Halifax Explosion created special bond with Boston

By Michael Lightstone

Most Canadians and Americans familiar with the Halifax Explosion probably know about the relief train that was sent here from Boston.

A blizzard following the Dec. 6, 1917, blast delayed Massachusetts’s unsolicited response by rail, a large emergency effort aimed at a small city that saw its north end flattened following the collision of two ships, including a munitions vessel, in Halifax Harbour.

The train headed up to Nova Scotia carrying medical supplies and other goods, American Red Cross representatives, surgeons, additional doctors and nurses. Specialists included an anesthetist and ophthalmologist dispatched to help treat a myriad of eye injuries.

What many on both sides of the border may not realize, is aid continued to flow to Halifax from the people of Massachusetts after the relief train, which was also hampered by a broken-down engine, arrived on Dec. 8.

Once grim news of the tragedy had reached Boston, municipal and state leaders of the day mobilized. An article in Boston Magazine in 2015 said overall, the state of Massachusetts donated more than $750,000.

The arts community responded and did what it could, too: the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a benefit concert for Halifax in the days following the catastrophe, Brian Douglas Tennyson says in his 2015 book, Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918.

Tennyson’s book says responses to the disaster from the Boston region and beyond, included these: Harvard University transported “a complete hospital unit” to Halifax, Maine “sent 110 doctors, plus nurses and other volunteers” and other emergency response trains “began arriving from . . . Philadelphia, and Washington.”

It was the worst of times and help was desperately needed. About 2,000 people were killed in the explosion, which took place one clear morning in a key Canadian port during the dark days of the First World War. Some 1,600 homes were levelled and scores of residents were injured.

Turtle Grove, the small Mi’kmaw community on the Dartmouth side of the harbour, was blasted during the disaster; inhabitants were killed there but most survived. Back in Halifax, much of the city was in ruins.

“The town was literally ablaze, the dry dock and dockyard buildings completely demolished and everywhere wounded and dead,” Frank Baker, a Royal Navy sailor, wrote in his diary, according to a Smithsonian Magazine story published last July.

“The theatres and suitable buildings were all turned into hospitals or shelters for the accommodation of the homeless,” he said in his journal, and military personnel patrolled the streets to keep order.

Blair Beed, in his 1998 book, 1917 Halifax Explosion and American Response, says the train from Massachusetts was not the only mode of transportation used to provide help for Nova Scotia’s capital. Supply ships from Boston steamed toward the city, as well, the book says.

“The American response to Halifax was quick, sincere and generous,” Beed says in his book.

Abraham C. Ratshesky, the commissioner-in- charge of Massachusetts’s Halifax relief expedition, filed a detailed report in 1918 with the state’s governor.

The report says shortly after Ratshesky arrived, he was taken to Halifax City Hall.

On the way, “an awful sight presented itself,” it says. “Buildings shattered on all sides; chaos apparent; no order existed.”

U.S. assistance was crucial but wasn’t the earliest to arrive. A website operated by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, notes Truro and other closer communities were able to send relief trains sooner.

The aid from Massachusetts didn’t stop precisely a century ago, Tennyson notes in his book.

“Upon (the Americans’) return home,” he wrote, “many of the people involved in the relief effort formed an organization which they called the Halifax-Massachusetts Relief Associates, which worked with Halifax and the government of Nova Scotia for the next five years to improve the lives of survivors.”

Tennyson’s book says “the people of Nova Scotia, and particularly Halifax, were astonished and gratified” by the unconditional assistance – swift, well-organized help – given by the Americans 100 years ago.

Mayor Mike Savage told Halifax council recently that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had hoped to be in Halifax Wednesday for a memorial event. Walsh will be unable to attend, however Boston Commissioner Joe Finn and a team from the city's fire department are expected to be there.

At an event in Boston last week with a delegation from Nova Scotia, Mayor Walsh said, in addition to remembering the terrible tragedy, this year we also celebrate 100 years of friendship between the two cities.

“In a time when we're seeing hostility and tension across the world, we're especially thankful for these friendships,” he said. “We set an example for the rest of the world on how we take care of each other, especially in times of need.”

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth

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