The Significance of Disaster 100 Years On

100 years after the event, in our rush to glorify Canada's participation in the First World War, we too easily forget that had it not been for the war the Halifax Disaster would not have occurred
Illustration by Hila Peleg (hilapeleg.com)

On August 16 of this year the Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Advisory Committee hosted the opening of the 1985 time capsule removed from the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower in Fort Needham Memorial Park. Creating time capsules is one means of commemorating significant anniversaries of a major historic event. Another is writing books about it.

The 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour, both iconic event and urban legend, is a case in point. Many books have already appeared; more are anticipated. Why does the Halifax Disaster (as it was known at the time) exert such power over the collective memory? We remember it in part because its consequences are still visibly with us. That part of North End Halifax that was formerly the Devastated Area looks the way it does today because of post-disaster reconstruction. We also have Fort Needham Memorial Park, established after the Second World War by the Halifax Relief Commission to honour the memory of the dead and injured.

Every organization that was active in 1917 wants credit for having assisted with relief and some deserve it; yet the federal government organization directly and exclusively responsible for recovery–the Halifax Relief Commission–has so far been written out of the history of the disaster. This is in part because academic scholarship has generally steered clear of the event the late Canadian disaster scholar T Joseph Scanlon described as North Americas worst catastrophe before 9/11. Sadly, Scanlonmagnum opus on the Halifax Disaster was left unpublished at his death in 2015. 

There has been no successor to Alan Ruffman and Colin Howell’s 1994 publication Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour, a volume of essays based on papers delivered at the 1992 academic conference held on the 75th anniversary. Nor are there any serious monographs apart from John Griffith Armstrong’s The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy (2002), Joel Zemel’s Scapegoat (2012)–a masterful study of “the extraordinary legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion” (watch also for Zemel’s new book on the life and times of the harbour ship-traffic controller, Betrayal of Trust)–and Jacob Remes’ Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity and Power in the Progressive Era (2016), an original and highly sophisticated work comparing the Halifax Disaster with the Great Salem Fire of 1914. Otherwise, those interested in academic treatments of the subject can only await the publication of historian David Sutherland’s text and study of the Halifax Relief Commission pension files, forthcoming from The Champlain Society. 

The significance of the event a century later derives from its scale and impact. Every Canadian knows nothing important ever happens in the Maritimes. But on that awful day, an event of national historic significance did occur, one uniquely significant in the history of Halifax, our province, region and indeed our nation. We have cause to be grateful that in May 2016 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Halifax Explosion a national historic event.

Halifax railway station, in which 60 persons were killed by falling roof. Copyright Underwood & Underwood

Now, 100 years after the event, in our rush to glorify Canada’s participation in the First World War, we too easily forget that had it not been for the war the Halifax Disaster would not have occurred. The catastrophe brought the war home to Canada in an extreme manner. For geopolitical reasons bearing directly on the war effort, the disaster was never the subject of a federal public inquiry. The collision was investigated, harbour pilotage was investigated, but the disaster itself never was.

As a result, there has been far more interest in assigning blame, or exculpating individuals, than in exploring the full scale of the truth. The disaster is studied from the narrow perspective of what caused the collision (that caused the fire that caused the explosion that caused the Disaster). Much attention is paid to persons and personalities and retrospective reputation management, offering no great insight into the full, complex story. Microscopic details of the roles of individuals, especially the personal experiences of victims and survivors, are investigated with obsessive enthusiasm, while the Big Picture–the overall impact, loss of life and limb or sight, loss of property and livelihood, response, recovery, reconstruction and legacy, is neglected.

In our efforts to commemorate and understand what happened, it is important to note that Explosion and Disaster are two different things. Too often in our analyses, Explosion has overshadowed Disaster, including the relief efforts, recovery and reconstruction, each of which deserve books. The Explosion is sexier than the Disaster, despite being historically less significant. That the Halifax Disaster is so evocative, so resonant, so eternally present, seems to deter professional historians who might cut it down to size, rob it of its mythic status, situate it critically in historical perspective and context and search for neither heroes nor villains, nor even victims, but merely players in the drama who had their entrances and their exits.

Intellectual interest has largely been displaced by human interest. Popular history of the disaster has flourished for decades and continues to do so. On the occasion of its centenary, several new popular history books are being released. And, despite my desire to see more scholarly interest in the topic, I find each a worthwhile contribution to the continually expanding historiography of the Halifax Disaster, and worth discussing here. In their different ways these books diversify and enrich it. They complement one other in their diversity.

Veteran journalist Ken Cuthbertson’s nearly 400-page Halifax Explosion is the most mature and certainly the best general history of the disaster to have appeared so far. Cuthbertson writes with great discipline and flair, offering well-balanced context and content and sufficient but not overwhelming detail to create a comprehensive, well-written narrative. Personal accounts are not intrusive but rather well integrated variations illuminating the themes.

Halifax Explosion also includes a number of unfamiliar photographs and a useful scholarly apparatus: a “select biography,” endnotes and an index. A regrettable omission from the bibliography is Janet Maybee’s 2015 study of Pilot Mackey: Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey.

New York Times bestselling author John Bacon’s Great Halifax Explosion is also a general history, but there its resemblance to Cuthbertson’s book ends. Much of the story is told from the perspective of a wounded returned veteran, Joseph Ernest Barss (1892-1971), “the accidental doctor” who happened to be in Halifax on the day and found himself assisting with emergency relief. At times context overwhelms content–we do not even reach the Harbour collision until Chapter 14–but Bacon’s book is unusual and imaginative, written in the style of a “nonfiction novel” including invented dialogue. It is complemented by an excellent bibliography, endnotes and index.

Those interested in true history must keep in mind that the book is written more or less exclusively from an American perspective and for an American audience and assumes no prior knowledge. It celebrates Americanism generally and especially the American contribution to the relief effort. The Americans did not save the situation; they simply helped. It was local, provincial and regional assistance that mattered earliest and most.

Bacon’s book is as much about the history of Halifax up to 1917 as it is about the disaster. I was left wondering exactly what is meant by “treachery” in the book’s subtitle, as no attempt is made to elucidate the use of the word.

Historical author Dan Soucoup’s Explosion in Halifax Harbour, 1917 has a broader focus, ranging from a description of Halifax Harbour, the site of the collision, to monuments and commemorations erected or held since the events themselves. The work is absolutely up to date and includes a section called “One Hundred Years Later” about this year’s centenary commemoration.

Uniquely to his credit, Soucoup dedicates a chapter to the “bitter election,” the conscription-issue federal election of December 1917, which found Prime Minister Robert Borden campaigning in the Maritimes when the Halifax Disaster occurred. Soucoup well understands that the “khaki election” was an important aspect of the disaster’s Big Picture, its true roots and results. It is unfortunate, however, to refer to Sir Robert as leader of the “Unionist” Party when in fact the author means the Union government, a coalition headed by Borden.

The photographs and detailed captions in Explosion provide a superb visual guided tour, but I would have welcomed a chapter on “Canadian Responses” in addition to Soucoup’s “Massachusetts Responses.” The Canadian contribution to emergency relief was extensive and yet has again been almost completely overlooked. I was pleased to see a page on the Halifax Relief Commission, but without source notes was unable to check for evidence of Soucoups claim that “…many thought the Halifax Relief Commission should have been called the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Commission, given all the state contributed to relief efforts.

A relatively new area of concern among popular history books on the Halifax Explosion is the role media played in sharing the news and documenting events as they unfolded. Author Michael Dupuis, who holds an MA in history, wrote Bearing Witness (disclaimer: I wrote a blurb for Dupuis’ book and my opinion remains equally favourable), a particularly important documentary sourcebook comprising skillfully introduced and annotated original text.

Organized thematically, Witness offers chapters on the role of Canada’s chief press censor, journalists and others who experienced the disaster firsthand, visiting journalists from elsewhere in Canada and visiting American journalists, as well as a helpful appendix comprising a timeline of journalists and other observers. Dupuis’s book also features an exemplary bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, endnotes and an admirable index.

Dupuis breaks new ground. Instead of ignoring or underutilizing printed primary sources, like many popular writers on the subject, he brings us face to face with them and in a thoroughly well-contextualized manner that not only serves to heighten their inherent interest but also adds materially to their value as historical resources. This work cannot be praised too highly and should find a place in the library of all serious students of the Halifax Disaster.

The subtitle of journalist Katie Ingram’s Breaking Disaster suggests it is a companion to Dupuis’s Bearing Witness but it is a conventional general history based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage. Ingram has supplied a list of 18 of the more than 30 newspapers, from seven countries, including Halifax’s 5 dailies and the Bemidji Daily Pioneer (Bemidji is a small city in northwest Minnesota).

Ingram has put her research to excellent use. As with other general histories, personal experience–human interest–looms large. Telegrapher Vincent Coleman, hero and victim, merits an entire chapter. Despite its richness and readability, I wanted for source notes or a comprehensive bibliography of printed primary sources. Yet the inherent interest of such accounts is undeniable; evidence derived from printed primary sources such as newspapers is always a valuable resource for any historical conversation.

Retired Army colonel and author John Boileau’s 6.12.17 is a coffee-table book of superior quality, the first of its kind on the Halifax Disaster. Superbly designed and illustrated, it might well be subtitled “an illustrated history of the great disaster.” Despite its brevity (106 pages), the work is comprehensive and deals with topics large and small, some more relevant than others, and includes many illuminating sidebars on key figures such as Vincent Coleman and the two ill-fated ships’ pilots and captains.

The eight chapters and epilogue are subdivided into special topics including American aid–but not Canadian–and the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove–but not the town of Dartmouth, the north end of which suffered extensively. These are significant omissions from otherwise well-balanced coverage. Generally speaking, Boileau’s work is a cornucopia, encyclopedic in scope and depth of detail. After reading 6.12.17, I cannot help wondering whether it is not now time for a scholarly encyclopedia of the Halifax Disaster.

Each of these books is well worth reading for those with interest in the events of December 1917. Yet there is still something missing: a current and thorough academic analysis. In its totality, the public history of the disaster is repetitive: accounts tend to be based on and imitate each other. Can one honestly say that serious study of the Halifax Disaster has advanced beyond Janet Kitz’s trailblazing Shattered City, first published in 1989?

The interface between public history (commemoration) and popular history explains why the telling of the Halifax Disaster remains dominated by popular history. They feed on each other. The disaster’s impact remains tangible. The urban morphology of a large area within the North End of Halifax has been determined by it. Significant artifacts of the explosion exist, as do records and oral histories of victims who survived. With extensive primary sources easily available, it seems strange that professional historians have for the most part not paid sufficient attention to the defining event in the city’s history.

It is in many respects an ideal subject and not only for disaster scholars. At the very least, those interested in the subject should have access to a comprehensive critical study of the historiography of the disaster. The centenary should have been the occasion for the flowering of academic research and writing on the disaster. Instead, the opposite has happened; popular history has clearly taken a new lease on life.

Symptomatic of the lost opportunity is the failure to organize another academic conference along the lines of the Gorsebrook Research Institute’s 1992 event–the most important feature of the disaster’s 75th anniversary–or to reprint, or issue a new edition of, Ground Zero. The value of this now-rare and expensive book has only increased in the 23 years since its publication in part because it has had no successor. A century on, it is time for the historiography of the Halifax Disaster to come of age. Halifax Regional Municipality has apparently not given any thought to commissioning an official history of the disaster. There is still time. That would be, far and away, the best legacy project by which to commemorate the centenary.

Written By

Barry Cahill’s first introduction to the Halifax Disaster was walking near the Hydrostone neighbourhood in the early 1970s and coming upon the building at the northeast corner of Young and Isleville Streets, which then housed the offices of the Halifax Relief Commission. He has since completed a scholarly history of the commission. He holds graduate degrees from Dalhousie and Oxford and is author of the official history of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, which has been accepted for publication by McGill-Queen’s University Press. He is currently working on a biography of the late former chief justice of Nova Scotia, the Honourable Lorne O Clarke QC.

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