On December 6th, 1917, the massive explosion in Halifax Harbour cut off communication with the outside world for many hours. The immediate challenge of rescuing those trapped in burning houses, then transporting the wounded to swiftly-overcrowded hospitals and emergency clinics, was met by every fireman and railway worker who had survived the blast, as well as soldiers from the Halifax Garrison and visiting sailors from Britain and the US. Halifax and Dartmouth doctors, nurses and medical students carried an incredible load before help arrived from outside the stricken city.
Over the years, Nova Scotians have given praise and thanks to the city of Boston for coming to the aid of Halifax, but that story has overshadowed the amazing work of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, as well as the surrounding communities who sent help as soon as they learned what had happened.
These heroes have remained unrecognized for a century. It comes as quite a surprise for many people to learn that in fact Truro sent the first relief train from outside the city, within an hour of hearing about the disaster. It carried volunteer doctors, nurses and firemen, and picked up others from Kentville on the way. Before that day ended other trains had come from New Glasgow, Sydney and Saint John, a full two days before the contingent from Massachusetts arrived with welcome reinforcements and supplies. By mid-afternoon a train loaded with injured and homeless survivors (including sailors from ships sunk in the harbour) arrived in Truro where three emergency hospitals had been created with two hour’s warning.
The Colchester Historeum contains the records of the only Relief Committee formed outside of Halifax, and amazing stories of the swift response and ongoing generous care have survived there. It’s time in this hundredth anniversary year to celebrate their kindness and efficiency, as the Halifax Herald did: its headline on December 10, 1917 praised “The Splendid Spirit shown by the towns of the province and the assistance so promptly given.”
Janet Maybee, a retired teacher and research associate at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, is the award-winning author of Aftershock: the Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey. Copies of Janet’s book will be available to purchase after the presentation and retail for $20.00.
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