The Halifax Explosion – One Plea for Help Launches a Crusade – New England Historical Society

halifax_headlineOn the evening of December 5, 1917 a French ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, entered the Halifax harbor as the Norwegian ship Imo was exiting. The Imo was empty, stopping in Halifax on the way to New York to obtain relief supplies for war-torn Belgium. Unknown to anyone but the crew of the Mont-Blanc, that ship was loaded with explosives. The Imo struck the side of the Mont-Blanc, toppling some barrels of benzene on the French ship’s deck. The Imo then put its engines in reverse, and as it backed away, sparks generated by the two hulls grinding together ignited the Benzene. When the munitions in the Mont-Blanc exploded, it was the most powerful explosion ever produced up until the advent of nuclear weapons. The effects on Halifax and Dartmouth were catastrophic. Entire city blocks were blown down. An estimated 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured.


On the morning of December 6, a curious telegraph arrived at the offices of Hornblower & Weeks, a Boston investment banking firm. It was from George Graham, the company’s man in Halifax, to J.J. Phelan, a partner in the firm, outlining the sparest details of a disaster that would be known as the great Halifax explosion. Phelan left his office and walked to the Massachusetts statehouse. Phelan, a Republican, and Samuel McCall, the state’s Democratic governor, were not natural political allies. But the curious telegraph message demanded action. McCall turned to his Committee on Public Safety – 100 men from industry that McCall had assembled only 10 months earlier to see to it that World War I did as little damage to Massachusetts as possible.


The head of the Boston and Maine Railroad promised a train if the governor would fill it, and by 10 o’clock at night, less than 12 hours after the initial telegraph, the train left for Halifax still lacking much more information beyond the initial cry for assistance and warning of enormous casualties. The telegraph lines to Halifax were either destroyed or taken over for Canadian government use. When the train arrived in Halifax, after being delayed by a blizzard, the enormity of the disaster was clear.


For each year since, the people of Halifax have given to the city of Boston a tall spruce tree to be erected as a Christmas gift recalling the day the Canadian city asked for aid from its American cousins and, despite limited knowledge of what had happened, a U.S. city and a Commonwealth had responded.

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