Explosion in The Narrows: The 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion
Kepe’kek: At the Narrows
On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the steamship Mont-Blanc, inbound from the Atlantic with war material for France, entered the Halifax Harbour Narrows. The Norwegian ship Imo left the protected anchorage of Bedford Basin, outbound for New York to load food and clothing for the people of occupied Belgium and steamed into the same constricted channel. In homes, schools, and factories lining the adjacent shores, residents started a new day in a busy wartime port. When Imo crossed The Narrows to strike Mont-Blanc’s bow, worlds collided.
Imo aground on the Dartmouth shore CREDIT: MP 207.1.184/270
In Mi’kma’ki—the traditional territory of the indigenous Mi’kmaw people—the arm of the sea now called Halifax Harbour is one feature of an enduring indigenous landscape comprising much of northeastern North America. The reach of harbour where the ship Imo struck Mont-Blanc was referred to by Mi’kmaw people as Kepe'kek, “at the Narrows.” In 1749, British military and settlers occupied a small portion of Mi’kma’ki and named it Halifax.
“Halifax, N.W.”, 1918 [detail] CREDIT: Nova Scotia Archives Map Collection: V5 1: 31 680. 133a
A Continental Gateway
Halifax is mainland North America’s closest large port to Europe. This status gave it outsized importance in times of transatlantic conflict. The Halifax Harbour Narrows’ shoreline was shaped by rail lines stretching from deep-water shipping terminals into the continental interior. Residents in the adjacent communities of Richmond and Africville—an historic African-Nova Scotian community, founded in the early 19th century—depended on the railway, the factories, the waterfront. The Narrows looked both eastward, to the sea, and westward, to the cities of central Canada and the wheat farms of the Prairies. During the First World War, Halifax became Canada’s primary conduit to the battle fronts of Europe.
Troop train at Pier No. 2, Halifax CREDIT: Nova Scotia Archives, Helen Creighton, Album 11 No. 32
The city’s rail and shipping facilities were quickly integrated into the nation’s war effort. Halifax became Canada’s primary military embarkation port, as hundreds of thousands of service personnel departed from its Deepwater Terminals for the battlefields of Europe. Well before December 6th, 1917, Halifax was as fully engaged in the war as any North American city could be.
Wartime conditions and the economic boom they created brought people to Halifax from all over the world. Many were sojourners here: British, Scandinavian, and South Asian seamen in port for a few days; Italian and Ukrainian railway navvies; itinerant dock workers remitting wages to families in faraway homelands. Others, including Greek merchants and Chinese businesspeople, came and stayed.
History in Fragments
The events of December 6th, 1917, were shaped by Halifax’s status as a busy wartime port: both Imo and Mont-Blanc carried cargoes made necessary by the conflict. Mont-Blanc’s main cargo was bulk high explosives. When barrels of petrochemical bursting on deck triggered the blast, explosives below underwent a sudden, violent chemical reaction. The enormous energy released tore through the ship at 1500 metres per second. In an instant, Mont-Blanc was transformed from a ship to a three-kiloton bomb in a busy modern harbour.
Ruins of the school at Turtle Grove CREDIT: “30 Views of Dartmouth Disaster”
The explosion’s discharged gasses forced enormous heat and pressure outwards in all directions. The blast wave drove air, water, and accumulating debris at great velocity through the districts straddling both sides of The Narrows. A roiling cloud of hot gas rose high above the site. Chunks and shards of the ship dropped across an eight-kilometre range. Vaporized fuel and chemical by-products of the explosion fell as rain, coating people and wreckage with a dark, oily film. Richmond and the Mi’kmaw community of Turtle Grove were struck by the full force of the blast; many other districts of the city experienced serious damage. More than 1700 people were killed by the explosion and its after-effects. At least 9000 were injured and many more were made homeless.
Soldiers searching wreckage in Richmond CREDIT: Naval Museum of Halifax
The Explosion immediately disrupted communications linking continental North America, Nova Scotia, and the world overseas. Rail lines, roadways, telegraph and telephone lines, submarine cables: all passed through The Narrows and were disrupted by the blast. The channel was choked with ruins of wharves, boats, and sheds, with ships wrecked and adrift. For more than a kilometre along the Richmond shore, rail facilities were obliterated. More than 500 train cars were damaged or destroyed, including most of the city’s military hospital cars. Sixty-one train crew were killed. Rail links to the deep-water piers, and many of the piers themselves, were destroyed.
Richmond Railway Yards after the Explosion CREDIT: MP207.1.184/47, Charles A. Vaughan Collection
Relief from Near and Far
Uninjured people in the districts immediately surrounding the devastated area provided the first relief, hauling wounded people clear and working to free those caught in the wreckage. Many first responders were soldiers and sailors from damaged barracks and Canadian, British, and United States’ ships in port. Six relief trains arrived from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on the day of the blast. As news of the Halifax Harbour Explosion spread, people all over the world acted to relieve the mass suffering it had caused. School children and heads of state donated money. Medical relief arrived from across Canada and the United States, reinforcing the work of local responders and providing specialized treatment for traumatic injuries.
Volunteer relief nurses in the aftermath of the Explosion CREDIT: MP207.1.184/324
Recognizing the significance of the 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion as part of Nova Scotian history, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic developed a temporary exhibit in 1987 entitled "A Moment in Time". The display received such an overwhelming public response that in 1994, the museum took on the major project of creating “Halifax Wrecked”, a permanent exhibit devoted to the Explosion. An updated version of this exhibit, “Explosion in The Narrows”, opened in 2019, aims to broaden public understanding of the many and diverse communities—Mi’kmaw, African-Nova Scotian, recent migrant, military—affected by these events.
Fort Needham Memorial Bell Tower CREDIT: Christian Laforce