ST. JOSEPH — As a boy, Ann Arbor native John U. Bacon would visit his grandfather in New Brunswick, the maritime province on the east coast of Canada. And each summer his grandfather would regale him with tales of the Halifax explosion.
“He would tell me about this cannon that flew 3 miles that way and this anchor shaft that flew 4 miles that way, which was incredible, but I really had no idea what he was talking about,” Bacon says by phone from Ann Arbor, which he still calls home. “Most Americans really don’t know anything about this.”
When Bacon was doing research for his first book on University of Michigan hockey, “Blue Ice” (2001), he discovered that Joseph Barss, the first coach of the Wolverines, helped tend to the injured in the aftermath of the Halifax disaster. Bacon’s interest was officially piqued.
“His son was still around at the time, and when he started telling me about this, I realized, ‘Wow, that is what my grandfather was talking about,’” Bacon says. “I wrote a chapter about it for that book, but there was a bigger story to tell.”
Bacon, who visits Forever Books on Tuesday for an author talk and signing, does just that in his new best-seller, “The Great Halifax Explosion,” published in November by HarperCollins.
On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, the SS Mont-Blanc, a French tramp steamer, made its way from New York City into Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, a stopover on its way to deliver its cargo to the French army.
The crew of the 320-foot ship had been uneasy all the way up from Brooklyn, where its cargo was loaded, because they knew just one torpedo from a German U-boat could turn it into a fireball.
“The Allied Forces are starting to lose World War I, which they called The Great War,” Bacon says. “The Russians had just dropped out thanks to the (Russian) Revolution so there was no Eastern front. The Western front was getting hammered, so what do you do? Well, you overreact.”
The Mont-Blanc was packed full of munitions for the war effort – TNT, picric acid, gun cotton and aircraft fuel – which made it a floating bomb.
“They put 3,000 tons, or 6 million pounds, of explosives on this one ship – 13 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty to give you some incredible context,” Bacon says. “These high explosives were the most dangerous thing at the time. It includes TNT, picric acid, which is very volatile because the oxygen element is included in the molecule of these things, so unlike gas it doesn’t need oxygen to blow up. It’s already in there. Then, on top of the ship, at the last minute, they load 400 barrels of airplane fuel.”
Coming the other way that morning, headed out of Halifax Harbour was the SS Imo, a 430-foot cargo ship. The Imo was late and anxious to get out, so it began passing slower ships on the left, going against maritime law.
“They are going too fast and passing on the left, which just like a car, if you pass on the left, sooner or later someone is going to be in your lane. And that ship is the Mont-Blanc,” Bacon says.
The captains of both ships realized that they risked colliding, and blew their whistles repeatedly, arguing about who had the right of way. They both eventually put their engines into reverse, but it was too late to avoid a collision.
“They had this game of chicken of who was going to back off first,” Bacon says. “The Imo had no idea what they had on Mont-Blanc, almost nobody did. It’s a secret because German U-boats have already knocked out 3,000 Allied ships at that point, including Lusitania and civilian ships. They bump in the harbor at 8:46 in the morning on Thursday, Dec. 6, and that’s enough to start the airplane fuel on fire.”
It was a slow-motion blow, but it was hard enough to dislodge some barrels of fuel. When the steel hulls of the two ships scraped against one another as they parted, sparks hit the deck. The fuel ignited.
The crew members, who knew what was in the hold, scrambled to their lifeboats. They rowed ashore and ran for the woods.
“So now you have a ghost ship floating around for 18 minutes in Halifax Harbour,” Bacon says. “It lands perfectly at the base of Pier 6 and it’s burning, so at 9 o’clock in the morning, what happens? All the kids going to school, all the adults going to offices and factories stop what they are doing to walk down and watch this burning ship on the dock.”
At 9:04 a.m. the ship exploded in the biggest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. The result was cataclysmic.
“In one-fifteenth of a second, five times faster than it takes to blink, the temperature in the hold skyrockets to 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is six-times hotter than molten lava, and explodes in all directions at 3,400 miles per hour, which is four times the speed of sound,” Bacon says.
It was such a violent blast that the Mont-Blanc was turned into shrapnel. Those closest to the ship were vaporized. Others were crushed in collapsed buildings, killed by flying debris or drowned in the 35,000 foot tsunami the blast created.
The Imo was launched to the far side of the harbor and beached. A half-ton anchor from the Mont-Blanc was later found two miles away. In Prince Edward Island, 110 miles away, the shockwave knocked plates from their shelves.
In Halifax, nearly half of the city is destroyed, nearly 2,000 killed, 9,000 wounded and 25,000 homeless as the first mushroom cloud still formed overhead.
“It was one-fifth the power of the atomic bomb,” Bacon says. “We know that partly because J. Robert Oppenheimer, who built the atomic bomb, held a conference in 1942, at Cal-Berkeley to study Halifax because it was the only model they had as to what was going to happen with the atomic bomb. So this thing is incredible. The question then becomes of those 9,000 wounded, how many can you save?”
While the first half of the book sets the stage and follows just how the explosion could happen, the second half becomes a story of extraordinary heroism by ordinary people, including train dispatcher Vince Coleman.
A sailor, believed to have been sent ashore by a naval officer, warned Coleman of the Mont-Blanc’s cargo of explosives. Although the telegraph office was only a few hundred feet from Pier 6, Coleman continued sending warning messages along the rail line.
Coleman’s Morse code message – “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”
“He knew at that point he was probably going to die, and he did, but his message crucially is the only one that gets out before the explosion,” Bacon says.
One of the most fascinating parts of the tale is the response from the city of Boston.
Bacon puts into context that in 1917 relations between Canada and the U.S. were strained at best. The War of 1812, saw the U.S. and Canada on opposing sides of the conflict with invasions across the border. Fears of an American takeover played a role in the formation of the Dominion of Canada (1867), and Canada’s rejection of free trade (1911).
That same year, Champ Clark, the U.S. Speaker of the House, advocated for the annexation of Canada on the House floor. Just six years later, none of that came into play in Boston’s response to Coleman’s message.
“The message gets to Boston to the governor’s office, and within an hour, they decide to send one train and then a second train and a ship and another ship and 100 doctors and 300 nurses and $1 million worth of medical supplies, which is $20 million today, up to Halifax,” Bacon says. “What’s cool here is that humanity trumped nationalism. The Canadians accepted U.S. help, and the U.S. came through in spades, even through the worst blizzard in 10 years, they still got a train through to Halifax. As the Canadians pointed out, it wasn’t Toronto or Montreal that came first, it was Boston. The survivors some 60 years later in the 1970s, the first thing they mentioned wasn’t losing family or their homes, it was getting help from Boston. That’s how powerful that was, and I’m convinced it was the first step to turning us into actual allies.”
The Boston train came as a godsend to Halifax, and the relief effort was credited with saving thousands of lives. The people of Halifax and Nova Scotia still commemorate that fact each year by sending an enormous Christmas tree to Boston, where it is lit up on the Boston Common. It’s a century-old gesture of thanks from the descendants of those who suffered, to the descendants of those who rushed to help.
“It costs the taxpayers of Nova Scotia $180,000 to do that every year,” Bacon says. “That’s not chump change, especially when most people in Boston have no idea who is giving it to them or why. That was brought up to a woman in Halifax last year and she said, ‘I don’t care. Why should we stop saying thank you?’ That to me is the wonderful part of this story. It’s about gratitude and doing noble deeds when no when is really watching you. And I think it’s a powerful story that resonates with people today.”
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio