Only seminal events in history are remembered and discussed passionately and repeatedly. Ask Nova Scotians what they feel was a life-altering set of circumstances in this province in the past couple of centuries and many would answer the Halifax Explosion of 100 years ago.
Today marks that grim anniversary and there has been plenty of discussion, commentary and even theatrical presentations surrounding the occasion. And of course in the years since the explosion there have been countless books, documentaries and other accounts about what happened – about the circumstances that went horribly wrong leading to the destruction of a good part of a city and deaths in the thousands.
As a central point of shipment of goods, personnel and armaments to the First World War effort, Halifax was a busy spot with all the potential of something cataclysmic happening. When just the right ingredients and missteps yielded the largest manmade explosion in history short of an atomic bomb, it became not only a local and national tragedy, but a world event.
Much has been made in books and commentary about the conditions and lack of foresight from various levels of government that contributed to an accident waiting to happen – if that can really be called an accident.
But this event also gets re-examined through changing attitudes over the years. For example, different areas around the city and harbour experienced varying levels of destruction. They also saw varying levels of response and help following the tragedy, leading to accusations that the typical attitudes of class, race and social strata were firmly entrenched.
One hundred years later we can only take a look at those accounts through fresh eyes and consider how things could be done differently today.
But the response, the grand, combined effort that went into helping the city in such turmoil is one of the biggest aspects of the story as it is recounted a century later.
The City of Boston’s response sending doctors and nurses to help is inevitably detailed when talking about this event – as is the continuing tradition of Nova Scotia sending the gift of a Christmas tree to that city as a gesture of gratitude. The bond between the two cities, although divided by an international border, had been long established through commerce and by family ties generations old.
But a central part of the story we’re happily being reminded about was the immediate relief effort from areas surrounding Halifax – from Pictou County, from Truro, Amherst and other towns. Doctors and nurses made the trip, as did other emergency workers to help contain the fiery aftermath.
Many of the wounded who could be relocated were brought back to these towns where space was found for makeshift hospitals for some of the thousands needing treatment. One can only imagine that a brutal war overseas played a part in having people steeled to deal with such an emergency.
It’s a disaster and valiant response that speaks for the character of the people of the province, and will continue to spin tales in years to come.