A scrapbook of memories
6•12•17: The Halifax Explosion
by John Boileau
(MacIntyre Purcell Publishing, 34.95 hardcover)
If you’re looking for a great gift for the history enthusiast in your world, and they have an interest in the Halifax Explosion, John Boileau’s book is ideal. It reminds me a bit of a scrapbook, very cleverly and carefully composed of short chapters and a rich supply of images, and packed with much information about the events leading up to, during, and after the devastating explosion.
Boileau sets the scene with a little pre-explosion history, including an important nod to the Indigenous settlements around Halifax, which the Mi’kmaq referred to as Kjipuktuk, (for “great long harbour”) and from which we draw the English word Chebucto. He returns to the subject of the Mi’kmaq throughout the book, as their communities were also affected by the explosion.
In setting the scene for the event, there’s a sidebar that includes some of the well-known historical figures who were born in 1917, including John F. Kennedy, Arthur C. Clarke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the famous race horse Man o’ War. Antibiotics were unknown, as were most vaccines. As the author notes, diabetes was a death sentence. And 1917 was, of course, the fourth year of what was then called The Great War (WWI) which would leave its own huge mark on Nova Scotia and beyond.
Originally, I thought on a look through that this would be a fairly quick read, but I was utterly drawn in from the very first chapter and went over the text several times. This is a book packed with information, much of it perhaps unknown or less-commonly known by those with a passing acquaintance with the history of Halifax. The Imo, the ship that survived her fatal collision with Mont-Blanc, had been built by the White Star Line—originating life as the SS Runic—the same line that built the ill-fated Titanic.
There are personality profiles scattered throughout the book, bringing to life some of the perhaps lesser-known facets of the story. I love the answer of harbour pilot Francis Mackey, who while being questioned in the inquire following the disaster about his understanding of the harbour shoreline, replied that he knew the shoreline, “Pretty well, yes. Some of the pebbles I might not know.” Another profile is of the Coleman family, survivors of telegraph operator Patrick Vincent Coleman, who got a warning out to communities outside of Halifax about the imminent explosion, at the cost of his own life. There is debate as to whether or not his message stopped the No. 10 train, but for sure other stations heard the message and were able to help mobilize aid fairly promptly. Coleman’s wife and children survived the explosion, although their house was demolished.
Boileau doesn’t gloss over the death and destruction that happened that day, but he also meticulously illuminates the aftermath—the aid, the stormy weather, the recovery of the dead, the stamping out of the ‘fake news’ reports of the time (including that there were saboteurs responsible for the explosion) and the reconstruction of lives and city in the weeks and years following December 6, 1917. There is a touching page of tribute to long-time survivors, those who were children old enough to remember the events of the time, but now since passed away. And there is coverage of the ‘second’ Halifax Explosion, when the Bedford Magazine blew up in July of 1945; a lesser event, to be sure, but no less terrifying at the time, with the memory of 1917 still very vivid in the minds of so many.