Every year, the tiny Canadian province of Nova Scotia sends a Christmas Tree to Boston, Massachusetts.
Louis Oliveira from Warwick, RI, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
“Why?” I hear you ask.
Well, grab a cup of hot chocolate and gather round for story-time.
Did you know...as World War One raged across Europe, the largest man-made bomb (prior to Hiroshima) went off—
In the Halifax Harbor.
It was the hub of Canada’s war effort.
Home of the Royal Canadian Navy.
And base for merchant ships from around the globe.
December 6th, 1917.
Normally, a flag would fly from a ship to alert others if it was carrying explosives. However, the captain of a French freighter, the Mont-Blanc, decided not to fly the flag to avoid the possibility of becoming a target of any German U-boats.
The Mont-Blanc carried:
2,300 tons of picric acid 200 tons of TNT 35 tons of high-octane gasoline 10 tons of gun cotton.
Meanwhile, after a series of "unfortunate events", a relief ship bound for Belgium ended up on the wrong side of the channel--heading straight for the Mont-Blanc.
At the last moment, the Mont-Blanc tried to turn, the relief ship tried to reverse its engines, but the two ships collided.
The damage wasn’t more than a large gash, however the collision caused benzol fuel to leak.
The metal from the colliding ships caused sparks to fly, igniting a fire.
The Captain of the Mont-Blanc knew this was disastrous and ordered everyone to abandon ship. In lifeboats, his crew rowed toward shore, all the while yelling at everyone, warning of the danger.
However, none of the French crew of the Mont-Blanc spoke English.
Crowds gathered along the harbor to watch the burning ships, completely oblivious to the horror yet to unfold.
The Mont-Blanc floated closer to Pier Six, starting the wooden structure on fire. The Halifax fire-department sent its brand spanking new gas-powered fire truck.
Meanwhile, Canadian and British navy ships began rescuing people from the water.
Eventually, word of the actual danger everyone was in began to spread. Vincent Coleman, who ran the telegraph station, realized a passenger train was due at the pier any moment.
He frantically sent out a warning:
“Hold up the train.
Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode.
Guess this will be my last message.
It was his final message.
At 9:05, the fire reached the cargo hold of the Mont-Blanc.
With the force of a nuclear bomb, the ship disappeared in a white flash. Everything was flattened within a mile. Windows were blown out of buildings up to 60 miles away.
The explosion then caused a tsunami, sending ships out of the harbor and onto the shore.
Fires were started in the rubble of fireplaces and stoves.
When one of the countless houses in Halifax collapsed, a mother and her four-year-old son were killed instantly as they watched the burning ships from their window. But, baby Annie was thrown into the ash pan of warm ashes beneath the stove.
At least 2000 died that morning.
9000 were injured.
Front page of the Halifax Herald, Friday, December 7, 1917
At first, nobody knew the ship carried the explosives. They assumed Halifax had been hit by the Germans. So, all German speaking residents were rounded up. It wasn’t until later in the day they realized what had really happened.
To make matters even worse, as the rescuers searched the debris for survivors—a blizzard arrived in Halifax.
Yep. A blizzard.
By The Boston Daily Globe (newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., 1917) - https://newspaperarchive.com/boston-daily-globe-dec-08-1917-p-1/https://newspaperarchive.com/boston-daily-globe-dec-08-1917-p-2/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93986163
This made the search even more difficult as would-be survivors in the rubble were now buried beneath snow, trains couldn’t arrive, and travel was severely hindered.
While searching through rubble, a young soldier, Benjamin Henneberry, heard a baby crying, and soon found little Annie in the ash pan beneath the stove. She had mild burns but was otherwise fine.
She was known for the rest of her long-life as “Ash-pan Annie”, after her grandmother and aunt found her at the local hospital.
Word spread throughout Canada and the USA of the devastating events. Within hours, Boston, Massachusetts raced to send medical personnel and equipment to help the Nova Scotians. They were the first to arrive and the last to leave.
And that is why, to this day, Nova Scotia sends a Christmas Tree to the city of Boston as an expression of everlasting gratitude.
And there you have it, your interesting fact of the day—The Halifax Explosion.