From The Story of Dartmouth, by John P. Martin:
In 1917 the United States entered the Great War, and the Dominion Government passed a Conscription Bill. Christ Church celebrated its 100th anniversary and erected a monument to her war dead on the Church grounds. Canon C.W. Vernon published a Centenary Book of Anglican parishes hereabouts. Alexander McKay late Supervisor of Halifax Schools died at Dartmouth in April.
In June the Auto Bus Company commenced a service to Woodside, Austenville and the North End. Among the promoters were G.G. Thomson, R.K. Elliott and P.H. Creighton. Hitherto everybody had hiked or pedaled, even to Imperoyal. Gerald Foot opened a small garage on Dundas Street, sold Chevrolet cars and operated taxi-cab. Sarsfield division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was formed in Dartmouth, and a branch of the Canadian Club was organized. Daylight Time was voted down that year.
Owing to lack of funds, the Reading Room which had served the public since 1889, was permanently closed that spring. The MacKeari Shipbuilding Company acquired land at Tufts’ Cove north of the [Indigenous] reservation. A tern schooner 135 feet long was launched at Williams’ shipyard. All classes of steamers and other vessels swung at anchorage in the harbor, some of then hazardously near the path of the Dartmouth ferries. The “Olympic” came and went from Pier Two, carrying troops over and invalided men homeward, with the regularity of a transatlantic ferry. Scores of ships from North American ports, laden with supplies of war and food for Europe, used to assemble in Bedford Basin and then steam overseas in an armed convoy. This war-time arrangement spelled doom for hundreds in the City and in surrounding area because it brought death, devastation and long years of suffering into their lives. As the memories of the great Halifax Explosion are slowly fading, and the survivors gradually disappearing, the tragic story is here related in considerable detail.
On the morning of Thursday, December 6th, 1917, a munitions: ship named the “Mont Blanc” steamed up from the harbor mouth where she had anchored overnight. Her murderous cargo consisted of deadly TNT, tons of picric acid and a deck load of benzine drums. About the same time, the Norwegian steamer “Imo” chartered for Belgian relief purposes, came out of Bedford Basin.
At the Narrows, these two vessels came into collision. The cause was never (fully) known. There was neither fog nor haze. A lemon-colored sun was arching its way up the far southeastern sky and the wind was so weak that it had not yet cleared away the nightly hangover from smoky chimney-tops. It was to be the last day of fine weather for more than a week. And sad to relate, it was to be the last day of all days for some 1600 unsuspecting men women and children hereabouts.
The effect of the collision was to burst the benzol tins which then sprayed other chemicals to set the French ship on fire. Realizing their perilous position the Captain, crew and Pilot hastily abandoned ship, rowed frantically to the Dartmouth shore and scurried far up Jamieson Street. All the while they kept gesticulating and shouting out wild warnings in French, which were not interpreted by the unmoved residents of that section who were watching the spectacle of the burning ship from the street, or through the windows of their comfortable kitchens, little dreaming that the steamer carried deadly munitions.
At 9.05 a.m., a tremendous blast rent the air. Seconds later came a terrific concussion which shook the very foundations within an area of two and one-half square miles. Hundreds met instant death when houses were flattened, or large structures like the Richmond Refinery, the Ropeworks and Gland’s Brewery crashed into a mass of rubble. Showers of metal, water and oil fell like rain all over north Halifax, Tufts’ Cove and north Dartmouth.
To add to the terror, stoves were overturned and fires broke out, burning to death helpless victims pinned under the debris. The shrieks and moans of the blinded and bleeding were pitiful. Most of the “Mont Blanc” was blown to bits. A half-ton anchor on the forward deck was tossed up over the heights of Richmond to land on Edmonds’ grounds at the Northwest Arm, well over two miles away. A large cannon on her £tern deck described an arc through the air to the eastward almost in line with the present Courtney Road, to land on the south-western slope of Pine Hill not far from Big Albro Lake. The distance is almost two miles.
The [Indigenous] encampment at Tufts’ Cove was completely wiped out and never again restored. The number of persons killed outright on the Dartmouth side of the harbor was estimated at 40, but for the next fortnight there was an average of three or four deaths daily, no doubt due to explosion injuries or to pneumonia following shock and exposure. Many of these casualties resulted from a 10 o’clock alarm of a second explosion at the Wellington Barracks munitions magazine where fires were raging. The warning forced north enders to remove their sick and injured to open spaces like Victoria Park and Notting Park where they remained helpless and shivering. Downtown people fled to the Common Field and to Silver’s Hill.
In the remaining parts of Dartmouth and in the suburbs, structures of every description suffered in proportion to their proximity to the devastated north-end. The Rolling Mills, near the lower Canal, went down like a house of cards. Chunks of glass went whizzing from store windows, or smaller particles swept like horizontal hail through shops, offices and homes, so that hardly one in ten escaped being riddled In some part of the body. Nearly a score of persons lost their eyes. Some lost both.
Every possible vehicle was requisitioned to convey the victims to temporary hospitals set up at Greenvale School, at the Dr. Parker house at “Beechwood”, the Scarfe house at “Edgemere”, at Imperoyal and at the N. S. Hospital. The Imperoyal authorities also turned over several shacks which provide shelter for over 200 homeless. It was estimated that about 162 houses had been rendered uninhabitable in Dartmouth.
In order to give young people and newcomers an idea of the intensity of this disaster, we append a few excerpts from an account of the explosion written afterward for the Windsor Tribune by Mrs. A.C. Pettipas, whose residence stood (and still stands) at the southeast corner of Windmill Road and Dawson Street:
About 8.35 a.m., I had occasion to go into the bedroom which overlooked the harbor and noticed that something strange was happening. Two large steamers were almost together. One had swung round at right angles to the other and was drifting stern first into Pier 8 at Richmond. Tiny flames were leaping up from her stern section. At intervals of about three seconds occurred nine minor explosions, each successive one becoming more threatening. Then there was an alarming explosion. A great ball of black smoke rose some 500 feet, and out of this came lurid cardinal flames.
I raised the window to call to two women who were talking excitedly on the street corner. This act probably saved my life and certainly my eyes. As I leaned out to call, a blinding sheet of fire shot about a mile into the air and covered the whole sky. Then a violent concussion rent the air and threw me with a terrific force across the room. I struck the wall, and fell, coming into contact with the foot of the bed as I did so. There I lay, half under the bed, while the floor sagged down in the shape of a hammock. The chimneys crashed through the roof completely wrecking the bathroom. The house swayed and rocked. Doors and window sashes were ripped asunder. Splinters of glass shot through the room and buried themselves an inch deep in the plaster which by now was falling on me in whitened masses…
One could count fully 40 seconds while the deafening and fiendish noises filled the air. I was perfectly conscious and fully realized what had happened. I was certain that nothing could be left of the ship after such an explosion. I thought of my husband who was in Halifax, and of my mother who lived farther north on Hester Street. Then came a calm. I could not realize that I had been spared. I was deaf, there was a great roaring sensation in my head, and I felt stunned. Staggering to my feet, I found that the hall stove had been tipped back against the wall with the fire still burning brightly. It was badly battered with one leg smashed, but I propped it up with a brick and ran out to the kitchen. It was a shambles, but fortunately the kitchen fire had gone out.
I snatched my raincoat and hat and was on the street within a few minutes. Water was dripping from the teetering roofs of houses as if there had been a deluge of rain, although it was a perfectly fine day. (I was told later that a tidal wave had swept to Windmill Road. Some who were eye-witnesses along the waterfront, say that they saw the bottom of the harbor but I cannot vouch for the truth of this statement.) My feelings on reaching the street baffle all description. Across from our house lay a heap of ruins which but a few minutes before had been the new Emmanuel Church. I tried to run, thinking that my mother would be alone and if not killed, at least severely injured.
Along Windmill Road, every house was in a pitiable state of destruction, and at every doorway or window appeared faces of dazed and bleeding victims. I had not gone far north, when a heavy shower of black hail fell, great lumps of ice, coated in black soot. Smoke clouded the air like an overhanging pall making it almost as dark as night. Lumps of twisted metal, probably from the “Mont Blanc”, were falling all round, making it dangerous to be in the open.
A woman in the street thrust a baby into my arms. The child was covered with blood and may have been dead. She begged me in God’s name to hurry it to a doctor. Just then a team came along and I got the driver to take the child downtown for medical assistance. As I passed Crathorne’s demolished mill, I saw more evidence of the great extent of the disaster. Women and children covered with blood and soot, unrecognizable even to their own families, were rushing hither and thither in a panic while their homes nearby were a mass of flames.
Reaching Hester Street, I learned from my little brother who had survived the Victoria School crash on Wyse Road, that my mother had gone to Halifax early that morning. Her house was almost a total ruin but strangely enough the kitchen stove was on all-fours and the fire was still smoldering. Stepping outside the door, I encountered a four-year old child who was barefooted and in its nightdress covered with blood and soot. His mother had been killed. With the child was a deformed boy who lived in the same house with his cousin. The latter had also been killed. The deformed boy had a gaping hole in his neck from which blood flowed freely. Mothers unironed clothes were still on the kitchen table, and with strips of these I hurriedly bound up the wounds of the two children.
Then a neighbor woman appeared with her daughter whose arms had been cut by flying glass. The mother had been ill in bed, and saved herself by covering up with bedclothes. The mother was dazed and unable to think, but I promised to take her daughter with the others to my home on Dawson Street until medical assistance arrived. I hardly know how I managed my way back, with the child in my arms and the boy and girl following behind. Heaps of rubble and glass strewed the streets, and houses were everywhere on fire. Dead and wounded lay on the sidewalks and sometimes in the middle of the street where they had fallen from loss of blood. Firemen were running from one fire to another. I struggled on, occasionally resting on a doorstep or a piece of fallen timber. Here and there we passed rescue crews from HMCS “Niobe” who were carrying dead and wounded to emergency shelters in the south end of Dartmouth and suburbs.
Here is a mild sample of what structures looked like all over the north end after the 1917 Explosion. Some houses were completely flattened or had the roofs and sides blown out. Then they caught fire. This was Tufts’ Cove School at the Town limits on Windmill Road. As classes did not commence until 9.30 a.m., in winter, pupils were not in the building at the time. (The writer continues with an account of getting her patients comfortably settled, and then the warning of a second explosion at the Halifax magazine. This fresh panic sent nearly everybody fleeing to Victoria Park or to open spaces on the Common, but it did not move Mrs. Pettipas. She then describes the sight of houses afire on the Richmond slopes, and the safe arrival of her mother and husband from Halifax. The latter was cut in a number of places, but “mother didn’t have a scratch”.)
Among the eye-casualties on Explosion Day, the saddest case was at Tufts’ Cove where Mrs. William Dumaresq and her little daughter Vera, were both totally blinded by flying glass when their house at the foot of [Indigenous people] Road was flattened, killing two other children. The husband was among those killed at the nearby Brewery. At Tufts’ Cove also, a little boy named Fraser lost an eye. Near the Basin shore at Burnside, Miss Mae Barry, daughter of Andrew Barry, lost the sight of an eye but saved the organ. At the Consumers’ Cordage Co., Manager Leo Graham and George (Sandy) Ferguson each lost an eye. At 31 Pelzant Street, Mrs. Owen Sawler lost an eye. (Almost 40 years afterwards, Mrs. Sawler told me that powdered glass was still working out through her forehead.)
In the downtown area, Miss Flora Heffeman, stenographer at Simmonds’ Hardware, lost an eye from a shattered electric-light-shade. Clifford Prescott, in the same office, lost his eye when windows blew to pieces. Flying glass on the 9 o’clock ferryboat from Dartmouth caused an eye-loss for Miss Flora Murphy of Preston Road. At 17 Dahlia Street, Mrs. Douglas Mills lost an eye when suddenly showered with glass and debris while at work in her kitchen. A boy named Russell Urquhart lost his right eye from bookcase glass at Hawthorne School. In her home at the corner of Portland and James Streets, Mrs. Charles A. MacLean lost the vision in one eye, but saved the organ. At 298 Portland Street, Mrs. Walter C. Bishop was pinned by the metal end of a diving window-blind-roller which necessitated removal of the eye. And so far as known, Miss Irene Wentzell was injured in almost the same manner in her home at 3 Albert Street. At any rate the eye had to be removed. (The above list is made from recollection and from inquiry, but there must be many names missing, especially in the north areas.)
These afflicted people walked, ran or were transported to Queen Street where were located our five town doctors. Dr. Burris was at 32, and Dr. Payzant at No. 31. Already the sidewalks were encumbered with the maimed and bleeding as more and more victims arrived. Hatless women from neighboring homes were working hurriedly with bandages, Dr, Dickson, at the northwest corner of King and Queen, was operating on a table outside his door, because there was then a warning not to remain inside of buildings.
In Dr. Gandier’s residence at 60 Queen Street, and in Dr. Smith’s at the southwest corner of Queen and Dundas, patients were the office and on the floors of the halls, dining room, living room and kitchen. Russell Urquhart, who was led by his brother from Hawthorne School, afterwards related that when his turn came, he was placed on a fur coat in that section of the street, where Dr. Smith put 22 stitches in his mangled face around the injured eye as fast as the boy’s mother could thread the needles.
Hawthorne Street must have been in the line of bedrock that conveyed the concussion, for there were a series of casualties along that thoroughfare. There was one fatality. At 82 Hawthorne Street Mrs. James Cooper suffered such frightful jugular injuries from jagged glass that she had just strength enough to run screaming in the street where she bled to death before the flow could be stopped. In the very next house, Mrs. Edward Conrod lost an eye when window glass smashed into her kitchen at 80 Hawthorne Street. At No. 13 Hawthorne, Mrs. Ellsworth Smith lost the sight of an eye, but not the organ. Another eye casualty was Gladys, three-month-old child of Mr. and Mrs. John Riel 44 Dawson St. This girl had poor health and died at 17 years.
Of all the narrow escapes from death on that dreadful morning, the most miraculous case is that of George Holmes of Tufts’ Cove who still lives to tell the tale. Mr. Holmes was operating the north ferry motor-boat service at the time, and noticing the men rowing from the “Mont Blanc” in a hurry, he headed for the burning steamer with the intention of taking off anyone who might have been forgotten. According to Mr. Holmes, the French ship carried no red flag. The last thing he remembered was that his little craft was about 50 yards away from its destination.
After that, he was unconscious for 19 days in a temporary hospital at the Halifax Ladies’ College on Harvey Street. On Christmas day he revived. Only recently, George related that he knew exactly what happened him, but from meager particulars gathered from time to time, he learned that he was picked up Hanover Street in Richmond. The only clothing left on his bruised ash-embedded body was a heavy pair of high rubber boots.
Of the many pieces of metal that blew to our side of the harbor, not one seems to have been preserved as a memento. Missiles landed in the most unusual places. One sharp chunk hit the roof and through to the cellar of a house on Water St. It landed within a few feet of a little girl named Lynch lying ill in the upstairs bedroom. To this day, hundreds of people in the City and areas surrounding Dartmouth will tell you of similar incidents and how they just missed death by inches.
Many of those injured in the Explosion complain bitterly of the meager dole awarded them in years by the Relief Commission. It is high time Dartmouth had a say in the vast fund certainly not donated exclusively to Halifax.
Whatever chance our stricken and anguished north end residents had of salvaging essential household goods like bedding and clothing, was utterly ruined by a driving snowstorm which set in on December 7th, wrecking tented shelters and covering their abandoned or flattened premises with undulating masses of snow, so that the very location of former buildings was in some cases completely obliterated. The storm was followed by rain on the 8th, and afterward by a prolonged period of cold weather.