On an early December morning a century ago, a French ship hauling explosives to war-torn Europe exploded in the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia, leveling 2.5 square miles of the Canadian seaport, killing 2,000 people and wounding thousands more.
It all happened quickly, just minutes after the munitions ship was struck by a Norwegian relief ship, igniting barrels of airplane fuel on deck and detonating 3,000 tons of high-explosives below. The explosion caused unimaginable horror and destruction, and left nearly 25,000 people — half the city’s population — homeless.
It was the largest man-made detonation before the atomic bomb in the next world war, decades later, and a tragedy most of the world — outside Nova Scotia — has long since forgotten.
With his new book, “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism” (HarperLuxe), Ann Arbor author John U. Bacon aims to remind the world of the catastrophe and tell the story in a broader context, shedding light on the recklessness that caused the calamity, the remarkable rescue efforts that saved thousands of lives and the inspiring resilience of the city in rebuilding.
“People are shocked and in awe when they hear the story,” says Bacon, who first heard of the disaster as a boy from his Canadian grandfather. “It’s amazing that something this big happened and most people don’t know about it.”
Bacon, whose previous books have focused on athletics and University of Michigan sports, will read from and discuss “The Great Halifax Explosion” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor. The reading, sponsored by Michigan Radio and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, also kicks off a national tour.
The book, which has received high praise from other authors, hits bookstores Tuesday, in advance of the 100th anniversary of the explosion next month. Kirkus Review called Bacon’s work, “An absorbing history of disaster and survival.”
For Bacon, who teaches the history of college athletics at the University of Michigan, the Halifax story has been on his mind for years. His grandfather, who was 12 at the time of the Dec. 6, 1917, incident and lived in the neighboring province of New Brunswick, would share odd details with him.
“He kept talking about this anchor shaft that flew about 2 miles,” says Bacon, who recounts other oddities in the Halifax story. “I had never heard of it.”
Then, randomly, while doing research for his book, “Blue Ice: The Story of Michigan Hockey” (University of Michigan Regional, 2001) in 1999, the former Detroit News reporter learned Joseph Ernest Barss, who started the school’s hockey program, was among the first responders at the explosion. Barss, a Canadian, lived about an hour away, where he was recuperating from wounds suffered during World War I. His experience at the Halifax scene inspired him to attend medical school at the University of Michigan.
“I realized what my grandfather was talking about and he wasn’t crazy,” Bacon recalls. “If anything, he undersold the magnitude of the story. He was in New Brunswick at the time and it was all hands on deck. People were leaving New Brunswick to help. It was front page news worldwide for a week. It bumped World War I off the front page for a few days.”
The catastrophe made headlines overseas, as well. People were used to reading about death and destruction during World War I, but not about massive civilian deaths, he says. The explosion would later be studied by J. Robert Oppenheimer in designing the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer determined the A-Bomb would be only three-to-five times more powerful, calculations proven correct.
Bacon first pitched the Halifax story to his agents in 2005, but they rejected it. Looking to write another book in 2016, he realized he still had the 50-page proposal. He revised and expanded it and pitched it to his new agents. They embraced it.
He began researching and writing the book in the summer of 2016 and made two trips to Halifax, where his days were packed with delving into archives, talking to experts and visiting museums.
None of the survivors of the calamity are alive today, but Bacon interviewed a Canadian author who wrote a few books about the explosion and interviewed survivors in their 80s and 90s at the time. The interview transcripts are available in province archives.
“Those interviews were gold for me, as you might imagine,” he says. “The first thing they all mention was the help from the Americans. Given the vast destruction that occurred, it’s amazing that is the first thing they would mention.”
While help came from all over the U.S., Boston was the first American city to respond and did so without being asked. Just hours after the explosion, the city sent 100 doctors, 300 nurses and a $1 million dollars (about $20 million today) to help the ravaged city and its inhabitants.
Those rescue efforts have had a substantial and lasting connection, including transforming Canada and the U.S. from adversaries to allies.
To this day, Halifax still sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year as a thank you. The tree is Boston’s official Christmas tree.
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
‘The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism’
Reading by author John U. Bacon
7 p.m. Tuesday
University of Michigan
915 E. Washington, Ann Arbor