The Halifax Explosion: History Brought to Life
In fall 2007, my daughter and I moved into an apartment building in the north end of Halifax. Our deck faces the Shipyard and overlooks HalifaxHarbor. Watching the gentle waves, the sea gulls, the vessels and the sun hanging above the water is becoming one of my favorite pastimes. I am originally from Beijing and seldom had the opportunity to be such close to a harbor.
One sunny morning, I stood on the deck, sipping a cup of coffee while enjoying the view of the Harbor. My eyes once again touched the area to the north of the Shipyard and my heart skipped a beat. Was it the devastated area around “Pier 6” where the Halifax Explosion happened on December 6, 1917? Had the Richmond Railyards been located there? I hurriedly began digging through my unpacked boxes and pulled out a book called “Explosion in HalifaxHarbor,” which I bought two years ago. A map in the book confirmed my feelings that I was looking at the exact site.
As a Chinese, I had never even heard of the Halifax Explosion before moved to Nova Scotia. However, a very fortuitous series of events brought me to the history.
When my daughter and I immigrated to Canada, we first stayed in Wolfville, a landscape-like small town belonging to the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. We lived in a house with Ms. Janette Snooks, a nurse and community caregiver. The house had its bedrooms upstairs with living-room and kitchen on the ground floor. One day I noticed that a framed newspaper article with a gentleman’s picture in it hung on the wall in the turning corner of the stairs. In the living-room, two pictures particularly caught my eye, too. One was the same gentleman in the framed article. Another was of a woman. Out of curiosity, I stood at the stair corner and read the article.
It described the most significant explosion in widespread devastation, killed about 2000 people and 9000 injured in the blast in HalifaxHarbor on December 6, 1917. The gentleman in the photograph was Vincent Coleman who worked at the Richmond Railyards. It was only a few hundred feet from Pier 6, where a vessel called Mont Blancloaded over 2,900 tons of explosives and flammable material drifted ashore in flames after colliding with another vessel, the Imo. Warned of Mont Blanc’s explosive cargo, Vincent turned to his telegraph key to stop incoming trains. His message was sent out just in time and a train was successfully stopped outside of Halifax before the Explosion.
Thanks to Vincent’s message, the Canadian railway system responded quickly to the disaster and sent relief trains with medical help to the ravaged city. Vincent Coleman’s body and belongings were later recovered and he was named a hero for his quick thinking.
I could not help but to ask Janette who Vincent was. She told me he was her late maternal grandfather. The woman in the living-room picture was his wife, Frances. In 1917 Janette’s mother was just a baby. She and Frances were two of the survivors. Because of Janette the history of the Halifax Explosion suddenly seemed very real to me and was brought to my life accidentally! After listening to her story, I felt differently whenever passed the picture frame in the turning corner.
Janette also showed me a book, “The Halifax Explosion”. The author interviewed her for the book. Opening the book, I saw the same photos of Vincent and Frances in the living-room. I glanced at the book’s dedication, “For my husband, Doug” without paying much attention to this at the time.
I wished I had the book, so looked for it in Wolfville, but did not find it. By chance I bought another informative book, “Explosion in HalifaxHarbour” by David B. Flemming though it was expensive for me.
A short time later, I was told my Masters supervisor, Doug’s wife, Joyce had written a book about the Explosion. Having checked, I ensured the one Janette had loaned me was, in fact, by Joyce Glasner. The dedication, “For my husband, Doug” I had not paid much attention last time really made sense to me this time. Finally I met Joyce and she sent me a copy of her book. Opening the cover, I found I owned a signed copy.
Amazingly, the experience with Janette and Joyce brought me closer to the history and made me more familiar with the Halifax Explosion than what I, a person from China, had ever expected. I could not help, once again, but felt more about the history especially after I moved to the north end of Halifax and found most of the historical sites could visit by walking.
I once stopped over at MaritimeMuseum of the Atlantic an entire afternoon one day to visit the exhibition of Halifax Explosion, to watch the video with the horrible pictures of the ruins and to listen to the pitiful description.
From the corner of Barrington Street and Duke Street, I looked up to the north face of the City Hall Clock. It was permanently stopped to 9:05 a.m., the time that the original clock stopped as a result of the Explosion.
I quietly opened the front door of St. Paul’s Anglican Church and found the piece of metal from Mont Blanc remains flown through the glass window and then embedded above the door in the inside wall of the porch.
I reviewed the name list of those who lost their lives in the Halifax Explosion, I found two of them were from China.
I attended the 90th annual memorial service at Fort NeedhamMemorial Park on December 6, 2007. On that day, I met two of the survivors who are at their late 90s, while I also saw a lot of teenagers and youngsters standing with the grey or white hair in the cold and chilly December wind in memory of the event. As only Chinese, my attendance caused people’s curiosity and attention. Some gaze made me feel I was an alien. Probably they were reasonable –it was really weird–a Chinese woman joining such local event with mostly local Canadians. However, I have stories related to the Explosion, which they did not know, which I like to share with them. My understanding of Halifax is more than they expected that a Chinese woman should have, and my feelings to Halifax are far beyond the whirl and the noises, the peace and the beauty which they feel and I feel everyday.