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HalifaxYesterday : Walter G. MacLaughlan - Photographer and Filmmaker

In the days and weeks following the 1917 Halifax Explosion, MacLaughlan was given full access to the areas of devastation

Walter Goodman MacLaughlan (1871-1935) was born and raised in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He opened his first photographic studio following the family’s move to Boston, Massachusetts in 1890. His younger brother, Donald Shaw MacLaughlan (1876-1938), went on to become one of America's finest etchers. (See Image 1a & 1b above)

After marrying Ella Jane Murray from Pugwash, a small village in rural Nova Scotia, Walter and his new bride moved there in 1895 to start his business. The couple had four children: Bertha, Rose, Marguerite and Murray. MacLaughlan plied his craft throughout the whole province until 1908 when he moved to Vancouver. After six years out west, and just prior to the beginning of WWI, he returned to Halifax and established his studio in the Aberdeen Building at 237 Barrington Street.

Shortly thereafter, Major General Thomas Benson, the commander of Military District No. 6 (Halifax), appointed MacLaughlan to be the official military photographer for the city. Around 1915, he experimented with motion pictures and began submitting requests for approval to take films of soldiers departing for the European theatre. In the days and weeks following the 1917 Halifax Explosion, MacLaughlan was given full access to the areas of devastation, such as ground zero at Pier 6, and the remains of Piers 7, 8 & 9. (See Images 2 & 3 above)

He purportedly used the Eastman Cirkut 8 Panoramic Camera that could take both standard and panoramic images. The camera’s spring motor allowed for panning on a vertical axis in a complete circle. MacLaughlan’s iconic panoramas from this time are stark reminders of the utter destruction and desolation caused by the blast. Young Wallace R. MacAskill, who later became the famed photographer of the schooner Bluenose, was his assistant during this period. (See Images 4, 5a, 5b, 5c & 5d above)

MacLaughlan worked for both British-Canadian Pathé News and International Newsreel until late 1922 when the former closed down. He was employed by Fox Films from 1923 through 1926. During this time, he produced films both commercially and for the Nova Scotia government. Due to poor health, he was forced to move to the warmer climes of Florida and continued to work part-time in photography until his death in Palm Beach on 9 May 1935 at age 63.

W. G. MacLaughlan’s enduring images are on display or housed at archives, libraries and museums throughout Halifax and elsewhere. 126 of his still images, as well as rare surviving portions of his films of the explosion’s aftermath, can be viewed at the Nova Scotia Archives website:

MacLaughlan’s second eldest daughter, Rose Edna Ross, wrote down her family’s Halifax Explosion experiences. These are Edna’s words as forwarded to me by her granddaughter, Linda Harrington. (See Image 6 above)

"Just before war was declared in 1914, Dad opened a studio - he was a photographer - on the corner of Buckingham & Barrington, over the Royal Bank and Bea [Bertha] and I worked in the reception room awhile before she went to Normal College [Truro, N. S.] and I to [Maritime] Business College. I was there on the morning of the explosion- a Belgian Relief Ship and another loaded with explosives collided in the harbour. The North end of the city was partly destroyed and a great many people killed. No one at the College was seriously hurt, although a number of the windows were shattered. The College was about three miles from the Harbour. It happened about nine o'clock as we had all just taken our seats at the College and the teacher for our room came in just as the ships collided. We thought it was a bomb on our building and the teacher ordered us all to run outside and we could see the smoke.

I knew Bea had gone to Dad's studio uptown, so I went down and met her on Barrington St. coming for me. We went back to the Studio but Dad hadn't come in. Mr. Nason, who worked there had been in the developing room and had his head done up as he was cut when the skylight broke up, but not badly. We were living out at Armdale then, about five miles from Barrington St. and we had to walk home, as everything had closed in the city. The traffic was terrible- cars and trucks taking people, who had been hurt, to the hospitals. When we got home we found mama and sister Marguerite ok and Dad had been a few miles from the house on his way to work. He went back home to see if they were ok and then left for the city. Nearly all the windows in our home were shattered, but that was all the damage.

Our cousin, Mary was living with us, since her mother had died and was working in a Halifax store- she was just going into the cloakroom when the explosion came. She wasn't hurt but Bea and I missed her and she had to walk home alone. That night her father arrived from New Glasgow to see how we were and stayed a few days. It was marvelous how soon the city was back to normal. The College was closed about a week, until the windows were repaired and we all went back to classes, except two girls who lived in the North end and their homes were destroyed and they apparently moved away.

A couple days after the explosion I worked at Camp Hill Hospital looking after children whose parents were either in hospital or killed. For a few days the hospitals, especially Camp Hill where I was, were packed- beds close together and quilts on the floor in the corners and three or four youngsters on them to be kept amused while their parents were treated or found. They were all so wonderful and good. Things were back to normal in no time at all."

Rose died in 1998 at Great Village, Colchester County, Nova Scotia. She was 102.

Note: This is a corrected article. The original stated MacLaughlan moved with his family to Vancouver when he tried to establish his studio there in 1908.

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