What Christmas Cheer and a Mushroom Cloud Have in Common
This is Boston’s Christmas tree. Every year, it is lit on the Common, giving commoners like me the chance to bask in the glow of holiday cheer and tiny lightbulbs. The tree brings all the serenity and charm of Stars Hollow to the bustling Boston downtown, but with less fast-paced banter and fewer roaming musicians to disturb the peace and quiet. It’s as peaceful a scene as one can imagine- and it’s all thanks to the worst man-made accidental explosion in history.
Until December of 1917, WWI had been surprisingly good to Halifax, Nova Scotia. With a large, deep, and easily protected harbor, the city was well-suited to be a wartime port. It had become the home base for the newly-founded Canadian navy, and thousands of Canadian soldiers traveled through the city en-route to Europe. Military industry and the city’s population had boomed. The world was at war, but Halifax was seeing some considerable silver linings.
All that was to change. On December 3rd, the Norwegian ship SS Imo arrived in Halifax harbor, where she docked and awaited inspection and the wartime supplies she needed to take on to Belgium. Two days later, a French cargo ship named the SS Mont-Blanc also arrived in Halifax from New York. She was piled high with explosives that were ultimately headed to Europe- and by high, I mean 584,911,735 lbs high. Because flying a warning flag would make her an easy target for German ships, the Mont-Blanc was unmarked. There was no way for other vessels to know about the deadly nature of her cargo.
On the morning of the 6th, both the Imo and Mont-Blanc needed to head through a narrow section of Halifax harbor, appropriately dubbed ‘the Narrows.’ Despite the growing importance of the Halifax harbor, traffic control had not been adjusted for the increase in congestion. Accidents were frequent, as military ships, ferries, fishing vessels, and small civilian craft all squeezed together through the thoroughfares. The traffic rules were simple and similar to those we follow when driving- keep to the right, and signal your movements. The rules might seem clear-cut, but the Imo didn’t follow them. Instead, she tried to skirt around traffic in the channel by traveling on the wrong side. She was going so fast that the captain of the Stella Maris, a tug boat also in the harbor at the time, ordered his crew to head towards shore to avoid the crazy driver (again, life on land and sea seems to have parallels).
The Mont-Blanc was traveling in the correct lane, but the Imo was barreling down the same lane the wrong way. The Mont-Blanc whistled in warning to the oncoming ship, but the Imo whistled back to indicate that it would not be yielding. The Mont-Blanc’s captain stopped his ship and tried to angle her out of the way of the approaching Imo. The Mont-Blanc, realizing too late a collision was unavoidable, also stopped her engines. Still, the two ships continued to be carried on by inertia. The Mont-Blanc turned more sharply away, and for a moment, it seemed a collision had been averted. Then the Imo decided to back up, forcing the two ships into a disastrous crash. The Imo pulled away from Mont-Blanc in the moments afterward, creating sparks in the hull of the explosives-laden cargo ship. It wasn’t good.
The Mont-Blanc was rapidly consumed by flames, and the crew abandoned ship before the explosion they knew would follow. Haligonians gathered along the shoreline to watch the disaster. The Mont-Blanc drifted, unmanned, towards the city while the crew tried to yell warnings of the explosion over the din of the fire. The French crew spoke no English, so their cries would have been useless even if others could hear them. About an hour after the collision, the Mont-Blanc exploded with about a fifth of the force of an atomic bomb. A fireball blasted more than a mile into the air, forming into a mushroom cloud. Melted metal and shards of glass fell down upon Halifax, and upon the residents who had gathered outside to watch the commotion. Windows shattered inward, spraying glass into homes and blinding at least 38 people watching the disaster unfold through their windows. The tremors could be felt up to 220 miles away, but the explosion wasn’t the end of the destruction. The force of the blast triggered a tsunami, pummeling 60-ft high waves down on to the city. The Imo was hurtled onto the shore, her crew mostly dead. The Mont-Blanc was blown into pieces, falling down on to the city. Some chunks were over 1,000 pounds, and traveled more than 2 miles onshore. Stoves and lamps were upended, causing massive fires that burned down entire streets and trapped people in their homes.
“I saw a man’s head blown off and houses tumbled down all around me and still the lumps of red hot steel were coming. Then gasses and smoke, my one thought then was that the end of the world had come…I passed out and would judge in the ten minutes the shock was over and the pieces had stopped flying,” wrote survivor Percy Harding in a letter to a friend. “Everybody in the open was either killed or badly injured and women then started to run out of houses with children all covered with blood. To add to the horrors, fires then started around the part of the town where the ship went up…. The street was full of horses in wagons with heads blown off and half of bodies, cars and automobiles upside down. The Protestant Orphanage, full of little mites, was blown to bits. The dead must be up in the thousands…there is not a window around here for ten miles that’s not blown out.”
James Pattison was a child on his way to school when the explosions and tsunami knocked him off his feet. Years later, he remembered waking up to find himself lying in the street in a pool of water. “ I remember pushing myself up with my hands, trying to get on my knees. And whether there was another shock then or whether I kind of collapsed again I don’t know. I remember falling down and striking my face on the road, and the next time I came conscious I noticed my nose was bleeding. And there was, looked like there was a shingle nail right in my face. I remember pulling the nail out and looking at it, and wondering where that came from.”
Even those trained to handle emergencies were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster. A firefighter on the scene recalled the horror years later, saying “The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine ... The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm.” He remembered people hanging dead from their windows, and bodies flung over telegraph wires. The fires seemed inextinguishable. Since their hoses were not designed to fit with Halifax’s hydrants, firemen from neighboring areas had a hard time pitching in. The flames weren’t contained until the evening. The next day, things only got worse, when a blizzard dropped 16 inches of snow on the city. People were further trapped in their homes, or froze to death in the streets.
About a square mile of the city lay totally destroyed. Damage stretched as far as 10 miles away. All told, about 2,000 people were dead, including 600 children. 12 days after the explosion, a funeral was held for 200 unclaimed dead, charred beyond possible recognition. There were so many bodies that a makeshift morgue had to be set up in the basement of a school. For the survivors, prospects were grim. Twelve thousand buildings were severely damaged, and 1630 were completely destroyed. 6,000 Halifax residents were left homeless. Many of the survivors were severely injured, and the city’s hospitals were overrun.
In the aftermath of the disaster, help poured in from neighboring areas and from the US, particularly Massachusetts. ‘Relief trains’ carrying medical professionals and supplies rolled in to help the overburdened local hospitals. One train traveled through the night from Boston, 700 miles away, making it through heavy snow to arrive in Halifax the day after the disaster. Back in Boston, citizens rallied around the relief effort. The Boston Symphony raised $10,000 with a benefit concert. Local building companies rushed train cars full of plate glass, iron, and steel. A roofing company purportedly donated enough materials to roof a thousand houses. Bostonians of all stripes banded together to collect clothes, bedding, furniture, and money for the cause. Aid workers staffed makeshift hospitals and built temporary housing, as pictured below.
In 1918, Halifax sent Boston a Christmas tree as a thank-you for their help during the crisis. The city rebuilt itself in the explosion’s aftermath, eventually beginning to thrive yet again. Halifax’s gratitude lives on. In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association (I wish I was a member of an association like that), and then the Novia Scotia Government, revived the Christmas tree tradition. Every year, a Christmas Tree Specialist from the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (seriously, that’s the title) fields calls from Nova Scotians who want to volunteer their tree for the Boston donation. To be eligible, trees must be at least 50 years old and 50 feet high. A forester then visits all the sites and makes a decision. To be selected is considered an honor. The family who donates the tree often dedicates it to a relative who died in the explosion.
The 2009 tree donors
“Halifax Buries 200 Dead.” New York Times. 18 December 1917. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0E15F9385F1B7A93CAA81789D95F438185F9 “The Halifax Explosion.” CBC. http://www.cbc.ca/halifaxexplosion/he4_recover/he4_recovery_rebuilding.html ‘
The Boston Christmas Tree.” Nova Scotia Canada. http://www.gov.ns.ca/natr/christmastrees/bostontree.asp
Senator Donald Oliver, Halifax. “Halifax Explosion.” http://www.senatordonaldoliver.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=59&Itemid=101
Tutton, Michael. ‘The Maritimes’ Team? It’s Not the One from the Other Coast.” The Star. 6 June 2011. http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/nhl/article/1003443--the-maritimes-team-it-s-not-the-one-from-the-other-coast “
Boston Christmas Tree Cut in Fox Point, Nova Scotia.” Chester.NS.Ca. 2009. http://chesterns.ca/2009/11/boston-christmas-tree-cut-in-fox.html ‘2010 Tree En Route to Boston.” Scotia Web. 2010. http://www.scotiaweb.ca/201011163415/nova-scotia/department-of-natural-resources/2010-christmas-tree-en-route-to-boston-15-metre-white-spruce.html CTV.
“Survivors share stories of the Halifax explosion.” 6 Dec. 2007. http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20071206/halifax_explosion_071206/ First-hand account: Percy Harding in the Midland Free Press, Dec 20 1917. http://www.halifaxexplosion.org/iwasthere/p_hardy.html
“Boston Symphony Helps Halifax.” New York Times, Dec 17, 1917. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40E11FE355F157A93C5A81789D95F438185F9 “Helped Halifax from Lean Bins.” New York Times. Dec. 17, 1917. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F00711FE355F157A93C5A81789D95F438185F9