Crime and Scandal

The Halifax Explosion – One Sketchy Plea for Help, and Massachusetts Goes the LImit

On the morning of December 6, 1917, a curious telegraph arrived at the offices of Hornblower & Weeks, a Boston investment banking firm. George Graham, the company’s man in Halifax, sent it to J.J. Phelan, a partner in the firm. The telegraph outlined the sparest details of a disaster later known as the great Halifax explosion.

Governor McCall amid the reconstruction following the Halifax explosion.

Governor McCall in 1918 amid the reconstruction following the Halifax explosion. Note the signs on the building.

The message read simply: “Organize a relief train and send word to Wolfville and Windsor (towns near Halifax) to round up all doctors, nurses, and Red Cross supplies possible to obtain. Not time to explain details but list of casualties is enormous.”

One of the casualties of the Halifax explosion was communication.  The explosion had destroyed most telegraph lines to Halifax, and the Canadian government took over the few remaining.

So on the strength of that one cryptic telegram from George Graham, Massachusetts quickly assembled a massive relief team and sent it to Halifax.

Phelan and McCall

J.J. Phelan was a man of action. He had risen in the firm of Hornblower & Weeks from the position of clerk to partner on the strength of his hard work.

Earlier in the year, as the U.S. prepared to enter World War I, Phelan agreed to serve on the governor’s Committee on Public Safety.  The committee had one overriding goal: to make sure the war did as little damage to Massachusetts as possible.

Phelan was attending a meeting at the Massachusetts Statehouse that December morning as part of his committee work. An aide approached and hurriedly called him to the telephone. The contents of the telegram from Halifax were read to him.

Phelan immediately left the room for the governor’s office down the hallway. Phelan, a Republican, and Samuel McCall, the state’s Democratic governor, were not natural political allies. But the curious telegraph message demanded action.

halifax-exhibition-building

Halifax’s Exhibition Building. The last body was recovered from the explosion in this building — in 1919.

Governor McCall tried to find more information. Well-connected after 20 years in Washington as a congressman and newspaper editor, McCall, surprisingly, could get little clarification. All anyone seemed to know was that some kind of fire or explosion had happened in Halifax. McCall fired off a message of his own to the mayor of that city. “Understand that your city in danger from explosion and conflagration,” it said. “Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me back immediately.”

With that, McCall turned to his Committee on Public Safety – the 100 men from industry that McCall had assembled earlier that year.

Rapid Response

The committee reached out to the banks, the railroads and the universities represented on its board. Harvard University emptied its medical school and, with the Red Cross, packed up the makings of portable surgical suites. Nurses from the hospitals volunteered to go. The banks assembled cash.

The head of the Boston and Maine Railroad promised a train if the governor would fill it. By 10 o’clock at night, less than 12 hours after the initial telegraph, the train left for Halifax. All of those who responded  still had no information beyond the initial cry for assistance and warning of enormous casualties.

J.J. Phelan, the banker who first learned of the Halifax explosion.

J.J. Phelan, the banker who first learned of the Halifax explosion.

When the train arrived in Halifax, after a blizzard delayed it, its passengers realized the enormity of the disaster.

U-Boat Nets

Halifax served as a key British port during World War I. Ships heading across the Atlantic made routine stops in the port. Well-sheltered, it made a difficult target for the German U-Boats that terrorized commercial shipping in the Atlantic.

In addition to the natural protections, the city had erected a steel chain net. It raised the net each night and lowered it each morning to prevent any German submarines from slipping in to damage the ships.

On the evening of December 5, a Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo, faced a delay in leaving port while it searched for a harbor pilot to guide it out. Meanwhile, a French ship, the SS MontBlanc, had stopped outside the mouth of the harbor while it waited for a pilot to guide it safely inside.

Both ships had frozen in their positions when the city raised its anti-submarine net. On the morning of December 6, they were eager to get on their way – the Mont-Blanc entering the harbor and the Imo exiting.

halifax explosion

Blast cloud from the Halifax explosion.

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 its crew, explosives filled the Mont-Blanc hold.  They had suspended the use of red flags that traditionally warned of explosive cargo because they made a ship an easy target for the Germans.

As the Mont-Blanc made its way into the harbor, the pilot grew concerned that the Imo obstructed its path. A passing, incoming ship had forced the Imo into the wrong side of the channel. The Mont-Blanc sounded a warning blast of the ship’s whistle. The captain of the Imo sounded a blast, indicating that he intended to stay on his course.

The Mont-Blanc immediately stopped its engines and sounded another warning, but the Imo pressed forward. On shore, it became clear that a collision was near, and sailors and dock hands gathered to watch.

The Halifax Explosion

With the Imo’s engines now stopped, the two ships drifted toward one another. The pilot of the Mont-Blanc did not dare to ground the ship for fear of explosion, but efforts to steer clear of the Imo failed. The Imo struck the side of the Mont-Blanc, toppling some barrels of benzene on the French ship’s deck, spilling the volatile liquid into the holds of the vessel.

Red Cross workers ready to treat victims of the Halifax explosion in temporary quarters in the YMCA.

Red Cross workers ready to treat victims of the Halifax explosion in temporary quarters in the YMCA.

The Imo then put its engines in reverse, and as it backed away, sparks generated by the two hulls grinding together ignited the benzene. Only the men of the Mont-Blanc understood that a fuse had been lit. The Mont-Blanc’s captain ordered the men off the vessel and they gave up efforts to stop the fire. Instead, they headed for the nearby Dartmouth shore.

After they landed, the sailors tried to warn people on the shore, but the French-speaking sailors could not make themselves understood. Moments later, the munitions in the Mont-Blanc exploded – the most powerful explosion ever produced up until the advent of nuclear weapons. The effects on Halifax and Dartmouth were catastrophic.

The Halifax explosion blew down entire city blocks, killed an estimated 2,000 people and injured 9,000. The blast disabled communications and firefighting apparatus. It was only through a stroke of luck that Hornblower & Weeks’ private telegraph line could send a message to Boston.

Train Arrives

halifax-explosion-tree

The 2010 Christmas tree thanking Massachusetts for help after the Halifax explosion.

As soon as the Massachusetts physicians, nurses and supplies arrived by train, they went to work. Back in Boston, meanwhile, the Committee on Public Safety began assembling a warehouse full of relief supplies. They collected furniture, kitchen goods, food, bedding, lumber – everything needed to rebuild after the Halifax explosion.

The relief committee loaded the materials onto a ship that left for Halifax. In the weeks ahead a store was set up for displaced families to visit and take what they needed to rebuild their lives. As word of the Halifax explosion spread, cities and towns across America and Canada helped repair the shattered city.

Temporary housing was built to replace what had been demolished. In recognition of Massachusetts’ rapid response, Halifax christened the temporary Governor McCall Apartments on the newly-created Massachusetts Avenue.

For each year since, the people of Halifax have given to the city of Boston a tall spruce tree as a Christmas gift. The tree recalls 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 responded to the Halifax explosion.

This story about the Halifax explosion was updated in 2019.

Images: Halifax Explosion Christmas tree by By Louis Oliveira from Warwick, RI – Xmas tree on Boston Common, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37635230

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