“Whose Explosion is it, anyway?” asks Martha Radice.

She’s a social anthropologist who has lived here for eight years. Unlike many Haligonians, she doesn’t focus on the horrifying statistics of the century-old disaster (11,000 people maimed or dead). She doesn’t describe how sparks from the collision of the Imo and Mont Blanc set drums of benzol ablaze for 15 minutes, generating heat that caused 200 tons of dynamite and 2,300 tonnes of picric acid to explode, creating the worst human-made disaster prior to the atomic bomb.

Instead, Radice is interested in the stories cities tell about themselves. What gets told and re-told? What gets left out of the narrative? What are the myths and what are the facts?

Radice participated in a panel discussion at Dalhousie University last week on how Halifax was transformed following the 1917 Explosion.

What sticks in Radice’s memory is what she calls “dramatic stories where there’s an element of trauma”:  the telegrapher who tried to stop the train, the blizzard that blanketed the defenceless city the next day, a blast so strong it shattered glass all over the city.

Radice remembers that detail because her home has a window with “wavy glass.” The Dalhousie professor says a handyman told her the wavy effect was due to poor quality control after the Explosion, because so many thousands of windows had to be hurriedly manufactured.

To which audience member Philip Doucette rose quietly to his feet and said, “I don’t think so.” Doucette has both a professional and personal connection to the tragedy. “My grandmother Eva Guess was sitting in her high chair the morning of the Explosion and received a permanent eye injury from flying glass,” said Doucette. Close to 200 people were blinded that day.

“Professionally, I’ve spent my life restoring stained glass windows, and I think we need more research to separate fact from fiction,” suggested Doucette. “It’s very dramatic to talk about the Explosion shattering windows all over the City but that’s a myth. I’d estimate about 60 per cent of the windows in the entire North End were blown out. And as for the ‘wavy glass,’ it has nothing to with quality control. It occurs naturally in a type of glass popular at the time known as drawn glass.”

Later, Doucette chuckled wryly about losing a job to restore a window at Oland’s Brewery on Agricola Street because someone suggested to the beer company that the damage was inflicted by the Explosion, and might be more valuable left broken than repaired. It’s the sort of loosey-goosey anecdote that irritates Doucette. His sister Maureen Millsom still lives in the English-style house in the Hydrostone development that replaced their grandparents’ home, after the explosion flattened 80 per cent of the Richmond neighbourhood.

Maureen has a photograph of family members she says shows them “living in boxcars — a boxcar village CN Rail set up to provide temporary housing after the Explosion.” She says the Explosion and what happened in the aftermath that winter “were not things anyone in our family would talk about.”

“There was no PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) back then,” notes Michelle Hébert Boyd, a social worker and another Explosion panelist. “Almost 25,000 people were suddenly without shelter. People had to suck it up. Children who were orphaned were sent away to aunt and uncles and told not to talk about it. I wonder what that collective psyche of pain has done to our City.”

Maureen and Philip are intrigued by Hébert Boyd’s suggestion of a collective sense of trauma. For example, Philip says it wasn’t until a hospital visit to a dying great-uncle under the spell of morphine that painful memories finally emerged.

Hébert Boyd is the author of a book called Enrichment by Catastrophe. It explores how the response to the Explosion by locals and well-meaning social workers who flocked in from outside led to social progress — and to social conflict. Halifax, “one of the dirtiest cities in North America,” finally got a sewer system, a unified welfare system to replace the patchwork of charities ministering to the poor, and a public health clinic donated by the Rockefeller Family, which was the first of its kind on the continent.

Unfortunately, Boyd notes, the agents of change were heavy-handed and often failed to consult the people they were supposed to help. After 10 years, the welfare system reverted to its crazy quilt, and at the request of envious South End residents, city council moved the North End’s top-of-the-line health clinic to the Dalhousie campus.

The Fort Needham Bell Tower wasn’t built until 1985, 68 years after the Explosion. In preparation for the centennial, the city is expanding the Bell Tower, refurbishing the staircase leading down the hill along Richmond Street to Ground Zero, and building a playground out of wood that gives the sense of downed trees and confusion the landscape would have seen after the Explosion. Photo: Jennifer Henderson
The Fort Needham Bell Tower wasn’t built until 1985, 68 years after the Explosion. In preparation for the centennial, the city is expanding the Bell Tower, refurbishing the staircase leading down the hill along Richmond Street to Ground Zero, and building a playground out of wood that gives the sense of downed trees and confusion the landscape would have seen after the Explosion. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Retired Dalhousie history professor and author David Sutherland asks a pointed question: Why did it take the city 68 years to put up a memorial — the bell tower on Fort Needham hill to honour the likely fact more citizens died on city streets in 1917 than military personnel who perished during World War 1? After advertising in 1929 for the names of people who enlisted in Halifax, a committee soon erected a Cenotaph in front of City Hall honouring 1,460 who “fell” in Europe. But it would take many more decades before the City recognized the 1,963 civilian victims of the war-fueled Explosion at home.

Sutherland believes that prolonged disconnect may have something to do with how the public or collective memory of the tragedy played out over time. Initially, Sutherland describes “a sense of remorse and recrimination” that gripped people who desperately wanted someone to blame for their pain (pick a scapegoat: the German enemy, the French ship, or the Americans who loaded the Mont Blanc with dynamite before sending it here). By the 1960s, when city councillor Edmund Morris led a campaign to erect a public memorial to civilian victims of the Explosion, Sutherland believes enough time had passed that people were ready to replace the doom and gloom with a more uplifting narrative that stressed the “rebirth” of the city and the resilient character of its people. It’s worth noting that the Fort Needham bell tower wasn’t erected until 1985, after an eight-year wrangle over where to put it and who would pay. The City initially declined to contribute.

But back to the stories that do and do not get told.

Catherine Martin, Mi’kmaq Elder, opens the Halifax Explosion Exhibit, Dalhousie Art Gallery. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Mi’kmaq elder and filmmaker Catherine Martin sang and drummed to open the panel discussion and special Dalhousie Art Gallery exhibition marking the centenary of the Explosion, which runs until December 17.

“I don’t like hearing it called the Halifax Explosion because it also affected Dartmouth, where my great grandparents and their children were killed by the blast,” Martin said. “They were standing on the shore at the site of a Mi’kmaq village known as Turtle Grove, near what’s Tufts Cove today, watching the ship burn. Then the Explosion happened. That was followed by a tsunami that came and wiped out the Mi’kmaq villages where people had gathered for centuries.”

Martin is a collaborator with a cultural group, the Narratives in Space + Time Society, who in 2014 started a public art project to reflect and remember the story of Turtle Grove, among other untold stories. The nine Mi’kmaq who died in the Explosion were buried in unmarked graves elsewhere. The art project, in the form of a public walking event, includes a stop where the crew of the Mont Blanc rowed ashore after escaping their burning ship and a visit to private cemetery in Tufts Cove maintained by a descendant of a family that also lost relatives.

Across the Narrows on the Halifax side of the Harbour, slightly north of the Hydrostone, was the black community of Africville. About 400 people lived there with no running water or streetlights. According to the records, no one at home during the blast was killed, although two residents working elsewhere died, including midwife Esther Roan. Africville was not as devastated by the Explosion as neighbouring Richmond, but Michelle Hébert Boyd writes that substandard homes also suffered damage ranging from cracked walls to blown out windows and roofs.

In the first week following the December 6th tragedy, newspaper accounts report that Africville was included in the Destruction Zone map. Interestingly, a second map of the Destruction Zone drawn a mere week later for the Halifax Relief Commission, left the poor black community off the map — literally nowhere in sight. Boyd argues this unexplained change made it doubly difficult for residents of what the City considered a slum to get compensation for damages, and therefore, many were paid less than whites or had their claims rejected.

“The Halifax Relief Commission’s decision not to include Africville in its vision of a modern, reborn city was not only oppressive and racist in the short term, but it had serious long-term implications for the community,” wrote Hébert Boyd in “Enrichment by Catastrophe.”

Historian David Sutherland suggests if the community had remained included, as on the original map, it would have been razed as early as 1920. Instead, the City fathers were so focused on rebuilding the rest of the North End affected by the Explosion, political neglect allowed Africville to continue without City services (such as water) until the 1960s, when homes were bulldozed to make way for construction of the MacKay bridge. Hébert Boyd argues the community’s fate was sealed as early as 1918 when a “re-construction map” for the North End designated Africville as the future site of a second bridge.

Narratives of Space +Time Society founding members. From L to R: Robert Bean, Barbara Lounder, Mary Elizabeth Luka, Brian Lilley. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Panelist Brian Lilley is an architecture professor and founding member of the Narratives in Space + Time Society, along with Robert Bean, Barbara Lounder, and Mary Elizabeth Luka. Since 2014 the group has researched and created a series of public art walking events. The events combine elements of exploration (the organizers handed scarves to walkers so they could cover their eyes for part of the walk to experience the sense of going blind) with performance art (setting fire to architectural models of the Richmond School and Dominion Textile factory, which were destroyed in 1917).

One of the Society’s goals is to get people out walking and talking about destruction and reconstruction going on in their neighbourhoods, noticing forgotten details and vacant spaces connecting the present with the past.

The title for these explorations is “Walking the Debris Field.” They’ve used video, cellphones, and GPS to make their walks accessible through a free downloadable app called “Drifts,” or online.

Walkers sometimes discover unexpected or hidden ironies. “Think about the idea that Ground Zero — where the Explosion took place in the Harbour — is directly in front of the actual site of the Irving Shipyard, where we will soon be manufacturing vessels of war,” noted panelist Brian Lilley. One hundred years later, Warships Start Here.

Asked about the how the view from the Bell Tower down to the Explosion site has been blocked by the new shipyard building, Barbara Lounder of the Narratives Society, draws a comparison to the commemoration of 9/11. “If we think about the enormity of the disaster and how many people were killed and injured — almost 2,000 — and how deeply it affected the city… And you think about 9/11 in New York City, about the same number of people were killed, and you think about the incredible attention that’s been given to  commemoration and Ground Zero in New York. There’s no way you could never not know where that took place,” says Lounder.

“Contrast that with what’s happened here — where any monument or memorial that’s about the Explosion  is half a kilometer or even a kilometer away from the actual location in the case of the Hydrostone marker  — and you can’t even see Ground Zero because of the Irving Assembly Hall. There is nothing there to lead your eye or inform you this is where the Explosion took place. I think this is something that is very concerning and we should pay attention to.”

One of the fragments Mary Elizabeth Luka found while planting tulips. Luka believes it is a piece of the hull from the Mont Blanc. Photo: Jennifer Henderson. NOTE: an earlier version of this article included an incorrect photo of the hull piece; thanks to readers who pointed out the error, which we regret.

Hidden artifacts and memories have been unearthed by other members of the Society. Mary Elizabeth Luka lives in a house on Roome Street where a tennis court stood next to the Richmond School before they were both destroyed in the Explosion. (The school was rebuilt and today serves as the Devonshire Family Courthouse.)

While planting tulip bulbs one fall, Luka and her husband dug up dozens of dark, rusty coloured fragments that appear to be a combination of metal and rock. Forensic lab tests have so far been unable to confirm or disprove Luka’s belief they are fragments of the Mont Blanc hull — some of the tonnes of molten metal  blasted 20,000 feet in the air that fell back to earth as the “black rain” which North End residents described following the Explosion.

Social anthropologist Martha Radice contends there’s a place for both drama and documentary when it comes to how the Explosion gets remembered. Both are important, she says, because with so few witnesses left and the approaching centenary of the Explosion “we are on the cusp of passing out of living memory and into collective memory.”

Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Arguably one of the most interesting memorials to its victims is the one shown above on a mobile phone.

The “XYZ” sculpture was built during the summer of 2014 by students at Dalhousie’s School of Architecture. Its shape references the brick chimneys of the former Richmond neighbourhood. The names of the 1,963 people killed by the Explosion are engraved in Braille. It was originally installed (and the wooden core of it burned out, as represented in the photograph) on the Irving Shipyard property, near the water, close to the former location of Pier 6. Pier 6 is where the Mont-Blanc drifted, lodged, and exploded after being struck by the Imo. The unofficial marker has since been moved beside a parking lot next to the Devonshire Arena. It’s a frequent stop on the public walks that will conclude with a show-stopper on December 3.

“The best thing about the walks is they create conversation in the neighbourhoods we walk through,” said Mary Elizabeth Luka. “About what should happen today as well as what happened yesterday and how those echoes reverberate through time.”

A smiling white woman with short silver hair wearing dark rimmed glasses and a bright blue blazer.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Barbara is certainly correct about the crucial role played by Janet Kitz. She played a key leadership role in the revival of interest in the Halifax Explosion on many fronts, from pulling people together to get the monument built to leading the way with her books in getting the publishing industry to rediscover the Halifax Explosion.

  2. At the opening of the exhibition at Dalhousie Art Gallery last week, my introductory remarks made on behalf of NiS+TS began with a tribute to the scholars, knowledge keepers, storytellers and many others who have done so much work in researching, preserving and sharing knowledge about the Halifax Explosion. Janet Kitz is especially noteworthy, as her work with the mortuary artifacts in particular has inspired and moved so many others, and it created real connections with survivors and their families. NiS+TS honoured Janet Kitz a year ago with a special tribute at the Maritime Museum, where she very graciously spoke with us during a research workshop about those mortuary artifacts and the stories they tell. We agree with you; we are all indebted to her.

  3. Surprised that this session would talk about the revival of Explosion memories without any apparent reference to Janet Kitz, her 1980 book Shattered City (NOT to be confused with the much-fictionalized miniseries of the same name), and her work over decades to preserve the survivors’ and victims’ stories.