This was the North End of Halifax some time after 9:04 am on December 6, 1917. A day that will never be forgotten in this city. The day when two ships – the Imo, in ballast, and the Mont Blanc, fully loaded with wartime explosives – collided in the narrow channel between the Halifax Harbour and the Bedford Basin, resulting in what is still the most powerful man-made non-atomic explosion in history.
Ninety-three years later, the Explosion is part of the fabric of everyday life in Halifax, especially in the North End. The few remaining survivors were too young in 1917 to remember much of the event, but survivors’ stories have been handed down through the generations and poignant reminders still remain, like the anchor shaft of the Mont Blanc. It was blown over two miles, retrieved and mounted as a memorial. The tree that graces Boston’s Prudential Plaza every Christmas is a gift from the people of Halifax, in memory of the aid Massachusetts provided in our hour of need.
In 1917, motion picture technology was in its infancy. Only about ten minutes of film of the aftermath of the explosion exist. Here’s a chilling clip I found on YouTube.
I worked for ten years in one of the few buildings to survive the devastation, a school a block away from Ground Zero. Needless to say, with such wholesale death and destruction in its past, the neighbourhood has a unique energy. People still unearth remnants of homes and possessions in their gardens. Strange stories abound.
Several years ago, a friend who lives in the area told me one of those stories. Apparently she got home from work one day, glanced at her kitchen window and saw a man dressed in old fashioned clothes sitting at her table. Before she could react, he vanished. With this story as inspiration, last year I began work on Shattered, a ghost/time travel story of the Explosion. Only now, I think I’ll write it as a straight historical. Easier to get the hero and heroine together, and easier to delve into the treasure trove of history in my own back yard. Here’s a brief excerpt from the story:
Morning, December 6, 1917
Halifax, Nova Scotia
There was no sound.
A towering cloud of smoke rose in the clear winter sky. Fireballs floated upward and silently burst, their strange, magnetic beauty a lure to children on their way to school, workmen on their way to the docks, the rail yard and the sugar refinery, soldiers and sailors on the Halifax waterfront. They gathered to watch the spectacle as the French cargo vessel Mont Blanc drifted toward shore, her deck aflame.
At 3121 tonnes, she was bound for war-torn Europe, loaded to the gunnels with picric acid, gun cotton, TNT and airplane fuel. On her way into the Bedford Basin to join her convoy, she’d had an accident in the Narrows, a minor collision with another ship, the Imo. Sparks ignited the fuel that spilled from drums on the Mont Blanc’s deck.
Her explosive cargo was a military secret. Her crew had launched the lifeboats and made for the Dartmouth side of the Harbour when the fire broke out. A floating bomb, she nosed into Pier 6 in the city’s North End. The crowd of onlookers grew.
Mothers sent children out to buy kindling for morning fires. A minister’s family gathered around their piano to practice for an upcoming concert. Three young brothers risked being late for class and hurried toward the waterfront, hoping to see Halifax’s shiny new fire truck arrive on the scene. Full of excitement and fear mingled, a twelve-year-old girl started off to ask a friend to watch the fire with her.
Something awful is going to happen.
At 9:04 a brilliant flash of light blotted out the world. A tidal wave rose from the Harbour, parting it like the Red Sea. The sky rained ash, metal and glass. A mushroom cloud bloomed against serene blue.
But there was no sound.
K-K-K-Katy, b-beautiful Katy,
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore,
And when the m-moon shines over the cowshed,
I’ll be waiting by the k-k-k-kitchen door!
Liam Cochrane caught his companion by the waist and pulled her into a darkened doorway as the three singing sailors lurched past, trailing liquor fumes in their wake. One of the men looked over his shoulder, leered good-naturedly and snapped off a salute as limp as his wilted uniform. Giggling, Georgie pressed into Liam’s arms, edging him further back into the shadows.
“If I have any more to drink I’ll be three sheets to the wind, too. Time to go home.”
Liam pulled her closer. When he bent his head to kiss her, she rose on her toes and tangled her fingers in his hair. A brief, fierce moment later, Georgie rested her head on his shoulder. With her breasts tight to his chest, lips grazing his neck, taking her home was last on the list of things Liam wanted to do. He tucked a finger under her chin and tilted her head back.
“You sure you’re ready to call it a night?”
Her smoky green eyes held his, full of invitation. Her fingers kindled a fire in him, running lightly along his spine. “No one will be home. I didn’t say anything about calling it a night.”
She reached for his mouth. She tasted like youth, like life. He plunged deep and savoured her.
“I like the way you think, lady. Let’s go.”
They had a walk ahead of them, all the way from Brunswick Street to the North End, but the rye they’d shared with their picnic in Point Pleasant Park had loosened up Liam’s bad hip. As for Georgie’s inhibitions, after three evenings together he knew they didn’t need much loosening. Girls like her had been scarce in Halifax before the war, but not any longer.
They started north past Citadel Hill, walking hand in hand. The round-domed town clock read nine. A breeze had come up, snapping the flags that flew from the old fort on the hilltop, the grey stone reflecting the pink of the twilight sky. Later, fog might roll in off the harbour, but for now the stored heat of buildings and pavement kept it at bay.
The streets filled. Halifax wore a grim face in the grip of winter, a drab and ghostly one in rain, but a fine summer day transformed the city and its people. Even the brick and stone of the industrial waterfront looked brighter and more welcoming, the bustle of wartime business a little less serious. The long evenings drew people out to stroll, socialize and look for trouble, easily found around the Hill. It always had been since the days when Brunswick was notorious Barrack Street, catering to the two greatest needs of men just in off the sea, one of which was a drink.