Perkins' historic connection to the Boston Common Christmas tree

Annual gift from Nova Scotia honors Halifax Explosion relief efforts by Perkins and other local institutions

The Boston Common Christmas Tree lit up at night

The towering white spruce gracing the Common this year is a gift from Nova Scotia to the City of Boston.

November 30, 2017

What do Perkins School for the Blind and the Boston Common Christmas tree have in common? More than you might think.

The towering white spruce gracing the Common this year is a gift from Nova Scotia to the City of Boston, a decades-long tradition inspired by the role Boston played in one of the largest maritime disasters in history.

In 1917, a ship laden with ammunition exploded after a collision in Halifax Harbor. The event, which became known as the Halifax Explosion, destroyed half the city and killed nearly 2,000 people. An additional 9,000 were wounded, and hundreds suffered eye injuries caused by flying debris. 

On Wednesday, Canadian leaders and first responders gathered at the Massachusetts State House in Boston to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event, and the relief response provided by Boston organizations, including Perkins School for the Blind.

“So many of our families were devastated and their lives were completely turned upside down,” said Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil. “You Bostonians responded to our call and came to the aid of our city.”

In the days and months following the explosion, doctors, nurses and aid workers traveled 700 miles north to help residents of Nova Scotia recover and rebuild. Among them was Perkins Director Dr. Edward Allen, who was named the chairman of the American Red Cross committee for eye victims after the explosion. Allen was summoned to Halifax by Perkins alumnus Frederick Fraser, the superintendent of the Halifax School for the Blind.

Together, the two men built rehabilitation programs for adults blinded in the disaster.

“Allen helped Fraser create vocational training programs for adults at the Halifax school, which had previously only served children,” said Perkins Archives and Research Library Assistant Susanna Coit. “That was a big shift.”

Those programs, and others created in response to the explosion, inspired the creation of institutions like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which will celebrate its centennial next year. 

At Wednesday’s ceremony, Perkins President and CEO Dave Power joined representatives from Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Massachusetts General Hospital in recognition of the extraordinary contributions made by their respective institutions.

“I’m incredibly proud that Perkins was part of that team,” said Power. “Together, we helped build a long-lasting tie between Boston and Halifax.”

To commemorate the centennial, the Perkins Archives has curated an online exhibit detailing Allen and Fraser’s work in Halifax. The exhibit includes correspondence, newspaper clippings and reports from the time of the explosion, including a telegram sent by Fraser to Allen one month after the disaster.

“The last line says, ‘Wish you could come to Halifax soon,’” said Coit. “It makes you realize how isolated he must have felt up there. It makes it very human. Two days later, Allen went to Halifax.” 

A group of people standing on the grand staircase in the State House

Perkins President and CEO Dave Power joined Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil (front row, center left), Canadian first responders and representatives from Boston institutions involved in the Halifax Explosion relief efforts at the Massachusetts State House on Wednesday.

Read more about: In the Community, Perkins History