Tourists explore massive blast that levelled Atlantic Canada's biggest city
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is seen along the waterfront boardwalk in Halifax on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. The two-kilometre-long path features great restaurants, shops and galleries but a major attraction this year is at the midway point, inside the museum, perhaps best known for its Titanic exhibit, recently opened an expanded display of stories and artifacts commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)
Michael MacDonald, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Tuesday, August 8, 2017 8:11AM ADT
HALIFAX -- The top tourist draw in Halifax at this time of year has to be its sprawling waterfront boardwalk, which features some of the city's best restaurants, shops and galleries. At one end of the picturesque two-kilometre walkway, you'll find Casino Nova Scotia, and at the other, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
For history buffs, however, the main attraction this year is at the midway point, inside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
The museum, perhaps best known for its Titanic exhibit, recently opened an expanded display of stories and artifacts commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.
It was the worst man-made disaster in Canadian history, and its anniversary is being marked in multiple ways in the city, where visitors can find multiple relics and commemorations.
The massive blast, just after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, was caused by the collision of a Belgian relief ship and a French munitions vessel carrying TNT through the narrowest part of the harbour.
Entire neighbourhoods were levelled by the resulting shock wave and tsunami. More than 1,600 homes and businesses were destroyed, many of them burning to the ground after their coal stoves tipped over. Windows were broken as far away as Truro, about 100 kilometres away. And the ground shook in P.E.I.
Almost 2,000 people were killed. Another 9,000 were injured, hundreds of them blinded by flying glass.
The maritime museum's latest exhibit is called "Collision in the Narrows." Among other things, it includes twisted metal fragments that were hurled across the city, including a piece of the SS Mont Blanc's rudder hinge, which weighs several hundred kilograms.
The items mostly come from the museum's collection of explosion artifacts, which is still growing 100 years later.
"Every year in the springtime, the frost heaves up pieces of the Mont Blanc," says Roger Marsters, curator of marine history. "We get new offers of donations every year."
To be sure, the city's north end is still marked by the explosion.
Every year on Dec. 6, a memorial ceremony is held at the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower at Fort Needham, which overlooks the area devastated by the blast.
Craig Walkington, chairman of the Halifax Explosion anniversary advisory committee, says this year's ceremony will pay tribute to those who survived the explosion. Earlier this year, the city issued an invitation to those who survived the blast to come forward for recognition.
At least 18 people, including a 105-year-old woman, have responded to the call, though little is known about who they are, Walkington said.
"We want to recognize those who were alive at the time of the explosion, and hopefully be able to find someone who can actually talk about their own personal memories," Walkington said in an interview.
Not far from the bell tower, which is being refurbished, is the Hydrostone, one of the most tangible legacies of the disaster, known these days for its charming restaurants, shops and cafes. The unusual neighbourhood was built after the explosion in only 10 months.
It includes 324 dwellings -- mostly row houses, some duplexes and a few detached homes -- designed by Montreal architect George Ross. All of the homes are made from tough, fireproof concrete blocks meant to look like cut granite, a welcome feature for tenants who had seen so many wood-frame homes burn to the ground.
The area is also notable for its short, parallel, one-way streets and back lanes. But its most distinctive feature is the wide, grassy boulevards in front of each row of homes.
Other evidence of the explosion is littered across the city.
More than three kilometres from the blast site, in the middle of a residential neighbourhood on Spinnaker Drive, a humble monument provides mute testimony to the incredible power of the explosion. A 500 kilogram hunk of metal -- the shaft from the anchor of the Mont Blanc -- sits atop a granite pedestal in a small, tree-lined park.
Across the harbour, in Dartmouth's north end, a similar monument features a twisted, 500-kilogram cannon from the stern of the ship. It, too, was thrown more than three kilometres.
A new website, called "100 Years 100 stories" (https://100years100stories.ca/), includes an interactive map that shows the various memorials and exhibits across the city.
The website has become a clearing house for all of the events and locations associated with the upcoming anniversary. It also includes stunning archival photos and heartbreaking stories from that grim time.
A grainy 13-minute film shows flattened homes, relief workers trudging through the snow, shattered windows, mangled factories, and wounded people being carried on stretchers to be treated in railway cars.
One of the most touching photos is that of 23-month-old Annie Welsh, who was found in a burned-out home, sheltered by the ash pan of a stove. She would later become known as Ashpan Annie, a well-known resident of Halifax who died at the age of 95 in 2010.