Breaking glass. Trembling ground. Blood, fire, screaming and a wave of sound and shake that felt “like all thunders rolled into one.”
One hundred years ago this Wednesday morning (Dec. 6), at roughly 8:45 a.m., a French cargo ship called the Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian vessel Imo in the Narrows between Halifax Harbour and the Bedford Basin. When the Mont-Blanc exploded just under 20 minutes later, the blast changed Halifax forever: approximately 2,000 dead (most of them instantly), 9,000 inured and nearly 2.6 square kilometers of the city levelled to the ground.
There are so many stories to tell about the explosion and its aftermath. In the cover feature of the latest Dal Magazine (Fall 2017), writer and Dal News Editor Ryan McNutt explores the stories of Dal students who, in the explosion’s wake, took to the streets of Halifax with bandages, iodine and a sense of duty, helping however they could.
The explosion historian
At the heart of the Dal Magazine cover story is the work of Archibald MacMechan (1862-1933), writer, nautical historian and faculty member in Dalhousie’s Department of English for many years. Tasked with penning an official history of the explosion, he spent several months interviewing individuals about their experiences on December 6, 1917 and the days that followed, including a number of Dal students.
MacMechan’s history went unfinished and unpublished in his lifetime — held in the Dalhousie Archives (along with his journal, which documents his own personal experience of that fateful day), his incomplete manuscript was eventually published in 1978. But it’s the notes from his interviews — held in the Halifax Disaster Record Office files in the Nova Scotia Archives — that reveal the fulsome stories of students like Florence J. Murray, Margaret Wright, Eliphal Nicholas and many others.
The article also draws upon correspondence related to the explosion’s impacts on campus, including letters sent by Dalhousie President Arthur Stanley MacKenzie. Writing to the Halifax Relief Commission in early February, President MacKenzie noted that “the University buildings were not seriously damaged structurally, except in the case of the barn of the Studley property. The roof of the old brick building on Carleton street started to give way in two places but was caught in time to save the structure.”
The bulk of the damage was in the science library — the space now known as University Hall on the second floor of the Macdonald Building. The large windows were blown in and globes inside were shattered. Students and faculty volunteered their time to help clean up the floors and board up windows to keep pipes from freezing. (The next day brought with it a bitterly cold winter storm.) The total bill for the damage came to nearly $20,000 (more than $330,000 in 2017 funds), and an emergency meeting of the Dal Senate agreed to cancel all classes through the end of term, while exams were postponed until the new year.
The Dalhousie Gazette
"NOT EVEN T.N.T. COULD STOP THE EXAMS" is how the Dalhousie Gazette" positioned the university's return to ordinary business in the new year. The bulk of the Gazette’s January 29, 1918 edition — the first to be written and published after the explosion — is a more somber, sober affair, paying tribute to the students and volunteers working to make a difference after the blast.
“Within fifteen minutes after the explosion, probably every student in the higher three years was rendering first aid, and the majority of students from every faculty were assisting in a variety of ways as numerous as the needs they saw," wrote the Gazette. Many worked with little or no sleep for thirty or forty hours, until the suffers had been temporary as comfortable as possible, or until relief workers from outside the city arrived to carry on.”
Exploring the explosion through art
Looking to learn even more about the Halifax Explosion? The Dalhousie Art Gallery currently has a suite of exhibits on display about the explosion. Visit the Art Gallery website to learn all about them, and read our Dal News feature on Walking the Debris Field, a collaboration between Dal researchers in Architecture and Computer Science and the Narratives in Space + Time Society.
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