On Wednesday night, Dec. 5, 1917, with Canadians entering their fourth year of the Great War, schoolkids across Halifax went to bed dreaming of what they would find under the Christmas tree, just 20 days away. Teddy bears and Erector Sets were all stacked up at a new institution called the department store. If you couldn’t get to one, you could order almost anything you wanted from their great innovation, the catalogue.
But these simple dreams were dashed by a disaster that has since been largely forgotten: the Great Halifax Explosion, the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen.
On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, the captain and crew of a French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc were eager to reach the safety of Halifax Harbor — and with good reason. Five days earlier, stevedores in Brooklyn had finished loading her with a staggering 6 million pounds of high explosives, 13 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. The touchy cargo was headed for France, where it would be packed into shells to break the Great War’s three-year stalemate.
A Norwegian relief ship named Imo was just as eager to go in the opposite direction to New York to get supplies. At Halifax Harbor’s narrowest stretch, Imo’s impatient captain, who had no idea what Mont Blanc was carrying, passed several ships on the left, against nautical convention. This set up a game of chicken with Mont Blanc, which bailed first, pivoting to the left at the last second – just as Imo’s captain lost his nerve and veered the same direction.
At 8:46 a.m., Imo struck Mont-Blanc’s bow, igniting barrels of airplane fuel on deck. Mont-Blanc’s crew escaped on lifeboats, while Halifax’s workers and schoolchildren, who also knew nothing of Mont-Blanc’s cargo, walked down to the shore to watch the burning ghost ship slip perfectly into Pier 6.
At 9:04:35, Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling almost half of Halifax, rendering 25,000 people homeless, wounding 9,000 and killing 2,000 more—all in one-fifteenth of a second, less time than it takes to blink. J. Robert Oppenheimer later calculated that the blast packed fully one-fifth the power of the first atomic bomb.
What followed was one of the most miraculous rescue, relief and recovery efforts ever conducted in North America, performed by local Haligonians with no training, and an unprepared city government that rose to the occasion. Even the city of Boston—despite long-running tensions between the U.S. and Canada—sent 100 doctors, 300 nurses and a million dollars ($20 million today) of desperately needed medical supplies — all without being asked. Boston’s overwhelming generosity helped transform the United States and Canada from adversaries to allies.
After the catastrophe, most Haligonians found the idea of celebrating Christmas too frivolous, even disrespectful. For many families, the mere thought of Christmas was a poignant reminder of their losses. Most of the young survivors, however, hoped Santa Claus would bring them a little joy. But with 10,000 children suffering wounds, the loss of their homes or parents, or all three, they feared Santa Claus wouldn’t find them – or worse, would forget them.
On December 17, the editor of the children’s section of Halifax’s Daily Echo — known as Cousin Peggy — started a fund for local children to give them “the best Christmas they ever had.” She invited her young readers to donate their toys or money so the less fortunate could enjoy a bit of the Christmas spirit. With 10,000 children to help, it was an ambitious task.
Within days, toys, books and money for young survivors started coming in, but it wasn’t nearly enough, and time was running out.
Local merchants had already lost their holiday sales, but they eagerly set up “Santa Claus Limited,” a public appeal for money, workers, gifts and automobiles to deliver Christmas to needy children. They figured they needed to raise $5,000 (or $100,000 today) to deliver 10,000 packages of fruit, candy, and cake on Christmas morning to each child.
On December 21, the Mail carried the call, with photographs of six wounded and homeless children: “Although the people of Halifax have performed veritable miracles,” they wrote, “greater efforts must be made. Tangible Christmas cheer must enter every home over which hangs a shadow cast by the great disaster. You can’t refuse THEIR call.”
On December 22, the Echo reported that a crowd of volunteers had shown up with $183, but they needed much more. That’s when help came from adults and children throughout the province, collecting for “Santa Claus Limited” at rural schools, at concerts and just about anywhere people gathered, with more than a few kids emptying their pockets. Editors printed the contributors’ names in the paper, including the children’s.
Through this grassroots effort, by Christmas Eve the appeal had raised more than $13,000 – far surpassing their goal.
With the young patients worried that Santa Claus would not be able to visit hospitals that lacked chimneys, doctors, nurses and staffers – most of them volunteers — worked more overtime to decorate the facilities, and began their Christmas morning rounds singing carols. Children at every hospital woke to find a well-stuffed stocking on their bed, and Santa visiting all of them. The effort was remarkable, but the children’s responses exceeded it.
Evelyn Johnson, an 11-year-old who narrowly avoided having her arm amputated, was recovering at the YMCA where an unusually jolly Father Christmas was making the rounds. It took her a little while to realize it was actually her favorite doctor, an American who had a knack for making the children laugh. She recalled the scene vividly seven decades later.
Meanwhile, at a church hall, Samuel Prince, a distinguished professor who would produce a seminal report on the catastrophe for Columbia University, traded in his black robe for a red gown to play Santa Clause “with gusto.”
One woman, happily spent after hours of volunteer work, said, “I think that today brought me to a greater understanding of the true meaning of Christmas.” Rarely has that realization been so hard-earned.
In the years that followed, the survivors would get bigger, more expensive presents, but none they would remember more dearly than the fruit, candy, and cake they received in 1917 — simple gifts, delivered through the kindness of strangers.
John U. Bacon is the author of The Great Halifax Explosion, available now.