Century After Halifax’s Great Explosion, City Marks Anniversary

Reminders of the explosion’s centennial were impossible to escape this week. Two more histories have been added to the dozens of other books, including one of Canada’s best-known novels, on the disaster. Plays, special exhibitions, films and events, as well as shop windows commemorating the anniversary, are spread throughout the city.

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About 180 yellow stakes mark the graves of some of the explosion’s victims at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Credit
Ian Willms for The New York Times

On Wednesday morning, as is the case every Dec. 6, a crowd gathered amid heavy rain in the heart of the blast zone, a portion of which was left unbuilt to serve as a memorial park.

“Here in Halifax there’s almost been perverse civic pride in the blast in the sense it shows we can face extreme hardship,” said Roger Marsters, the curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Halifax’s unusually large, deep and easy-to-protect natural harbor led the British to build a fortress here in 1749, and Canada to found its navy in its harbor in 1910. But the outbreak of World War I in 1914 transformed the city.

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A 1,140-pound piece of anchor was thrown more than two miles when the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, exploded in 1917.

Credit
Ian Willms for The New York Times

About 10,000 to 20,000 people poured in to a place with a population of about 47,000 people. Canadian troops and supplies passed through the port on their way to Europe, while the injured were sent back to convalesce in city hospitals.

“The First World War sort of gave Halifax a renewed sense of purpose overnight,” Mr. Marsters said.

The colliding ships had both arrived from New York. There, under tight control, the French-owned Mont Blanc had been stuffed with an array of military explosives and had barrels of benzol, a volatile aviation fuel, added for good measure.

The Imo, from neutral Norway, had been chartered by a group founded by the future president Herbert Hoover and provided wartime food aid to Belgium. To try to ward off German U-boats, the Imo bore signs reading “Belgium Relief” along its sides.

While passing through the only narrow section of the harbor, the Imo’s stern struck the Mont Blanc’s bow. The…

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