This Week in History


Catastrophe in Halifax

This story was initially published in 2001

On the morning of December 6, 1917, the largest man-made explosion before the invention of the atomic bomb occurred in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Imo on Dartmouth shore

Imo on Dartmouth shore
© Maritime Museum of the Atlantic,
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada / MP207.1.184/270a

During the First World War, the port of Halifax was an important supply point for vessels headed to Europe. The French ship Mont Blanc, carrying 2652 tons of explosives, met its escort in the port. Taking the same course by mistake, the Norwegian vessel Imo ran into the Mont Blanc. Upon collision, the barrels of benzol fuel on the French vessel ignited. Knowing the danger they were in, the crew abandoned the floating bomb that drifted towards Halifax.

Twenty minutes later, at 9:05 a.m., the Mont Blanc exploded. The detonation was so loud that it was heard as far away as Cape Breton. Part of the Mont Blanc's anchor, weighing 518 kilograms, was found four kilometres away from the explosion site. More than 1600 people were killed, including numerous curious onlookers. Boats sank and sailors were killed by the huge wave created by the explosion. The blast levelled two square kilometres of the north sector of Halifax and part of Dartmouth on the opposite shore. Halifax Citadel's large hill afforded some protection for the south part of the city, where damage was more limited. Elsewhere, houses, schools and factories caught fire and burned to the ground. Roofs were torn off and windows shattered, injuring more than 9000 people. In St. Paul's Anglican Church, pieces of a window frame thrust into the opposite wall still bear witness to the force of the explosion.

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion
© Library and Archives Canada / C-001833

Members of the military, volunteers and residents of nearby cities came to the victims' aid. With the help of the Halifax Relief Commission created that very day and the assistance provided by several countries, Halifax was quickly reconstructed. The Hydrostone Relocation Project rapidly provided decent and affordable shelter for the victims. This residential district, constructed between 1918 and 1920, is a fine example of large-scale urban planning and is the first group of public houses funded by the Government of Canada. Built using concrete blocks in the style of English garden suburbs, the homes were both modern and comfortable. Although there were various house designs, the district is largely uniform due to the use of common materials and standard shapes.

The Hydrostone District, the Halifax Citadel and St. Paul's Anglican Church have been designated national historic sites of Canada.

For more information about the Halifax Explosion, visit the National Archives of Canada or the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

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