Emergency relief hospital in the YMCA after the Halifax Explosion, Barrington Street, Halifax. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Maclaughlin Halifax

Francis Campbell: Tragedy brings out the best in humanity

  • November 30, 2017
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage was in a reflective and reminiscent mood during a recent state-of-the-municipality address.

“Every city has its watershed moments, times that define it, for good or for ill, sometimes both,” Savage said. “That moment for us was 100 years ago.”

On Dec. 6, 1917, the city and its people were torn apart by an earth-shattering explosion. The SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying a load of high explosives, collided with the Norwegian ship SS Imo in the strait that connects Halifax harbour with Bedford Basin. The resulting blast destroyed the Richmond district of Halifax. 

“In a flash, our city was devastated by the largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen,” Savage said. “The people of Halifax and Dartmouth found death, injury and destruction all around them. The blast brought our city to its knees, overcoming citizens with the need to respond to tragedy on an epic scale. You know the numbers: 2,000 dead, more than 9,000 injured, a city in ruins.”

Savage said the disaster could have spelled the economic and social collapse of the city if not for the steely resolve of Halifax residents. “And the sheer resilience of the survivors.” 

Exacerbating an already seemingly hopeless situation in Halifax was one of the worst winter blizzards in years that swept through the area the day after the explosion. But help came swiftly and from near and far.

Savage pointed to the extraordinary relief efforts from Boston and other areas.

Shattered city book halifax explosion“Boston displayed a tremendous generosity, holding various benefits and memorial services,” said author Janet F. Kitz in her book Shattered City

Kitz wrote that the immediate and ongoing aid from the state of Massachusetts is what came to mind for most of the survivors. The state government contributed in both goods and money a total of more than $750,000.  

State meetings were convened quickly and by 10 p.m. on the night of the explosion, a fully equipped train was ready to leave Boston for Halifax. On board were 13 surgeons and doctors, six American Red Cross representatives, nurses, railroad officials, media and a large quantity of medical supplies, according to Kitz’s account. The train arrived in Saint John, N.B., the following morning and relief workers from that city joined those who had come from Boston. 

Along the 415-kilometre route from Saint John to Halifax, people stood at every station, eager to climb aboard the relief train and offer their help.

“Snow and gales also met the train and heavy drifts caused stoppages,” Kitz wrote. “Then, the engine broke down, delaying it even further.” 

About 125 km north of Halifax, the railway line was completely blocked by heavy snow. “When the purpose of the train was made known, every man in the area got to work, shovelling, ramming and using brute force. Amid loud cheers, the train finally got through.”

The train arrived in Halifax early in the morning of Dec. 8.

Financial aid poured in from all over during the ensuing weeks. The government of the Dominion of Canada eventually contributed $18 million to the relief effort; the government of Australia provided a quarter of a million dollars; the city of Chicago gave $125,000, and the province of Ontario contributed $100,000. From across the ocean, the British government provided nearly $5 million in relief, the city of London raised $600,000 and the British Red Cross gave $125,000. The owner of the Mont Blanc donated $10,000.

When people beset by natural disasters or those who are born into immutable poverty cry out for assistance, talk offers absolutely no relief. Action is necessary.

Nova Scotians, people from Massachusetts, other New England states and from other provinces and countries saw their Halifax brothers and sisters in need 100 years ago and answered the call. God’s love abided in them, prompting swift, empathetic and gravely needed action.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, N.S.)

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