Excerpt from ‘The Great Halifax Explosion’

John U. Bacon
Author John U. Bacon has written “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism.”

If you ask most Americans who their country’s biggest trading partner is, you’re likely to hear China, Japan, Germany, or Mexico. But the answer is Canada, by a long shot — and it has been for decades.

Almost $500 million in trade passes through the Ambassador Bridge alone — every day. Relations between the two countries have been so friendly for so long that until 9/11, you could cross the border carrying only your driver’s license, and sometimes not even that. It is the world’s longest undefended border.

But it has not always been this way. For the United States’ first 141 years, its relationship with Canada had been frought with distrust, subterfuge, and occasional violence. What changed? The answer harkens back a century to the world’s biggest manmade explosion to that point in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Americans’ response to it.

Before 1917, the two countries could hardly be called allies. The Revolutionary War pushed some 60,000 United Empire Loyalists from New England to Eastern Canada with hard feelings. During the War of 1812, one of Nova Scotia’s favorite sons, Joseph Barss Jr., returned the favor by capturing, sinking, or burning more than 60 American ships, making him the most wanted man in New England. During the Civil War, Canadians were divided on the issue, and remained officially neutral.

For the Americans’ part, when the U.S. Speaker of the House took the floor of Congress in 1911 to advocate annexing Canada, his speech received warm applause. The Americans had even come close to doing the job themselves a few times over the previous century.

New book details 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia, explosion

But all that changed just six years later. On the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917, the captain and crew of a French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc were eager to reach the safety of Halifax Harbour — and with good reason. Five days earlier a crew of stevedores in Brooklyn had finished loading her with a staggering 6 million pounds of high-explosives, 13-times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. The touchy cargo was headed for France, where it would be packed in shells and fired on Germans to break the Great War’s three-year stalemate.

A Norwegian relief ship named Imo was just as eager to go in the opposite direction to New York to get supplies. At Halifax Harbour’s narrowest stretch, the two ships played a dangerous game of chicken. At 8:46 a.m., Imo struck Mont-Blanc’s bow, igniting barrels of airplane fuel on deck. Mont-Blanc’s crew escaped on lifeboats, while Halifax’s workers and schoolchildren watched the ghost ship slip perfectly into Pier 6.

A sailor who learned about the cargo busted into the train dispatcher’s office, right above Pier 6. “Everybody out!” he shouted. “Run like hell! Commander says that bloody ship is loaded with tons of explosives and she’ll blow up for certain.”

Train dispatcher Vincent Coleman ordered his staff to run and led the way until he remembered the overnight express train was scheduled to arrive right by Pier 6 in just a few minutes, with 300 passengers. He stopped, turned back toward his office, and rattled off an urgent telegraph, hoping to stop the train before it arrived.

Coleman’s telegram, sent at 8:49, marked the first word to anyone outside Halifax of potential trouble ahead. But he didn’t know whether his message had been received, if it was passed on to the appropriate people, or if it would do anyone any good. But he was pretty sure it would be his last.

“Hold up the train,” he wrote. “Ammunition ship afire in harbour

making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye, boys.”

At 9:04:35, Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling almost half of Halifax, rendering 25,000 people homeless, wounding 9,000, and killing 2,000 more—all in one-fifteenth of a second, less time than it takes to blink. J. Robert Oppenheimer later calculated the first atomic bomb would be only five times more powerful.

As Coleman had predicted, the blast killed him, but his message sparked a series of telegrams that had spread to Montreal, Boston, New York, and Ottawa. All quickly rushed to help, but none more so than Boston, which sent two trains and two ships filled with some 100 doctors, 300 nurses, and supplies worth about $20 million today.

A mushroom cloud over Halifax could be seen for miles after the explosion.

The city of Chicago, which had survived its famous fire forty-six years earlier, sent $250,000. Mayor Thomson said, “Halifax had been among the first to assist after the 1871 fire so Chicago should return her kindness.”

Sometimes the kindness arrived in person. As soon as he heard about the catastrophe, Dr. C.C. Hubly, a native Haligonian who worked for the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan, run by the same Kellogg brothers who invented cornflakes, boarded a train with his secretary, Mr. Smith. Three days later the two were making unsolicited house calls in the poorest parts of the city, working every waking hour for a week.

Some seven decades later an interviewer noticed the first thing aging survivors mentioned was the “instant and unstinting aid from the State of Massachusetts.”

Joseph Ernest Barss, the great-grandson of Canada’s deadliest privateer, had been wounded in the Great War and returned to Nova Scotia to recover. When Mont-Blanc exploded, he put his First Aid experience to use for three sleepless days before being relieved by medics from the United States.

“I tell you we’ll never be able to say enough about the wonderful help the States have sent,” he wrote his uncle. “The response was so spontaneous and everything done even before it was asked for. It brought tears to all our eyes. You know we have always been a trifle contemptuous of the U.S. on account of their prolonged delay in entering the war. But never again! They can have anything I’ve got. And I don’t think I feel any differently from anyone down here either.”

Inspired by his stint helping the wounded, Barss enrolled at the University of Michigan medical school, where he married Helen Kolb from Battle Creek, started the University’s varsity hockey program, and became an American citizen.

In the 1920s, Canada opened official diplomatic relations with the United States, and has been our nation’s biggest trading partner for decades.

Every year the people of Nova Scotia give Boston the province’s best Christmas tree, which costs Nova Scotians $180,000 annually. They hold a tree-lighting ceremony in Boston Common, a testament to a time when the worst the world could inflict brought out the best in two countries. The hard-earned friendship has stood as an example to the world for a century.

“Why,” one Nova Scotian asked, “do we have to stop saying ‘Thank you!?’ ”

John U. Bacon is the author of “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism.” He also teaches the history of college athletics at the University of Michigan.

Author John U. Bacon

Book reading

‘The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism’ debuts Tuesday. Author John U. Bacon will kickoff his national book tour at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium, where he will read excerpts from the book.

The book was described by George Will as “an astonishing episode of horror and heroism,” and by David Maraniss as “absorbing from first page to last.”