Blizzard of Glass

The Halifax Explosion of 1917

Sally M. Walker

Henry Holt and Co.

Blizzard of Glass
1
A STORY TO TELL
HALIFAX, THE LARGEST CITY OF Nova Scotia, Canada, has a story to tell. Fourteen bells in a memorial tower ring part of the tale. In the city hall clock tower, the locked-in-place hands on the clock that faces north freeze a moment of the story, left as it was on that long-ago day. A museum containing grim reminders and libraries filled with age-old pages share more. The people of Halifax add chapters to the story each time they speak the memories of those who lived--and died--at that time. Old scars are hidden by sturdy stone houses, and tall trees line remade streets. But the roots of the story are still there, and they grow deep.
Located on a small peninsula surrounded by salty water, Halifax is rich with history. People have lived in the area for ten thousand years. "Since time out of mind," the settlementsand campsites of the Mi'kmaq, members of Canada's First Nations people, have dotted the landscape. Generation after generation, men and boys hunted in the evergreen forests; they fished in the lakes and flowing rivers. Women and girls built sturdy birch-bark-covered wigwams and gathered plants for food and medicinal use. They stitched clothing and made baskets decorated with elaborate patterns of interwoven porcupine quills. For hundreds of years, the Mi'kmaq found the rocky shore along Halifax's large, hourglass-shaped harbor a perfect place to live.
In the early 1600s, French explorers reached the shores of Nova Scotia and called the land Acadia. The Mi'kmaq allowed them to establish settlements where fishers dried theircatches before shipping them to Europe. By the 1620s, Scottish settlers had made their way to the land, calling it Nova Scotia, which means "New Scotland" in Latin. For the next century, Great Britain and France played tug-of-war over Nova Scotia. Great Britain was the eventual victor.
In 1749, under the leadership of Edward Cornwallis, ships carrying more than 2,500 British settlers arrived and established a town they named Halifax. It became the capital of Nova Scotia, the leading port city for eastern Canada, and the site of a naval base. The Mi'kmaq, still living on most of their traditional lands, signed peace treaties with the British. In the late 1700s, an earthen fort named Fort Needham was constructed on the top of a 220-foot hill that overlooked the dockyards along the northern end of the city. In 1828, a stone fort called the Citadel was built on an even higher hill nearby. And all around the two hills, people built homes, schools, and businesses. Merchant ships sailed in and out of Halifax Harbour. By the 1860s, trains chugged into the city. Together, the railroad and ships created a transportation network that carried timber and fish and other trade goods to places around the world. And so Halifax grew.
By 1914, the population of Halifax had swelled to over 45,000 people. But it wasn't the only thriving town in the area. Across the harbor, more than 6,500 people, including a small settlement of Mi'kmaq, lived in the city of Dartmouth. There, an oil refinery as well as companies that produced goods such as ice skates, rope, beer, and chocolate providedjobs for the area residents. While many of them knew there was political unrest in Europe--there was even talk of a war--it seemed unlikely that it would affect them, being so far away. During the summer of 1914, however, shattering events in Europe began a deathly trail that eventually found its way to Halifax and Dartmouth.
As countries in Europe began challenging each other for control of territory, they amassed armies that grew ever larger. Suspicions and mistrust escalated to a fever pitch as countries formed alliances with one another. An alliance is an agreement between different countries that joins them together for a purpose, often to wage war. By joining forces, allied countries also have greater power to withstand an enemy army. In 1914, Great Britain, France, and Russia formed an alliance against Germany, Austria-Hungary (which at that time was one country), and Italy. And then, in June, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne ofAustria-Hungary, was assassinated. The assassin was a man from Serbia, a country that was a longtime enemy of Austria-Hungary.
Enraged by the killing, the government of Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia. The action was supported by Germany, its ally. Invasions of territory and further declarations of war followed as Austria-Hungary and Germany challenged the allied governments of Great Britain, France, and Russia. By the end of August 1914, Europe had plunged into the four-year maelstrom of death and destruction that became known as World War I. Since it was then a colony of Great Britain, Canada entered the war at this time, too.
Because of its thriving port and deep harbor, Halifax became a major "jumping-off" point for ships carrying troops and supplies from North America to war-torn countries across the Atlantic. Three years later, it became even busier after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and entered into the alliance that included Great Britain. By the first week in December 1917, Halifax was bursting at the seams. Ships of all sizes, many of them from the United States, floated in Halifax Harbour. More than five thousand Canadian soldiers, some of whom brought their families with them, flooded the city. The housing crunch was incredible: Rooming houses, apartments, and private homes were packed, perhaps no area more so than the Richmond neighborhood, at the north end of Halifax.
Richmond, built around the steep flanks of FortNeedham, was a bustling place. Yet even though thousands of people lived there, the neighborhood still held reminders of country life. In many backyards, hens clucked in chicken coops. Pigs snuffled inside sheds. Cows chewed their cud in backyard barns. And certain businessmen, such as milkmen or wagoners, owned horses to pull their vehicles. Many of the dwellings were single-family homes. There were also row houses--homes connected to one another--with several apartments in each. Most of the dwellings were made of wood. Only some of them had electricity. Many had indoor bathrooms that included a toilet, but some did not.
An electric tram trundled on a track on Barrington Street, which ran north and south along the waterfront.
Horse-drawn wagons rumbled over dirt and cobblestone streets. Automobiles and trucks were becoming more frequent, but most families in Richmond did not own a car--they simply could not afford it. Although concrete sidewalks were on a few streets near businesses, they were a rarity elsewhere in the north end of Halifax.
Richmond was largely a working-class neighborhood. The dockyard, shipping companies, and railroad employed thousands of people. Several factories produced goods such as cotton fabrics, flour, newspapers, beer, and metalwork, all of which provided steady work for the city's residents.
Many men were employed at the Acadia Sugar Refinery. Among other businesses, the shops in Richmond included groceries, pharmacies, furniture and shoe stores, and at least one laundry. At that time, most married women worked in their homes, caring for their children and keeping house--a full-time job with few, if any, of today's labor-saving devices. And of course Richmond's children went to school.
The war in Europe cast a pall on the autumn season. The newspapers carried stories of battles and listed names of the dead on a daily basis. Many families had a father or a son who was fighting overseas. Wounded soldiers in the military hospitals were a constant reminder of the dangers their loved ones faced. Even so, as December arrived, many people in Halifax and Dartmouth looked toward the holiday season with hope and excitement, thinking about the good times in store for them and what gifts they planned to make and give. Probably none of them knew about two ships named Imo and Mont-Blanc, each one making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. And if they had, they probably wouldn't have given them a second thought; ships were commonplace in Halifax Harbour. No one had the slightest inkling that these two ships would create the most terrible chapter in the two cities' story--one that would change lives forever.
Copyright © 2011 by Sally M. Walker