Thursday, May 31, 2012
The Halifax Explosion
Since my retirement just over two years ago several people have asked me when I plan to write the great American novel. I guess everyone whose professional career involves research and writing (I worked as a historian for over 30 years) is expected to write a novel when they finally have the time to dedicate to the task. I have kicked around the idea of a transition from non-fiction to fiction, but I always figured my time and attention would be better served with short stories, maybe even a novella. I had not really considered a novel . . . not until this spring. Why the change of heart?
Last summer I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia for the first time. I returned there in January to further explore this fascinating city in Atlantic Canada. I have already written about some of my initial impressions, but I have not fully investigated one of the more important events in Halifax’s history . . . one which very few people outside of Nova Scotia have ever heard about. As I delved into the subject, and after reading a series of novels by the American writer Howard Norman (The Museum Guard, Devotion, and The Haunting of L.) which take place in Halifax, I have come up with what might be a great subject for an extended piece of fiction, perhaps even the next great American-Canadian novel?
Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia and the largest Canadian city east of Montréal, has one of the largest, deepest and mostly ice-free natural harbors in the world which has made it an ideal British, then Canadian military base since the 18th century. A permanent base, the Halifax Naval Yard, was established in 1759 to counter the French presence in the region during the Seven Years War, and it soon became the largest British naval base on the Atlantic coast of North America. Halifax played no significant role in the American Revolution far to the southwest although it became home to thousands of Loyalist refugees fleeing New York and Boston after they fell to the Continental Army. The importance of the British naval presence in Halifax grew, however, throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and War of 1812 against the infant American republic when the naval yard became a major Royal Navy base for supplying and refitting the British fleet. The invasion force, which attacked and burned Washington in August 1814, was assembled here and the city thrived as a result of the large numbers of American ships captured by the British navy and allied privateers. The importance of Halifax and its naval yard diminished during the 19th century although it remained an important British overseas base. Its fortunes as a merchant center increased during the American Civil War as a neutral port trading with both the Union and the Confederacy.
Following the establishment of the Canadian confederation in 1867, Halifax remained a major British military base until 1910 when the new Royal Canadian Navy took over the Naval Dockyard. With the beginning of World War I, and as a result of its strategic location in the North Atlantic, Halifax would come into its own as an Allied naval base and commercial port and staging area for the convoys bringing Canadian troops and supplies to the Western Front in Europe.
This all ended on the morning of December 6, 1917, less than a year before the armistice ending the Great War, when the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which had recently arrived from New York loaded with over 2000 tons of piric acid, 200 tons of TNT and drums of high octane fuel, collided with the Norwegian ship Imo on its way to New York to collect relief supplies destined for war-ravaged Europe. The collision occurred in the narrows separating the city’s main outer harbor, which opens to the North Atlantic, from the broad inland expanse of the Bedford Basin where ships normally anchored and where convoys assembled before their departure. The resulting fire aboard the Mont-Blanc led to the largest man-made explosion before the first testing of an atomic bomb almost 27 years later. It remains among the largest recorded non-nuclear man-made explosion.
This three kiloton explosion and the subsequent shock wave, which was felt over 200 miles away, decimated every building within a 500 acre strip of land along the harbor in the Richmond neighborhood on the city’s north end. Approximately 2000 of the city’s inhabitants were killed, many of them instantly, and the bodies of victims, many which could not be identified, were still being discovered two years after the disaster. An additional 10000 people were injured and many thousands were left homeless as nearly every building in the city was adversely affected by the explosion. Dartmouth, on the opposite side of the harbor, was also heavily damaged by the explosion and the resulting tsunami as were numerous ships and vessels in the harbor. Debris from the explosion landed over three miles away. Miraculously, most of the crew of the two ships involved in the collision survived. Rescue efforts from throughout Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States were complicated the next day by a blizzard lasting six days which dumped an almost unprecedented accumulation of snow on the city.
I am not the first person to consider a fictional account of the Great Halifax Explosion - several Canadian writers have covered this ground to some degree - but I do have a different slant on the story from those previous told. I am also one of only a few American writers - John Irving touched on the story in his 2005 novel Until I Find You, and Anita Shreve used the events surrounding the explosion in A Wedding in December (2005) - who have investigated this event little known in the United States. And it is all shaping up quite nicely.