The Horrors of the Halifax Explosion: Long-Lost Photographs of Canada's Worst Disaster Have Recently Been Uncovered, Giving Us an Extraordinary View of the Terrible Events That Unfolded 101 Years Ago

By Cuthbertson, Ken | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

The Horrors of the Halifax Explosion: Long-Lost Photographs of Canada's Worst Disaster Have Recently Been Uncovered, Giving Us an Extraordinary View of the Terrible Events That Unfolded 101 Years Ago


Cuthbertson, Ken, Queen's Quarterly


IT was an event that is unique in Canadian history. The bloodletting of World War I, the so-called "War to End All Wars," was nearing the end of its fourth calendar year when on the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc was inbound, while the Norwegian war relief vessel SS Imo was making a hasty departure for New York.

The captains of the Mont-Blanc and Imo were veteran mariners. Experienced local pilots were aboard both ships and were providing expert guidance and direction. The sea was calm. The temperature hovered near the freezing mark on a clear day-although those who survived to recount their memories of the disaster would talk about the slight mist that hung over parts of the harbour.

It was due to an unlikely sequence of misunderstandings and misfortunes that at 8:45 a.m. the Mont-Blanc and Imo collided in a bottleneck area of the shipping channel that is known as the Narrows.

Almost immediately, fire broke out aboard the Mont-Blanc. As the blaze grew in intensity, barrels of high-octane fuel that had been piled on the deck of the French ship began exploding, one after another. Billowing clouds of black smoke drifted skyward. The spectacular pyrotechnics, a sight to behold, drew thousands of curious onlookers to the water's edge. All were blissfully unaware of a terrible secret: the Mont-Blanc's cargo holds were jammed with a devil's cargo of 3,000 tons of Allied military explosives. The morning tide pulled the burning ship ever closer to Pier 6, one of the largest of the wooden piers that dotted the Halifax waterfront.

A kilometre distant, Lieutenant Victor M. Magnus and his shipmates aboard the Royal Navy ship HMS Changuinola watched in fascination as the fire aboard the Mont-Blanc raged. The British armed merchant cruiser had dropped anchor near the Naval Dockyard after arriving in port the previous day. The ship's log recorded that at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of December 6, Changuinola began taking on coal while the 217-man crew set about making ready for the ship's scheduled Saturday departure on convoy escort duty.

Lieutenant Magnus, a 29-year-old native of Essex, England, was an avid amateur photographer who carried his camera with him whenever he could. And this morning, before he began his working day, he stood on the deck of Changuinola, snapping photos of the busy scene in Halifax harbour. His reveries were interrupted at 9:04 a.m. by a catastrophic explosion --the largest man-made detonation prior to the 1945 development of the atomic bomb. While Magnus escaped serious injury, many others did not. A fiery shock wave generated by the blast levelled half the city of Halifax and caused widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure.

By the time the ensuing fires were extinguished and the dust and oily fallout had settled, more than 2,000 people lay dead while 9,000 more were injured. The disaster was-and remains-the worst in Canadian history.

The Changuinola, like many of the other ships in Halifax harbour on the morning of December 6, 1917, suffered damage. However, the big ship remained afloat and seaworthy, and so members of the crew joined in the initial relief, recovery, and salvage operations. A 9:30 a.m. entry in the ship's log reports, "Cutters away with officers & men to help ashore."

Remarkably, the port of Halifax reopened within two days, and the vital convoys of ships that were fuelling the Allied war effort in Europe resumed. On December 15, Changuinola departed on escort duty, taking Lieutenant Magnus and his camera with her.

The lieutenant survived the war and afterward returned home to resume his job as a marine insurance underwriter. After he died in 1966, his photo albums collected dust for almost half a century in the attic of his daughter's home in Hayle, Cornwall. It was here, one day in 2014, that Ann Foreman, then aged 89, rediscovered them. …

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