The massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut that killed at least 160 people and caused billions of dollars of damage was a shocking tragedy. But it wasn’t the first time that a city had been rocked by an unbelievable blast.
“When you see the beautiful and vibrant city of Halifax today, it is almost hard to imagine the devastation of the explosion that took place on Dec. 6, 1917,” says Michele Bourgeois of Discover Halifax. The disaster in the Nova Scotian port city left nearly 2,000 dead and more than 9,000 injured.
“I’ve seen comments on social media and through some news outlets making the connection between the tragedy in Beirut and the Halifax explosion,” Bourgeois says. “Halifax has a strong Lebanese community, so it certainly rings true, even if the events happened 100-plus years apart.”
One Facebook post in particular stood out to Bourgeois: “There’s nobody in Halifax that didn’t see the Beirut explosion and didn’t think of our own,” the post read. “There’s nobody in Halifax that doesn’t know someone from Lebanon. I hope we can be the helpers everyone looks for.”
The blast in Halifax Harbor
Halifax is mainland North America’s closest large port to Europe, and during World War I, the city’s importance and activity were multiplied.
On that frosty December morning, it was a traffic jam in the entry to the Halifax harbor that led to the explosion. A ship from Norway, the Imo, crossed the path of a French steamship, the Mont-Blanc, resulting in a minor collision, which caused a small fire on the deck.
While the Imo was headed to New York to pick up food and clothes for the people of occupied Belgium, the Mont-Blanc was loaded with high explosives below decks—and barrels of airplane fuel on top. As the fire burned on the deck of the steamship for some 20 minutes, residents and school children gathered on the shoreline to watch. Then, at 9:04 a.m., a fuel barrel caught fire and burst, igniting the munitions below.
The subsequent blast pushed air, water, fuel, and debris outwards, wrecking buildings, wharves, and railroads. Shards of the ship were propelled as far as five miles, and 12,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Many visitors to Halifax learn about the century-old explosion for the first time, according to Bourgeois. “Working at Tourism Nova Scotia for 27 years and nearly seven at Discover Halifax, I have accompanied trade and media on a fair number of city tours, and when they hear the story, ‘I had no idea’ is a common remark,” she says. “The history and stories really come to life, though, when a group takes a city tour with a local guide, such as (NTA member) Atlantic Tours.”
There are several sites in and around the city where visitors can gather details and grasp the enormity of the explosion.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Canada’s oldest and largest maritime museum features a comprehensive permanent exhibit devoted to the fateful event. “Explosion in The Narrows,” updated in 2019, expands the story of the blast and describes its effect on diverse communities: the Mi’kmaw (First Nations), African-Nova Scotian, migrant, and military.
Memorial Bell Tower/Fort Needham Memorial Park
Fort Needham is a hilltop public park overlooking the North End neighborhood, which was completely devastated by the explosion. The Memorial Bell Tower monument honors those who died and were injured, and it’s the site of a memorial service every year on Dec. 6. “Working downtown, I feel like you can almost sense the city stop at that moment on the clock to mark the event,” Bourgeois says.
Saint Paul’s Anglican Church
The oldest building in Halifax (erected in 1750) didn’t come away completely unscathed: An iron spike that the explosion embedded in the inner doorway is still there today. Another feature is more of a legend, according to Bourgeois. “As the story is told, a church deacon was standing in front of a window when the explosion occurred, and the intensity of the heat from the explosion seared his profile into the windowpane,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure if this is factual, but you can certainly see what appears to be a profile in the church window.”
The Mont-Blanc’s cannon and anchor
The 1,200-pound cannon from the Mont-Blanc was sent two miles from the harbor, landing in the Albro Lake area of Dartmouth. The ship’s anchor shaft, also weighing more than a half-ton, was hurtled even farther in the opposite direction of the cannon. A piece of the anchor and a small monument are located in the residential area (appropriately named Anchor Drive).
When they tour the city and visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, visitors can learn not only about Halifax’s tragic explosion, but also the heroism and recovery that followed. What they’ll also find out is that the city and its residents played a significant role in another seafaring disaster five and a half years earlier: In 1912, those who survived the sinking of the Titanic went to New York, but all who perished were taken to Halifax.
It is the blast in Beirut that has reminded many of long-ago loss in Halifax. Even though the events are half a world and a century apart, Bourgeois has reason to expect that memories of both explosions will endure.
“The stories of the survivors and of those that were lost are as compelling now as they were over 100 years ago,” she says.
For more information, email Bourgeois or go to discoverhalifaxns.com. Also, you can take a look at a silent, black-and-white video, taken the day after the Halifax explosion, which shows the city’s devastation and the relief efforts that were hampered by a blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow.
Top photo: Taken on the day of the explosion, Dec. 6, 1917.
Photo by Nova Scotia Archive