Halifax Explosion

Halifax Harbour, December 6 1917, two ships collide. An explosion, followed by a tsunami and a fire that burns much of the city. The next day, a major snowstorm.

Halifax Explosion blast cloud LAC wikicommonsA rare photograph of the actual explosion. The photographer is unknown. But other photos of the explosion turned up a few years ago. Royal Navy Lt. Victor Magnus was in Halifax. His daughter, Ann Foreman of Cornwall, UK, found his photographs of the explosion long after his death. You can see them and read the full interview in the Daily Mail. This is part of what she said in November 2014:

My father was a great photographer. He always had a camera around his neck… It was just a coincidence that he was at the Halifax disaster. The actual explosion was a massive amount of smoke. He was very lucky to survive, especially as it destroyed the town. He took some photos on the shore and it looked like the London Blitz.

W. G. MacLaughlan, Halifax Photographer

Looking-North-toward-Pier-8-from-Hillis-Foundry-after-Explosion-Halifax-1917-W-G-MacLaughlan wikicommons
Looking North toward Pier 8 from Hillis Foundry after Explosion Halifax, W G MacLaughlan

Many of the images of the destroyed city came from the cameras – still and film – of W. G. MacLaughlan. His daughter, Rose Edna, recalled the day of the explosion.

Just before war was declared in 1914, Dad opened a studio – he was a photographer- on the corner of Buckingham & Barrington, over the Royal Bank and [sister] Bea and I worked in the reception room awhile before she went to Normal College and I to Business College.

I was there on the morning of the explosion- a Belgian Relief Ship and another loaded with explosives collided in the harbour. The North end of the city was partly destroyed and a great many people killed. No one at the College was seriously hurt, although a number of the windows were shattered. The College was about three miles from the Harbour…

I knew Bea had gone to Dad’s studio uptown, so I went down and met her on Barrington St. coming for me. We went back to the Studio but Dad hadn’t come in. Mr. [George] Nason, who worked there had been in the developing room and had his head done up as he was cut when the skylight broke up, but not badly. We were living out at Armdale then, about five miles from Barrington St. and we had to walk home, as everything had closed in the city. The traffic was terrible – cars and trucks taking people, who had been hurt, to the hospitals. When we got home we found mama and sister Marguerite ok and Dad had been a few miles from the house on his way to work. He went back home to see if they were ok and then left for the city. Nearly all the windows in our home were shattered, but that was all the damage.

Benjamin Smith, Hillview, Trinity Bay, Royal Navy

A Newfoundlander, Ben Smith, was in Halifax on that day. His story was told in a 1977 Offbeat History column. Here’s part of it.

The account doesn’t say where Ben Smith joined the Niobe. Most likely he had to go to Halifax. In any case he was in the Niobe at the time of the cataclysmic explosion, December 6, 1917, when the city was half destroyed. Ben Smith was below decks when the blast occurred and perhaps he owed his life to that fact. As he hurried on deck in the confusion and terror he lost his cap, and when he reached the deck the first thing he saw was the bodies of two of his shipmates who had been killed. He thought to himself: “Well, they won’t need their caps any more.” So he picked up one of the dead men’s caps and put it on his head and wore it until the end of the war.

He saw a lot of grim sights on that terrible day in Halifax after the Niobe’s crew was allowed ashore but ordered to stay out of the explosion area. As the men were walking down the streets they heard a woman screaming from a window. They asked her if there was anything they could do. She beckoned to them to come up and three of the sailors went into the house and the woman asked them to take out her invalid mother, aged 80 years, and bring her downstairs so she could be taken into the country for safety. It was lucky they went in for there were so many dead and dying and injured people about that no one would likely have bothered to rescue the old lady.

Men who tried to save Halifax Harbour

From the Shelburne Gazette, Feb. 6, 1918 (complete article at Shelburne Co. Coast Guard). Nineteen of 24 crew members of the tugboat Stella Maris, including the Captain, died in the explosion.

Capt. Brannen’s Great Work

One of the outstanding characters who lost his life in the great Halifax disaster was Captain Horatio H. Brannen, commander of the S.S. Stella Maris, who was making an heroic effort to reach the burning Mont Blanc and tow her to a place of greater safety before the catastrophe came.

Captain Brannen was born at Woods Harbor, Shelburne County, forty-five years ago, and so was just coming into manhood’s fullest prime when his life was so tragically cut off…

Captain Brannen had never been discharged from the naval service and, on the morning of the great disaster, he was taking the S.S. Stella Maris into Bedford Basin when he was sent to the aid of the burning ship. Aided by British blue-jackets he was trying to reach the Mont Blanc with a line in the hope of towing her to a place of greater safety when the explosion came.

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