The Halifax Explosion Centennial Online Exhibit

Black and white photo of two soldiers wearing long coats standing amidst the Halifax devastation, they are surrounded by flattened buildings.

Two soldiers stand amidst the devastation caused by the Explosion. Photo courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

How the Exhibit Works

Welcome to the Perkins School for the Blind centennial online exhibit about the Halifax Explosion. This exhibit focuses on the work of Edward E. Allen (director of Perkins at the time) and the various blindness relief efforts. We encourage you to check out the resources and exhibits in our bibliography to learn more about other aspects of the Explosion and relief efforts.

This exhibit has four sections. You can navigate between sections using the links in the left sidebar menu.

  • Introductions & Initial Impressions: Provides an introduction to Edward E. Allen and Sir Frederick Fraser and describes the conditions as they were initially observed and reported.
  • Committees and Collaboration: Describes the formation and activities of some of the Committees that Edward E. Allen served on. Also describes collaborative work done by the American schools for the blind.
  • Blind Relief Efforts & Legacy: Explains some of the work that was done in Halifax to treat and support the newly blinded Haligonians. Shares the legacies of this work.
  • Bibliography and Links: Lists sources used while creating this exhibit. Links to sites with more information about the Explosion and relief work.

The materials in this exhibit come from the Perkins Archives collection unless otherwise noted. They include correspondence between people involved in the relief efforts, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and formal reports.

We have transcribed all of the images displayed in this exhibit. They are linked from the image, or you can read all of the transcriptions on their own page. Specific items from our collection are linked throughout the exhibit, but you can access the entire collection on the Internet Archive and read transcribed and described clippings on our Flickr account.

We welcome both feedback and questions. You can reach us at archives@perkins.org or call 617-972-7250. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Perkins, the history portion of this website has information and links to additional resources.

Read on for background about the explosion and introductions to key characters in the blind relief efforts.

The Explosion

Newspaper clipping of map showing the Halifax Harbor and about half of the city shaded. Caption reads The star in the Narrows in the above map shows where the Mont Blanc blew up. The shaded part of the map shows that part of the city which was devastated by the explosion and the fires which followed."

Map of the Halifax Harbor and the area destroyed by the explosion. Credit: Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette.

Located on the east coast of Canada, Halifax Harbor was a busy shipping hub during World War I (1). Its shape, however, made it tricky to navigate as the coasts taper in the middle of the Harbor, forming “the Narrows,” opening into a basin (2).

On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the narrows between Halifax and Dartmouth. One of the ships, the Mont Blanc, was fully loaded with over 2,500 tons of highly explosive munitions and caught fire after the collision (3). The crew abandoned the ship as it drifted towards the Halifax side of the harbor. Drawn by the brilliant colors of the burning explosives, many Haligonians watched the fire from their windows, unaware of the ship’s explosive cargo. About twenty minutes later, however, the ship exploded.

The area was absolutely devastated by the explosion as it demolished a large portion of the North End of Halifax and caused a twenty-foot tsunami (4). Thousands of homes were completely destroyed by fires and the force of the blast. Windows 50 miles away were shattered by the force of the explosion and the shock was felt more than 270 miles northeast (5).

As the burning ship drifted towards Halifax, however, one sailor hurried to the Richmond Railway Yards to alert workers Vince Coleman and William Lovett of the situation. Lovett fled, but Coleman stayed, realizing that a train was due at the station momentarily. He sent a series of urgent telegraph messages to the train: “Munitions ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye.” (6). These messages made their way down the line to Boston, triggering relief efforts just two hours after the Explosion.

To make matters worse, Halifax was hit with a “fierce blizzard” that complicated search and recovery efforts (7). This snowstorm also made it difficult for outside agencies to quickly access Halifax and provide assistance.

Along with other specialized assistance, the Halifax-Massachusetts Relief Committee (lead by Abraham C. Ratshesky) continued working in Halifax from 1918 until 1924 (8). In December 1918, Halifax sent Boston a Christmas tree as a sign of gratitude. The tradition was renewed in 1971 and has continued since (9). The tree’s journey begins in Halifax with a send-off party and is celebrated in Boston with an annual tree lighting ceremony and concert on the Boston Common.

Key Characters

  • Edward E. Allen: Director of The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind (Perkins School for the Blind)
  • O.H. Burritt: Principal of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Instruction of the Blind (Overbrook)
  • Charles Frederick Fraser: Superintendent of the Halifax School for the Blind 
  • Thomas M. McAloney: Superintendent of the Western Pennsylvania Institution of the Blind, president of the American Instructors for the Blind
  • Frank Persons: Director-General of Civilian Relief at The American Red Cross
  • Lotta S. Rand: Social worker with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind
  • Edward Van Cleve: Principal of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind
  • Lucy Wright: Medical social worker from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind

Suggested citation:

Coit, S. (author), Hale, J. (contributor), and Arnott, J. (contributor). (2017) Halifax Explosion Centennial Exhibit. Perkins Archives, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

Citations:

  1. MacDonald, Laura. Curse of the Narrows: the Halifax Disaster of 1917. Walker & Co., 2005. p. 8
  2. MacDonald, p. 2
  3. MacDonald, p. 62
  4. MacDonald, p. 60-66
  5. Kitz, Janet. Shattered City: the Halifax Explosion & the Road to Recovery. Nimbus, 2010. p. 24
  6. Kitz, p. 22
  7. MacDonald, p. 144
  8. MacDonald, p. 272
  9. MacDonald, p. 272

Introductions & Initial Impressions »