, and as survivors started to escape the wreckage and regain their bearings, they had to contend with a rapidly spreading fire, sparked by the flying munitions and upended coal stoves. In Richmond, on the steep hill overlooking the narrows, what had not been destroyed outright by the shock of the explosion burned down. Even in the South End, a district filled with the gracious mansions of the city’s elite and the more modest houses of its middle class, doors came off their hinges, plaster crashed down from walls and ceilings, and windows shattered.”

halifax 2The incident took place at a time when Progressive Era reforms had granted government new sanction, and new power, to protect and rescue citizens. Yet the official responses, including those by aid organizations, encountered working class survivors who did not wait for help but instead turned to, and assisted, their families, coworkers, colleagues, and neighbors on their own.

Clergy naturally played a major role in the aftermath, not just in terms of providing comfort, but in sharing their knowledge of their neighborhoods and parishioners with experts bringing aid.

Yet, as Remes notes, the experts often ignored clergy in favor of their own evaluations. “Henry Ward Cunningham, an Anglican priest, highly recommended the Penney family to the relief commission ‘and advises giving clothing, says that family were hard hit.’ Yet the authorities remained skeptical. They described only minor damage to the house and suggested that the husband, a laborer, do the repairs himself because he was out of work. . . . One reason social workers were willing to disregard their clergy experts was that the two groups determined the worthiness of applicants on different scales and based on different evidence. The Penney family was poor before the explosion and Cunningham probably long thought they were appropriate recipients of charity, or at least with all the money flowing into Halifax he thought they should receive some of it. ”