Halifax Explosion: The Deadliest Blast Which Killed 2000 People and Destroyed Half of the City in 1917

Every city has a history woven with tales of development, struggle, and occasionally, disaster. Halifax, a quiet, picturesque town in Canada, harbors one such tragic event deep within its past: The Halifax Explosion. A catastrophe that rocked not only the city, but also the world, with its extent and consequences. The incident marked a devastating day in human history.

The Cause: A Collision that Sealed the Fate

The morning of December 6, 1917, started like any other for the residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia, until the calm was shattered by a catastrophic event. The cause? A disastrous collision in the Halifax Harbor between two ships: The SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with wartime explosives, and the SS Imo, a Norwegian vessel.

The Mont-Blanc was fully loaded with a deadly cocktail of explosives, including TNT, picric acid, guncotton, and benzol, intended for the war efforts in Europe during World War I. The Imo, running late and moving at a high speed, collided with the Mont-Blanc in the narrowest part of the harbor, setting off a spark that ignited the benzol stored on the deck of the Mont-Blanc.

The crew of the Mont-Blanc, realizing the inevitable catastrophic consequence, abandoned the ship and fled to the nearby shores, warning as many people as they could. But the imminent disaster was not understood by many, and curious onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle of the burning ship.

Approximately 20 minutes later, the unthinkable happened: the burning Mont-Blanc exploded.

The Explosion: Catastrophe Unleashed

The Halifax explosion was the largest man-made explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons, releasing energy equivalent to about 2.9 kilotons of TNT. The blast wave radiated across the harbor and the city, instantly flattening over 2 square kilometers of the city, reducing buildings, homes, factories, and ships to rubble.

The casualties were unprecedented. More than 1,900 people were instantly killed, and an estimated 9,000 were injured, many severely. Approximately 25,000 residents, almost half of Halifax’s population, were left without adequate shelter. Additionally, a tsunami created by the explosion wiped out Mi’kmaq First Nation people who had lived in the Tufts Cove area for generations.

Aftermath: Rising from the Ashes

In the aftermath of the explosion, Halifax was a city in ruins. But amidst the tragedy, stories of resilience, heroism, and humanity emerged. Rescue teams, medical personnel, and volunteers from across Nova Scotia and neighboring provinces and states rushed to provide relief.

Telegraph operator Vince Coleman, realizing the impending disaster, chose to stay behind to warn an incoming passenger train, saving countless lives, but losing his own in the process. His story is just one of the many tales of bravery that day.

In the years that followed, Halifax faced the monumental task of rebuilding. Reconstruction efforts were funded by Canadian government assistance and international aid, including a significant donation from Boston, which sends a Christmas tree to Halifax each year to this day as a symbol of their continued friendship.

The city gradually reconstructed itself, rebuilding structures, communities, and lives, transforming the scarred cityscape into a vibrant and bustling city once again. Today, the Halifax Explosion is remembered through various memorials scattered around the city, and the incident remains a significant part of the city’s rich history.

Here are some rare historical photographs that depict the intensity and the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion.

#1 The badly burned legs of a young child caught in the fire.

#2 Crushed hens struggle for air inside of a ruined hen house.

#3 A massive smoke cloud ripples upward above the Halifax Explosion. December 6, 1917

#4 Soldiers move onto the scene, trying to rescue anyone they can from under the rubble and debris.

#6 American Red Cross workers help carry a wounded man to a makeshift hospital set up nearby.

#7 A tent city set up for the survivors of the explosion.

#8 Volunteers tend to the wounded inside of a makeshift hospital set up in a commercial building.

#9 A child, injured in the explosion, recuperates in a hospital bed.

#10 Women from Africville, the black district of Halifax, make their way through the rubble.

#12 A pair of boats starts to move once more amid the devastation of Halifax Harbor.

#13 The ruined heap of the SS Imo, one of the ships that caused the explosion, lies lifelessly in the water.

#14 St. Joseph’s Convent, a church and a school, in ruins after the devastation.

#15 Rescue workers sift through the debris and devastation.

#16 Two women look at the debris, hoping something of the life that went up in flames can still be recovered.

#18 A Knights of Columbus building has been converted into a hospital to manage the massive numbers of wounded poeple.

#19 Nurses help the wounded inside of a temporary hospital.

#22 Workers sift through the ruins of peoples’ homes.

#24 Caskets for the recovered dead are laid out for burial.

#25 A crowd gathers to watch the funeral for the 2,000 who died in their city.

#27 The people of Halifax start to rebuild their city.

#28 Ambulance for Injured after Harbor Explosion, 1917.

#29 Residents of the city removing as many salvageable goods as possible, 1917.

#30 Large House standing after Halifax Explosion, 1917.

#31 Trucks and vans unloading their supplies at the railroad yards at Hudson River, and transferring them into cars of relief train for Halifax.

#33 Crowd searching the ruins after the Halifax eplosion, 1917.

#34 General view of the remains of the explosion at Halifax.

#36 Residents of the city are housed in this tented city on the North Common of Halifax.

#38 Tufts Cove School, located in the nearby city of Dartmouth, is every bit as destroyed as the homes in Halifax.

#39 The aftermath of the collision between a Belgian relief vessel and a French munitions carrier in Halifax.

#40 Two survivors sift through the ruins of what was once their home.

#41 Farther from the harbor, the homes of Halifax lay in ruins.

#42 Everything within a half-mile of the explosion was completely obliterated. December 6, 1917

#43 A family stands vigil over their wounded child’s bed.

A family stands vigil over their wounded child's bed.

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#44 The Army and Navy Brewery company after being torn in half by the blast.

The Army and Navy Brewery company after being torn in half by the blast.

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Written by Benjamin Grayson

Former Bouquet seller now making a go with blogging and graphic designing. I love creating & composing history articles and lists.

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  1. A radio operator called Vince Coleman warned an incoming train to stop despite knowing that it probably meant his death so that the death toll would have been much higher. In his last message, he said, “Hold up the train. There is a fire on the ammunition ship in the harbor. It’s going to explode. Bye, boys.” Not only did the warning stop the train, but it also alerted others and led to faster emergency response, saving more lives. He deserves to be remembered.

  2. People on the streets died of the bitter cold. Frozen bodies were found on the streets. It was a terrible time in my city’s history. Steel pieces can still be found miles up the coast line from the explosion. A lot of them have been left as monuments.

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