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Special investigative reports

It was the worst man-made explosion ever until the Atomic Bomb was dropped. In the blink of an eye, some 1,500 people died. Hundreds more perished afterwards, of injuries or trapped in the flames that spread. Some 9,000 were injured. And essentially nothing — not a live person, not a building, nothing — remained within a two-square-kilometer radius.1

And The Legal Genealogist is willing to bet that only those with Canadian roots know the first thing about it — that horrendous explosion in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 6 December 1917, 95 years ago yesterday. I for one didn’t know a thing about it until I saw references yesterday to the terrific Canadian Broadcasting Company website, The Halifax Explosion.2

It resulted from the collision of two ships in the harbor. One, the Imo, was an empty relief ship. The other — the Mont-Blanc — was a French munitions ship loaded with nearly 3,000 tons of explosives destined for the war in Europe.3

It wasn’t the initial impact, at 8:45 a.m., that caused the explosion. It was the fire that broke out on the Mont-Blanc.4

What’s particularly intriguing about this case to The Legal Genealogist, of course, is the fact that there was an official Board of Inquiry convened only seven days after the explosion, while Halifax was still reeling under the pressures of thousands of injured, and thousands more left homeless in the winter weather.

The Commission heard testimony, considered evidence, yet in the end, the result didn’t satisfy anybody:

The official enquiry opened less than a week after the explosion. The captain and pilot of the Mont-Blanc and the naval commanding officer were charged with manslaughter and released on bail. Later the charges were dropped, because gross negligence causing death could not be proved against any one of them. In the Nova Scotia District of the Exchequer Court of Canada in April, 1918, the Mont-Blanc was declared solely to blame for the disaster. In May, 1919, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, both ships were judged equally at fault. The Privy Council in London, at that time the ultimate authority, agreed with the Supreme Court’s verdict.5

There isn’t any printed report of that Board of Inquiry that I could find online.6 But it turns out that Boards of Inquiry were and are routine in maritime disasters, and the records created make fascinating reading.

For example, on 15 June 1904, the steamer General Slocum set out into New York waters, having been chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York for an excursion. There were 1,358 passengers on board, 90 percent of them women and children. A fire on board and the subsequent beaching of the ship resulted in the deaths of 955 people — 745 of them children. A special federal commission was appointed to investigate, and issued a 72-page report into the disaster.7

Likewise, just before midnight, 22 January 1906, the steamer Valencia hit a reef near Pachena Point off Vancouver Island. Only 37 men from the ship survived; more than 100 perished, including every woman and child on board. Two investigations resulted, one by the US Marine Inspection Service and the other a special commission reporting to President Theodore Roosevelt. That special commission issued a 53-page report filled with facts and even photographs.8

Witness list, State of California inquiry

On 17 August 1913, the steamship State of California struck rocks near Alaska and went down in 240 feet of water and sank, killing 35. A Board of Inquiry was convened on to examine the causes of the disaster, and 36 witnesses — from Ray E. Baker, watertender, to Robert Zantz, baker — testified. And digital images of the testimony are available online at the National Archives website.9

The first federal legislation involving steamship safety was the Act of 7 July 1838 to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.”10 But it wasn’t until Steamboat Act of 30 August 1852 11 that a federal maritime inspection service began to emerge and any real investigative role began, and not until the Act of 28 February 1871 that the Steamboat Inspection Service was created.12

So in the early years, you’re as likely to find a local report as a federal report. That was the case when the steamship Moselle exploded and sank just east of Cincinnati on 25 April 1838. Some 160 of the roughly 275-300 passengers on board were killed,13, and the local citizens and mayor did their own investigation and produced their own 76-page report.14

Of course, Americans and Canadians weren’t the only ones with special reports on disasters at sea. Some 200 men and boys were on board the steamer Daphne when it was launched on 3 July 1883 in the Glasgow dockyards; they were finishing the internal fittings at the time. Within minutes, it capsized, trapping the workers below decks. The death toll was put at 124. Sir Edward J. Reed was appointed by the Crown to conducted a special inquiry, and produced a 66-page report to the British Parliament, complete with witness testimony.15

And, by the way, maritime disasters aren’t the only things to end up with special reports from special boards. On 12 January 1877, the Ohio General Assembly established a special legislative committee to investigate the causes of the collapse of a railroad bridge over the Ashtabula River on 29 December 1876, killing 92 people. That committee produced a 158-page report, complete with witness testimony.16

Definitely worth inquiring if there were any Boards of Inquiry for any event our ancestors may have been involved with!


  1. City of Ruins : The Explosion,” The Halifax Explosion, Canadian Broadcasting Company ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  2. See generally The Halifax Explosion, Canadian Broadcasting Company ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  3. Ibid., “City of Ruins : Countdown to Catastrophe.”
  4. Ibid., “City of Ruins : Collision Course.”
  5. The Halifax Explosion,” Maritime Museum of the Atlantic ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  6. Any Canadian genealogists or historians out there who know of one, let me know!
  7. Report of the United States Commission of Investigation upon the Disaster to the Steamer “General Slocum” (Washington D.C : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1904); PDF version, digitized by U.S. Coast Guard, 2003 ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  8. Wreck of the Steamer Valencia: Report to the President of the Federal Commission of Investigation (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1906); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  9. Testimony in the Matter of the loss of the steamship STATE OF CALIFORNIA, 08/22/1913 – 09/01/1913; Casualty file for the STATE OF CALIFORNIA, 1913 – 1913; Casualties and Violations Case Files, compiled 1887 – 1942; Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774 – 1982; Record Group 41; National Archives – Seattle.
  10. 5 Stat. 304 (1838).
  11. 10 Stat. 61 (1852).
  12. 16 Stat. 440 (1871).
  13. Wikipedia (, “Moselle (riverboat),” rev. 8 Nov 2012.
  14. A Report of the Committee Appointed by the Citizens of Cincinnati, April 26, 1838, to Enquire into the Causes of the Explosion of the Moselle… (Cincinnati, Ohio : Alexander Flash, 1838); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  15. Sir Edward J. Reed, Report on the “Daphne” Disaster (London : Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1883); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
  16. Report of the Joint Committee Concerning the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, under Joint Resolution of the General Assembly (Columbus, Nevins & Myers, State Printers : 1877); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Dec 2012).
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