The Shattered City: Halifax Explosion

Originally submitted for A Rabbit’s Tale (May2012) of the Graveyard Rabbits’ Online Journal

06-12-17 8:45

To look at this odd grouping of digits, you might think of the 100th anniversary of the TITANIC, when she struck the iceberg – but, no.  To look again, you may think they are symbolic of an appointment – and that guess would be so very close to the truth.

These tragic numbers reflect a lesser-known disaster that touched nine-times more lives than the unsinkable TITANIC.  Unfortunately, Halifax, Nova Scotia would once again be the center of media attention … and this time Titanic’s rescuers would be the ones in need of rescue!

The place was called “The Narrows,” and it was (and still is) a thin and very busy inlet of Halifax Harbour were cargo ships would berth to load and unload their wares or refuel. It was this same place, five years earlier, when the bells of the city chimed the arrivals of the MACKAY-BENNETT, MINIA, ALGERINE and MONTMAGNY returning with TITANIC’s dead.

But, this time there would be no pealing of bells.

It was Thursday, December 6th, 1917: Originally a cargo liner under the White Star Line in 1889, she carried small amounts of passengers and freight, until she was sold three times over the next 17 years (and re-named each time).  Now, as a whaling supply ship, operating out of Norway, her name became the SS IMO.

Being neutral when World War I broke out, IMO was chartered out to deliver relief supplies to Belgium.  “Belgian Relief” was painted on her long sides in hopes of protecting her from German submarines during her long and lonely trans-Atlantic voyages.

At 430 feet in length and 45 feet wide, she was long, slender and empty, making her extremely difficult to steer and very slow because her rudder and prop were nearly out of the water.  IMO had just finished refueling with coal and was preparing to leave for New York, where her cargo of relief supplies was waiting for her.


On December 1st, the French tramp steamer (cargo ship) SS MONT-BLANC had left New York.  She was loaded with 400,000 tons of TNT for the war effort. By December 6th, she was arriving to join the convoy in Halifax.

8:45am — the incoming MONT-BLANC accidentally collides with the outgoing IMO.

8:55am — MONT-BLANC catches fire; her crew abandons ship, all survive but one

9:10am — MONT-BLANC explodes – pieces are scattered 2.5miles away (4kms) The blast was the biggest man-made explosion in the World, before the era of the atomic bomb! The tsunami that followed threw the IMO ashore on the Dartmouth-side of the Narrows!

  • 2000 died
  • another 2000 are reported missing
  • 9000 injured
  • All buildings & structures for 500 square acres (2 square kilometres) are obliterated
  • Ten miles away (16kilomtres) in the town of Sackville, windows shatter
  • Sixty-two miles away (100km), buildings shake and items fall from shelves in Truro and New Glasgow.

The explosion was felt and heard as far north as Charlottetown, PEI – 130 miles/215km and as far east as North Cape Breton – 220 miles/360km Relief efforts were hampered the next day by a blizzard of heavy snow.

  • Money came in from places as far away as China and New Zealand!
  • $16 million from the Canadian government, almost $5 million from the British government
  • Sir John Eaton (of the Eaton’s store chain) arrived by train with building supplies and furniture donated from his stores.
  • Massachusetts sent a train equipped with doctors, nurses, medical supplies, money ($750,000), and cookware. More trains and shiploads of aid continued to arrive from the American state after December 6th, contributing the equivalent of a complete warehouse of household goods. In appreciation, Halifax presents a Christmas tree every year to the City of Boston for the help received after the disaster.

To this day, the Halifax Explosion remains, unchallenged in overall magnitude, the World’s largest man-made accidental explosion.


After the Explosion The IMO, surprisingly, suffered little.  Her upper decks were wrecked, her hull slightly damaged and her Captain, five of her crew members and the harbour pilot were killed – but crew members below decks survived. She was repaired, re-named “The Governor” (English translation from Norwegian) and returned to service as a whale oil tanker, until 1921 when she ran onto the rocks at the Falkland Islands. No lives were lost. Salvage attempts failed and she was abandoned.

The Halifax Memorial Bell Tower overlooks the harbour narrows where the explosion took place. Ten of the original bells were donated by Barbara Orr, a survivor who had lost all of her family. The bells occupied a church that was built in 1921 to replace two other churches lost in the disaster, but the bells were removed in 1985 from the church due to structural problems and placed in the Memorial Bell Tower. Four more bells were added at a later date.

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