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Vincent Coleman: “A Hero in Death as in Life”

For the week of Monday, December 4, 2017

On December 6, 1917, at 8:45 a.m., a French cargo ship, SS Mont Blanc, and a Norwegian relief vessel, SS Imo, collided in the Halifax Harbour. This caused the largest human-made explosion prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Coming at the height of the First World War, this disaster broke a vital link in the trans-Atlantic supply chain, and brought the distant war home for many Canadians.

Vincent Coleman was responsible for all freight and passenger traffic in the Halifax peninsula. The telegraph key he used on the day of the explosion is currently on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax
© NSARM, 230.1, N-6198

Shortly after the initial impact, a sailor arrived at Halifax’s Richmond rail yard. He warned the telegraph office that SS Mont Blanc was carrying thousands of tons of high explosives and that a fire, caused by the crash, threatened to ignite the cargo. As they started to evacuate the rail yard, Vincent Coleman, a dispatcher for the Canadian Government Railways (or Intercolonial Railway, as it was still commonly known), remembered that Train No. 10, carrying 300 passengers from Saint John, New Brunswick, was set to arrive at 8:55 a.m.

Coleman, a local hero, who had distinguished himself earlier that year by stopping a runaway train, decided to return to his post and send one final telegram: “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

The Halifax Explosion killed roughly 2,000 people, injured another 9,000, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, leaving thousands more without proper shelter
Library and Archives Canada / PA-166585

Minutes later, at 9:05 a.m., the Mont Blanc exploded. The blast and the resulting tsunami devastated Halifax’s north end and the Dartmouth shore, destroying the Richmond rail yards and killing Coleman. Train No. 10 was close enough to Halifax for the blast to shatter its windows, causing only minor injuries. All crew members and passengers survived.

It is not clear if Coleman’s message had saved the train. It did, however, warn the railway of the disaster before the explosion damaged telegraph lines and cut off Halifax’s communications for several hours. Thanks in part to his telegram, the Halifax office of the Intercolonial Railway stopped all other inbound traffic and dispatched relief trains, carrying medical supplies and first responders, shortly after the explosion.

To this day, Vincent Coleman is remembered for his courageous sacrifice.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion National Historic Event. Read Catastrophe in Halifax in the This Week in History archives to learn more.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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