“Like all thunders rolled into one”
It was a Thursday morning of “singular beauty,” one that to Dalhousie English professor Archibald MacMechan felt “warm, almost summer-like” despite winter being just around the corner. In truth, the thermostat never rose above 4 degrees Celsius in Halifax on December 6, 1917. But considering MacMechan could often be found swimming in the Northwest Arm as late as mid-November, his definition of “warm” likely owed more to his personal taste in temperature than creative license.
That particular morning, a few minutes after 9 o’clock, the professor was sitting in the dining room of his home on Victoria Road that he shared with his wife, Edith, and their three children, reading the newspaper. That’s when an impossibly loud noise filled the air. “I went to the head of the stairs when I heard a second explosion, a crack and the sound of breaking glass,” MacMechan wrote in his journal that night. “I saw the glass in the passage by the front door was smashed.”
After two “terrific explosions,” the sound ceased. Racing back to his room for his clothes, MacMechan’s first thought was that a boiler had burst in the kitchen; his second was that an artillery shell had been shot at the city. It was only after he ventured out into the street, quickly filling with confused neighbours, that word got around about the source of the blast.
A collision had occurred in Halifax Harbour.
Florence J. Murray, a fourth-year Dalhousie medical student from O’Leary P.E.I., was still in bed at her apartment on Robie Street when the walls began to shake violently—“like all thunders rolled into one,” as she described it. She hurried downstairs and into the street, anxious that the blast may have been a bomb from an air raid. (This was wartime, after all.) She quickly saw the damage to the neighbouring houses and realized that whatever it was that caused such destruction, people were going to need medical help.
She didn’t have to look far to find them. Rushing to the nearby Buckley’s department store to pick up bandages and iodine, she was inside for only a few minutes when a woman was half-dragged, half-carried into the shop with an artery cut on her face, blood gushing from the wound. Murray immediately took to slowing the bleeding, bandaging the woman’s face as best she could. Leaving the store, Murray crossed people needing assistance every which way she turned. She bandaged wounds large and small as she worked her way towards the hospitals, eventually ending up at the newly completed Camp Hill veteran’s facility, where many of the wounded were being taken. She would end up working there, dressing wounds, every day until Christmas Eve.
Nearly 100 kilometres away, in the basement of what is now the Cumming Building on Dal’s Agricultural Campus, Mary Lee MacAloney was hard at work in the chemistry lab when she felt a slight rumbling. The NSAC student suspected it was someone bringing a piece of heavy equipment into the lab; Chemistry Professor L. C. Harlow was adamant it was an earthquake.
When MacAloney learned what had actually caused the tremor, she panicked: her family lived in Fairview, not far from the Bedford Basin. It wasn’t until 3:30 in the afternoon that a telegram managed to make it through with news they were okay—around the same time MacAloney learned of a Truro-bound trainload of injured set to arrive at 5 p.m. She and her roommate, fellow student Sue Chase, went to the Truro Court House and offered to help.
The Court House was divided into wards as the patients arrived—their faces and clothing blackened, some wounds hastily bandaged, others not at all. MacAloney and Chase washed faces and hands, took care of patients’ bandages and held flashlights while doctors operated well into the night. MacAloney didn’t get back to her boarding house until 9 the following morning. She slept until 1, studied that afternoon and went back to assist at the Court House all evening.
MacAloney stayed on duty for four straight nights, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that she suffered from rheumatism, causing chronic pain in her joints. She would have stayed even longer had Melville Cumming, NSAC principal, not sent word to the hospital to not let her work anymore because he was worried about her health. She just couldn’t help but help.
There are thousands of stories about the Halifax Explosion just like these—stories marked by blood, courage and compassion.
When the French cargo ship the Mont-Blanc collided with the Imo in Halifax Harbour on the morning of December 6, 1917, the resulting blast killed 1,650 people instantly. More than 9,000 more were injured and 6,000 were left homeless. A significant portion of the city—an estimated 1,630 buildings, spanning nearly 2.6 square kilometers—was levelled, with more than 12,000 buildings damaged in some way.
In the explosion’s wake, the shape of the city changed forever. New partnerships emerged, like Halifax’s special relationship with the city of Boston. Generosity found new outlets in organizations like the United Way of Halifax and CNIB, both formed in the aftermath. And, piece by piece, Halifax was rebuilt anew.
Dalhousie was spared the worst of the explosion, with Studley Campus sitting more than 3 kilometres from its source. As reported by the Dalhousie Gazette, there were no fatalities among students or staff and only two serious injuries: one individual (“Hamilton”) lost an eye, while another (“Miss Gunn”) sustained wounds in the face and hands. As for damage, the worst of it was in the Macdonald Building’s science library, today known as University Hall. Its tall Palladian windows were blown in, sending glass flying everywhere and shattering large globes inside. “So intense was the explosion,” wrote Dalhousie President Arthur Stanley MacKenzie, “that windows did not fall out but were broken into pieces from dust to the size of your finger and flung about like snow or hail so that even in this area of the city, there are people cut.”
The Dal Senate convened for an emergency meeting at President MacKenzie’s house the night of the explosion, cancelling all classes until the new year and postponing exams. The eventual bill for campus damage came to nearly $20,000—the equivalent of more than $330,000 in 2017 dollars. President MacKenzie approached Andrew Carnegie of the New York-based Carnegie Corporation, who had previously donated $40,000 to help construct the Macdonald Building, to ask for assistance in paying for the repairs; Carnegie agreed to cover the costs entirely.
In the weeks and months that followed, Dalhousie expertise was put to work taking stock of what had happened. Howard Bronson, professor of physics, completed the first scientific research study on the explosion itself, a paper presented at a meeting of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1918. David Fraser Harris, professor of physiology, was recruited by the Halifax Relief Commission to compile a medical history. Dissatisfied with the content, however (finding it “scrappy,” long and poorly balanced in its focus), the commission shelved the report; Dr. Harris’s work was lost for years until a medical student from the University of Ottawa, working with Dal prof Jock Murray, located it in the Nova Scotia Archives in 1989.
Then there’s Prof. MacMechan, who on December 15, 1917 was asked by the Relief Commission to pen an official history of the explosion. He accepted the assignment with some trepidation—“although not equal to it, I felt I could not refuse,” he wrote in his journal—but quickly got to work. He set up what became known as the Halifax Disaster Record Office, and with the help of Dal student John Mitchell and secretary Jessie MacAloney, started collecting correspondence and arranging interviews to help document the human experience of the explosion.
“Within 15 minutes after the explosion, probably every student in the higher three years was rendering first aid”
MacMechan’s history went unfinished and unpublished in his lifetime; the Relief Commission essentially lost interest in the project and MacMechan’s attempts to find a commercial publisher proved fruitless. (His draft manuscript, lacking its final chapter, lived in the Dalhousie Archives and was finally published in 1978.) But it’s thanks to his work that the stories of students like Florence Murray and Mary Lee MacAloney have been documented for posterity. And their experiences were far from unique.
“Within fifteen minutes after the explosion,” wrote the Dalhousie Gazette in January 1918, “probably every student in the higher three years was rendering first aid, and the majority of students from every faculty were assisting in a variety of ways as numerous as the needs they saw.”
One document in MacMechan’s files, held in the Nova Scotia Archives, is titled “Dalhousie’s Part in Relief Work,” and credits more than 30 different students who were known to have provided care and support to victims. Notably, nearly all of them are women—not surprising considering how the First World War had affected the university’s student population. Total enrolment had declined more than a third from pre-war totals. The Class of 1918 had seen its numbers dwindle from a high of 72 to a mere 20 who graduated that year, and—abnormal for the era—half were women.
Many students made their way to the hospitals—Camp Hill and Victoria General, in particular—where they spent hours dressing wounds and feeding patients. Some ended up at the Nova Scotia Technical College (now Dal’s Sexton Campus), which became one of the city’s hubs for distributing medical supplies. Others helped hand out food and clothing, or did house-to-house visits to check up on neighbours. Wrote the Gazette: “In any place where relief work was progressing, the hospitals, the bread lines, the clothing depots, students were to be found.”
Student Eliphal Nicholas ended up at the Halifax School for the Blind; its residents were largely unharmed, but staff were working to convert classrooms into a makeshift hospital for others in need. Nichols was charged with trekking to the Victoria General to let them know that the school could accommodate 50 patients. “Can you wash cuts?” she was asked when she arrived. “Go in and work.” She dressed wounds for two hours until she was almost faint, and then returned to the School for the Blind and helped clean children and tend to patients there well into the night.
One of the most spectacular stories involved second-year student Margaret Wright and her classmate Mabel White. Wright lived at the Halifax Ladies College, and following the explosion went to campus thinking that classes might still be on. In her travels, she came across White, who had already torn apart her own clothes to make bandages for others. They heard of a need in the direction of Rockhead Infectious Disease Hospital, the northernmost hospital in Halifax. The students stuffed their pockets and muffs with bandages and iodine and made their way north, picking up two more students (“Misses Josephine and Helen Crichton”) en route.
When the foursome arrived at Rockhead around 2 p.m., the facility was “so dilapidated they thought it was not inhabited,” according to MacMechan’s notes. “The windows were broken, the doors smashed in, and the roof broken down… They found the pipes burst, and the floors flooded. They had to wade through water. Lying in the office on the floor, they found 12 or 13 children, covered with blood.” Novices, all of them, to health care, the four students set to work cleaning wounds and feeding patients as best they could. Working on little sleep, they helped keep the facility running for nearly two full days until replacement help arrived.
There are moments of levity to be found in MacMechan’s files, too—the experience of student Christine MacKinnon, for one, who found in her time at Camp Hill “very few [patients] that couldn’t joke.” One laughed about her fear that her husband would go back to the front if he came home from war to a wife with a glass eye. Another, somewhat paranoid, had MacKinnon leave a soda cracker on her nightstand to test whether she could trust her bedside neighbor not to steal her belongings. One woman took pride in the fact her hair was perfectly braided when the explosion hit, always ready for whatever might happen.
But, 100 years on, it’s the horrors in the stories MacMechan heard that hit hardest: eyes ripped from sockets, faces sliced apart, children shivering until they breathed their last breath. For students like Murray who intended careers in health care, the Halifax Explosion must have been a harrowing crash course. But for every medical student who ran into the streets to help others, there were even more who were studying literature, law, science. What drove them to put aside their fears, take a deep breath and do what they could?
Perhaps that is what’s most impressive about the stories of the Halifax Explosion: in MacMechan’s notes, there are no trite explanations to be found of why so many did so much to help, no easy platitudes or inspirational can-do sentiments. Students, like so many in Halifax, became caretakers, emergency workers, cooks, transport—whatever was needed. They couldn’t help but help.
The Halifax Explosion through an artistic lens
The Dalhousie Art Gallery hosts four interwoven art projects related to the Explosion and its aftermath