The Halifax Explosion

Submitted by Devonna Edwards

Article from “SAWBONES’

The Halifax Explosion December 6, 1917 and how the Sister of Charity from Mount St. Vincent Academy helped on that terrible day.

Mount Saint Vincent is located in Rockingham on the Bedford Highway. The site was used as a temporary hospital after the Explosion. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul turned their gymnasium into a hospital to care for the injured and dying who were brought to them in wagons. The building was part of the original Academy that had burned down in 1951. This article, found in the Mount’s Yearbook of June 1924, was written by a student of the Academy.

“On the day of December sixth, at nine o’clock in the morning we were all as usual, busy with school work. It was a day of such brilliant sunshine that an extreme effort of the imagination would have been necessary to wrench the mind from thoughts of happiness to those of Death and Disaster. And yet, Death and Disaster, both were lurking in the munitions ship that was slowly making its way up Halifax Harbour towards the Narrows.

“At about five minutes after nine there was a curiously low rumble, and the whole house shook. There was a moments breathing space, and then came a report so loud, so penetrating, so overwhelming, that it seemed as if all the deafening sounds of earth and heaven were concentrated in its impact. There was a crash; a storm of cracking wood, of smashing glass, of falling statuary, of splintered doors; a rain of plaster. Panic-stricken, we rushed from classrooms and music rooms and assembled in the lower hall. Nobody knew what had happened. Confusion reigned for the moment. All were talking, some were crying, some were trying to staunch their own wounds or those of others. In a short time the comforting words of the Sisters calmed our agitation, and their skillful hands had bathed and dressed the wounds of the injured ones. It was found that no one had been severely cut, though nearly everyone had scratches. Imagining that we were the sole victims of the disaster, and ignorant as yet of its true cause, we were startled by the arrival of an engineer who came running from his locomotive to beg the Sisters, in God’s name, for clothing and bandages for the wounded in the city, where thousands were in need of assistance. Sweaters and coats were immediately given, sheets were torn into strips for bandages, and all contributions were piled into the caboose, which hastened to the stricken city.

About ten o’clock a warning came that another explosion was expected, as the fire consequent upon the first shock had spread in the direction of a powder magazine near the waterfront. People were hastening out of the danger zone and were taking refuge in the outlying districts. We were ordered out of the building, and accompanied by several Sisters, climbed the hill behind the Mount. Here, a few miles away, no signs or traces of the catastrophe were visible. The trees had not been damaged by the concussion and the cows were browsing quietly in the pasture. It was a startling change, and produced instant reaction on the over-wrought nerves of some of us. Below in the distance, we could see cars rushing back and forth, and great volumes of smoke and tongues of flames rising from the direction of the city. The Basin lay very quiet beneath us, an oily substance on the surface of the water, and heavy, gray, smoky clouds lowering over it. In the midst of this strange quiet, we waited in suspense, and we prayed as perhaps none of us had ever prayed before.

By noon word was received that the powder magazine had been flooded, and that the only danger now
was from the conflagrations, which were spreading through the city. We immediately returned to the house, and were saddened by the wreckage that met our gaze. Our beautiful school seemed like an empty shell; not a window had survived the concussion. Interiorly, there were damages, which only the labour of years could repair; and especially was – true of the beautiful cut glass that had adorned the reception hall and chapel corridor. We found, however, other sights within our dear Mount, which moved our hearts to greater pity, During our absence, men, women, and children had arrived at the Mount in various stages of want; wounded, frightened, without homes, without money, and were immediately lodged and fed and tended with the utmost care and gentlest sympathy.

They came in all kinds of vehicles. Two businessmen met a conveyance, the occupants of which were a women and a young child. The horse had been killed, but these two gentlemen dragged the remnants of a cart up to the Mount door and gave the poor wounded ones into the Sister’s care. Relief work began immediately at the Mount. All the rooms in the lower flat were filled with little groups; fathers and mothers seeking lost children, children crying for separated parents. It was the same tale of sorrow everywhere. Later in the day, the more serious cases among the wounded were removed to the Halifax hospitals where they were given medical attention, but others remained for several days until provision was made for them elsewhere.

That evening the sky looked like a glowing coals from the reflection of the fires, which were sweeping the North End of the city. A single train left Halifax that night, and on it the Mount girls departed for their homes. The girls, whose homes in the city still remained, had already gone; so by eight o’clock our school was dispersed, and the Sisters were left alone to save their house from further damage. On the very next day a series of blizzards commenced, which kept everyone busy shoveling snow and nailing up the windows against the storm. The cold was intense, and it required constant vigilance to keep the heating apparatus from freezing. Still, no one complained, and cheerfulness prevailed even in the most distressing circumstances.

The Mount did not reopen its doors until January 15, 1918, and then the work of reconstruction had barely begun. The windows were in on the Academy side of the house, and this wing was thus made habitable for the pupils. The Convent wing, we knew, offered many inconveniences, but of these we heard nothing, save that the Novitiate was badly damaged and that the Community Room was uninhabitable for weeks. Through the long months that followed, the work of reconstruction went slowly on, until by June our school began to look a little like its old self, though we still fancied that it could never be the same. But the very inconveniences, losses, and suffering bound together the hearts of teachers and pupils more strongly than ever before, and those who knew the Mount under those trying circumstances will ever feel for their Alma Mater, tenderness unknown to her children of happier day”.