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With Christmas trees and records

It arrived in Boston in November — a 53-foot white spruce given to the city by the Campbell family of Cape Breton Island.

Lit up on Boston Common last week, it was a gift to the people of the City of Boston from the people of another city — the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

A “thank you” gift because of something that happened 100 years ago yesterday — and because of the response of the people of Boston and Massachusetts.

HalifaxOne hundred years ago yesterday, a disaster occurred in Halifax. 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

That horrendous explosion in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 6 December 1917, resulted from the collision of two ships. 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.2

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.3

The aftermath was horrific:

The explosion sent a white cloud billowing 20,000 feet above the city.


For almost two square kilometers around Pier 6, nothing was left standing. The blast obliterated most of Richmond: homes, apartments and business, even the towering sugar refinery.


On the Dartmouth side, Tuft’s Cove took the brunt of the blast. The small Mi’kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove was obliterated.


More than 1500 people were killed outright; hundreds more would die in the hours and days to come. Nine thousand people, many of whom might have been safe if they hadn’t come to watch the fire, were injured by the blast, falling buildings and flying shards of glass.


And it wasn’t over yet.


Within minutes the dazed survivors were awash in water. The blast provoked a tsunami that washed up as high as 18 meters above the harbour’s high-water mark on the Halifax side.4

And if that wasn’t bad enough, even Mother Nature turned her back on Halifax: a blizzard blew in immediately afterwards, hampering the relief efforts and causing more suffering.

But the people of Boston didn’t turn their backs on Halifax: “Almost immediately after the explosion, Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall sent a group of doctors, nurses, aid workers, and medical supplies from Boston to Halifax. The group traveled 700 miles by train and was delayed by a severe blizzard. As Halifax struggled to recover, Bostonians continued to send groups of aid workers, supplies, and funds.”5

At both ends of the aid train of 1917, there are records of the Halifax disaster. In Nova Scotia, the Archives has published digital collections of documents, photographs and personal remembrances, and a definitive list of the 1,946 people who died as a result of the disaster 100 years ago yesterday called the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book.6

That list will break your heart, as you see the Andrews family of 61 Duffus Street… father, mother and three children, gone. Catherine Anna Arnold of 56 Veith Street and her seven-, five- and two-year-old children. John and Kathleen Carson of 1410 Barrington Street, and their children, aged six, four, and 11 months. Catherine Cash of 33 Veith Street, and five children aged two to 15. People in the Old Age Home. Children in the orphanages.

At the other end, the records of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee from the Massachusetts State Library, in Manuscript Collection 90, located in the State Library’s Special Collections, including reports prepared by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee and other officials, meeting minutes, records of aid distribution, letters, and photographs that document the damage in Halifax and efforts to rebuild.7

Some 80 of the photographs have been digitized and can be reviewed on the State Library’s Flickr site. The one you see here used to be a residential street. Where the Carson family lived, to be precise.

Money, supplies, and aid workers continued to stream in from Boston in the days and weeks after the Halifax disaster. The Bostonians who were there in the stricken city for that Christmas of 1917 put up Christmas trees and decorations in the hospitals where they were working.

A year later, “in December of 1918, Nova Scotia sent a Christmas tree to Boston as a thank you for Boston’s help after the explosion.”8

In 1971 and every year thereafter Nova Scotia has remembered what Boston did for Halifax after that terrible day 100 years ago yesterday.

This year with a 53-foot white spruce from Cape Breton.


Image: “Halifax, N.S.: The wrecked buildings on Barrington Street, looking over the dry dock towards Tufts Cove, Dartmouth.” State Library of Massachusetts.

  1. City of Ruins : The Explosion,” The Halifax Explosion, Canadian Broadcasting Company, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine ( : accessed 6 Dec 2017).
  2. See ibid., “City of Ruins : Countdown to Catastrophe.”
  3. Ibid., “City of Ruins : Collision Course.”
  4. Ibid., “City of Ruins : The Explosion.”
  5. Boston’s 2017 tree lighting marks 100 years of friendship with Nova Scotia,” City of Boston, Archives and Records Management ( : accessed 6 Dec 2017).
  6. See “1917 Halifax Explosion,” Nova Scotia Archives ( : accessed 6 Dec 2017).
  7. See “Ms. Coll. 90 Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee Records, 1917-1919: Guide,” State Library of Massachusetts – Special Collections Department ( : accessed 6 Dec 2017).
  8. Boston’s 2017 tree lighting marks 100 years of friendship with Nova Scotia.”
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