Monday, August 12, 2013

The Halifax Explosion

Our last day in Halifax, and it's cool and overcast.  We've got one, last tour this afternoon.  But our morning is free, so we head for the waterfront and the Maritime Museum.
This is a fascinating museum.  Anchors and mastheads and models -- I was intrigued by the equipment they used to step the masts.  One nice touch is that the museum floors are made of wood, and the wood creaks underfoot, as if you're walking on the deck of a ship.  Xingxing was happy to ride in his stroller, and we ambled happily through the exhibits, ropes as thick as my legs (and that's saying something!) and wonderful, hand-carved bowsprits.
Everyone knows about the Titanic -- although I didn't realize the men who rescued the survivors and brought back the bodies of those who didn't survive for burial sailed out of Halifax harbor.  Or that it was the Halifax cemetery where they were laid to rest that inspired James Cameron's film.  The Maritime Museum features a huge display about the Titanic.  But we didn't get to see it because we got waylaid by the Halifax Explosion.
I have to admit, I have never heard of the Halifax Explosion.  Have you?
It happened in December, 1917.  And it was the largest, man-made explosion to occur on the face of the earth until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, nearly 30 years later.  Large portions of the city of Halifax were totally wiped out, and thousands died in the conflagration.  It was one of the great disasters of the twentieth century -- and I'd never heard a word about it.  But when I went to school, we mostly studied American history and European history.  I don't recall ever hearing much about Canada. We knew it was there, but that was about it.
It was during the first World War. Halifax harbor was where the convoys gathered to set out across the Atlantic. What happened was that two ships collided in the narrowest part of the harbor.  One of them was a munitions ship, heavily loaded with explosives and waiting to join a convoy across the Atlantic. The other was a merchant ship.  When the ships collided, the crew of the munitions ship clambered into life boats and rowed furiously for Dartmouth, the settlement across the harbor from Halifax.  They were terrified, because they knew what was about to happen.
The ships caught fire, and burned spectacularly.  It was early morning -- people were going to work, kids were going to school.  Half of Halifax ran down to the waterfront to gape at the spectacle.  The two burning ships drifted slowly towards the Halifax shore. And then the munitions ship exploded.
It was as if an earthquake had hit the city.  The shock wave knocked down row upon row of the little wooden houses that lined the shore and fires from stoves and fireplaces swept through the wreckage.  It was total, utter disaster.  The desperate city officials sent out a plea for help and one of the first respondents was the city of Boston, which sent a trainload of supplies and personnel, includig doctors and nurses.  And every Christmas -- to this day -- the city of Halifax presents Boston with a huge Christmas tree, a token of the city's gratitude and appreciation.
By the time we've worked our way through the series of rooms documenting the explosion and its aftermath -- including recorded accounts from the survivors -- it's time for lunch.  We find a waterfront restaurant -- Murphy's -- and I decide I've had enough lobster, so I order a Fisherman's Platter.  It is the best Fisherman's Platter I have ever eaten anywhere, ever in my whole life.  Fish doesn't turn Xingxing on, but he enjoys the bread and butter.
Now, it's time for our tour to Peggy's Cove.

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