Unearthed first-hand accounts reveal devastation of 1917 Halifax Explosion
Published Thursday, December 3, 2015 9:52AM EST
Nearly a century after it happened, new perspectives on the Halifax Explosion are coming to light through a collection of photos and hand-written letters obtained by the Nova Scotia Archives.
The letters document the minutes, hours and days after the Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917, when a dynamite-laden French vessel collided with another boat in the Halifax Harbour, triggering the largest pre-nuclear blast in world history.
The letters and photos obtained by the Nova Scotia Archives depict the devastation left by the explosion, as well as the tremendous loss of life. More than 1,800 people were killed and 9,000 were injured in the massive explosion, which was powerful enough to tear up railroads, shatter homes and hurl boat anchors from the harbour out across the surrounding area.
Another letter is written on the back of a photo taken of the harbour, 10 minutes after the blast. "The French ship Mont Blanc exploded between these two ships near shore," wrote James Burn Russell, a wireless operator abourd the patrol ship Cartier. "The mass of ruins is the sugar refinery. This was taken 20 minutes after when we were looking for any remains of the Blanc. There were none. We were 400 yards from here when it happened."
One photo shows the Halifax Railway Station after the blast, where the roof had completely caved in, killing 60 people.
Several other photos show the blasted ruins of homes in Halifax and Dartmouth. Many are nothing more than rickety, windowless frameworks after the blast, while others have been reduced to piles of shattered wood.
The archived documents include a photo of a "pass for the devastated area," issued to allow the bearer into the destroyed part of Halifax, near the harbour.
A letter typed by Chester Brown, an American visiting the ruins on Dec. 16, describes the extreme security around the devastated area, and the carnage still to be cleaned up.
"It is one of the hardest things possible to get a pass into the section which is destroyed and it is guarded with soldiers with guns with the order to run a bayonet (through) any who try to pass (through) without having an official pass from the chief of police."
Brown wrote that many of the bodies had been cleared up by that day, but there were still bodies of dogs lying all around, and horses wandering with their carriage harnesses still attached. "Immense factories are torn to atoms," Brown wrote. "The Belgian relief ship is cast high and dry on one side of the harbour where she was thrown due to the force of the explosion."
Archivists say these accounts are invaluable records of that historic event, that will now be preserved forever online.
Sharon Tipping, a native of Nova Scotia, says she's pleased these new records are now available to the public. Tipping's ancestors were devastated by the explosion, with 46 of 66 members of the family killed in the blast.
"If you don't know where you came from, how do you know where you're going?" she told CTV Atlantic.
With files from CTV Atlantic