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Historical Municipal Sources on the Halifax Explosion

In recognition of the 100th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, the Municipal Archives offers a summary of Explosion sources in its holdings. This rich and detailed documentation of Halifax and Dartmouth's response to the Explosion is provided through links to digitized copies of the original historical records. Click on the links to have a direct connection to the events, decisions and people who were affected by the catastrophe and involved in the relief and reconstruction efforts that followed.

The Nova Scotia Archives and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic are the local centres for research on the Halifax Explosion. The municipal sources provided here are an important complement to the records and artifacts held provincially.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

PLEASE NOTE - This guide is in development and will be added to as we summarize and digitize more records in preparation for the 100th Anniversary.

For information on commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, visit 100years100stories.ca. The Municipality is preparing commemorative activities for the centennial including funding for individual and community group projects through the Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Grants Program.

City of Halifax Council Minutes and Submissions (102-1A&B)

Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell

By 11:30 a.m. on December 6, Deputy Mayor Colwell, five aldermen, and twelve citizens, including Lt. Gov. Macallum Grant and Justice Harris, assembled in the City Collector's Office - the only room in City Hall still serviceable after the damage. Incredibly minutes were taken at these meetings, as they were at regular Council meetings. As the rescue and relief efforts got organized those minutes document the City's immediate response, and as Council continued to deal with the aftermath, Explosion compensation and eventually commemmoration, the Council minutes document Halifax's reaction to the Explosion. Included in the summaries below are any relevant discussions and also any submissions to Council. The submissions (102-1B) often include reports, letters, and supplementary information and have also been digitized in order to be accessible to researchers.

 

Click here to view a summary of City Council discussions with links to the original minutes.

 

Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell, Jan. 1917 HRM Archives CR 13.16.3: Gauvin & Gentzel Photographers

 

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City of Halifax Board of Control Minutes

The Halifax Board of Control was established in the 1913 City Charter as the executive committee of the City Council. It was composed of the Mayor and four controllers, who were members of Council elected by the City for two year terms. The summaries below detail discussions and decisions made by the Board relating to the Halifax Explosion. The Board often submitted reports and other documents to the City Council, so it is helpful to review both minutes from the Board (102-2A) as well as the Council (102-1A) and submissions (102-1B) for a full picture. Submissions to the Board of Control (102-2B) are very limited and submissions from this time period are not known to exist.

Between September 1918 and June 1919, Mayor Hawkins and the Board of Control ran the City. Following the resignation of ten (of twelve) aldermen from the City Council between August 31 and September 3, 1918, no quorum existed for Council, leaving the Board of Control as the governing body. A plebiscite was held 30 April 1919, during which eligible voters voted to get rid of the Board of Control and revert to a city council made up of 18 aldermen, which had been in place up until the Board of Control was instated in 1913 (Halifax City Council Minutes, 124; Roper, 63). Following the municipal elections of 28 May 1919, eighteen aldermen were elected and City Council was reinstated on 3 June 1919 (Roper, 63).

For more information on the Halifax Board of Control see: Roper, Henry. “The Halifax Board of Control: The Failure of Municipal Reform, 1906-1919.” Acadiensis 14, 2 (1985): 46-65.

Click here for a summary of Board of Control discussions.

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Halifax Thanks Boston for Explosion Relief, 1918

Blizzard

Samuel W. McCall, Governor, Commonwealth of Massachusetts visited Halifax on November 7, 1918, to inspect the reconstruction of the areas devastated by the Halifax Explosion. Haligonians took the opportunity to shower the Governor with thanks for the immediate and on-going relief provided through the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee. Two hours after the Mont Blanc exploded, Boston received the plea for help sent out by telegraph operators. Governor McCall immediately sent a telegram to the Mayor of Halifax offering unlimited assistance. The first American medical relief train sped through snow to get to Halifax on Dec. 8. Aid continued to flow from our American neighbours as the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee was set up in the days following the explosion.

Governor McCall`s visit was initially planned for September 1918, but was postponed because of an outbreak of influenza. In their neighbour's time of need, Halifax eagerly sent doctors and nurses to help with the epidemic in Boston. When Governor McCall was able to visit in November, Mayor Arthur C. Hawkins and Lt. Gov. Grant received their honoured guest at City Hall with a guard of honour and bands playing The Star-Spangled Banner. City Clerk Fred Monaghan read an eloquent "civic address"... City of Halifax Board of Control minutes: 102-2A-1918-11-08

The original address was "illuminated [decorated] in old English text, and was enclosed in a purple plush case". Efforts to locate the gift in Massachusetts` state repositories have so far been unsuccessful. The Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee records are held at the State Library's Special Collections

From Views of the Halifax catastrophe: showing effects of explosion December sixth, 1917
 

 

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City of Halifax Civic Reports

The City of Halifax Reports (102-1I), also known as the Civic Reports, were prepared annually by the City Clerk of the reports from various City officials, departments, and committees. The summary below contains details relating to the Halifax Explosion by the City Auditor, the City Prison, the City Home, the Citizens’ Free Library, the Chief of Police, and the Fire Department.

Click here for a summary of Annual Reports with links to the original 1917-1919 reports.

City of Halifax Advisory Board to the Halifax Relief Commission - Special Committee minute books (102-1G Vol.3)

Halifax Relief Commission Letterhead The Relief Advisory Committee was formed following the Halifax Explosion in order to aid the Halifax Relief Commission, which was in charge of reconstruction efforts. The Advisory Committee was initially to be comprised of Mayor Hawkins, Controller Finlay, and Aldermen Godwin and Parker who were elected to the Committee by Council on May 6th, 1918. The first meeting was held on May 14th, 1918 and the Committee met regularly thereafter in order to discuss the multifaceted effects of the Explosion. The Committee often met with T. Sherman Rogers, Chairman of the Halifax Relief Commission, and the summaries of meetings below show the interactions between the two jurisdictions as they debated the best way to aid Halifax and its residents affected by the Explosion, especially in terms of who would pay for what, and who would be in control of what, especially in terms of town planning in the redeveloped areas.

Click here for a summary of meeting topics with links to digitized copies of the minutes.

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Special Committee Investigation reveals conditions at City Hall in days following the Explosion

The Great Burglary Mystery 1918

 

 

In January 1918, newspapers accused City officials of stealing confiscated liquor from Liquor Inspector Tracey’s office in City Hall following the Explosion. A special committee was formed to investigate the accusations. The minutes of their meetings are included in the Special Committee Minute Books (102-1Gv.3). Some of the interviews detail individual’s responses following the Explosion, the damage done to City Hall, and some immediate relief efforts which took place following the Explosion, which have been noted in summary below.

 

 

Click here to view a summary of the investigation with links to digitized copies of the Committee's minutes

 

 

 

 

The Great “Burglary Mystery” at the City Hall. (1918, January 10). Evening Mail, p.1.

Deputy Mayor Colwell records

Henry S. Colwell was Deputy Mayor of Halifax 1917-1918. He often had to fill in when Mayor Peter Martin was away, including December 1917. Newspaper coverage of his death in 1948 noted Colwell "did much to alleviate the human distress wihich accompaied the great disaster, working untiringly in the interests of the suffering." (Halifax Chronicle May 9, 1949 p. 2) The Municipal Archives holds Alderman Colwell's personal records (CR13), and they include several newsclippings from the Explosion.

 

Town of Dartmouth Council Minutes

The Dartmouth Town Council Minutes (101-1A) consists of minutes of regular and special council meetings, which were taken by the Town/City Clerk. Minutes from meetings after the Halifax Explosion, beginning on December 24, 1917, show how the Council dealt with the many issues that arose after the disaster.

Unfortunately the original submissions, such as letters, reports to Town Council are not known to have survived from this time period.  Letters were read into the Council minutes so that content is available through the digitized content linked to each meeting. 

Click here to view the Dartmouth Council meeting topics with links to digitized copies of the minutes:

Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports

The Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports (101-1M) contain reports from town officials, departments, and committees This summary for the 1917-1919 Annual Reports include reports from the Mayor, the Fire Committee,  the Finance Committee, the Streets and Public Property Committee, the Auditor, the Committee on Charities, the Water and Sewerage Committee, the Health Officer, the Board of School Commissioners, the School Medical Inspector, the Ferry Commission, and the Parks Commission, which provide details on how each was specifically affected by the Explosion and the responses to the disaster.

Click here to read the Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports.

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City Clerk's Office subject and historical reference files

The City Clerk’s Office subject files and historical reference files (102-5-1) are a rich information source on many events and topics, including some related to the Halifax Explosion:

Click here to review the summary of files with links to digitized copies.

Committee on Public Parks, Gardens, and Commons records

Public Gardens logo

 

 

Click here to view the minutes of the Board of Commissioners of Halifax Common, and reports of the Superintendent : reviewing the damage sustained at the Public Gardens and the Halifax Common from the Explosion.

(102-7)

 

 

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City of Halifax, Mayor’s Office Correspondence: Halifax Relief Commission

Municipal Archives does not have Mayor’s Office records earlier than 1922; the expected richness of communications the Mayor of Halifax would have received after the Explosion has been lost.

In a later Mayor`s file (102-3B-34A) there is correspondence between Mayor Albert Audley Thompson and the Halifax Relief Commission in 1933/4. A letter from an Explosion survivor is forwarded from a Boston lawyer to the Mayor. The Mayor forwards the request for assistance for injuries sustained to the Relief Commission, who then takes over correspondence with the survivor. Personal information has been removed from the digitized copy of the letter.

In 1993, Mayor Moira Ducharme kept a file for the 75th anniversary commemorations. (102-3-5-009).

INSERT IMAGE AND CAPTION: Halifax Explosion survivors meet Mayor Moira Ducharme (wearing chain of office): Nora Ritcey, Norwood MA; Eric Davidson, Halifax; Ann Margaret Bouley, Quebec, 1992. Photograph by Clarke Photographic.

Halifax Police Department duty book - Dec. 6, 1917

Police duty books record the officers on duty on each day/night watch. The entry for Dcember 6, 1917 is marked “9:05 a.m. Explosion” . Normally attendance of policemen reporting for duty was very regular; however the entries after Dec. 6 show that many policemen went from listed as ‘Duty’ to ‘Sick’ (4 policemen) or ‘Leave’(7 policemen).

Halifax Fire Department records (102-111)

cartoon

Halifax firefighters were the first to respond to the fire on the Mont Blanc. As they rushed to Pier 6; the Explosion hit, killing 8 firefighters with its blast. The Board of Firewards minutes are missing from 1913-1928; the only Explosion-era Fire Department records are the mournful "Accidents and Deaths" section of the Chief's 1917-1918 Annual Report - "the saddest year our Department has had in its history". The "Record of Fire" ledgers that record each fire the HFD responded to have a gap between Nov. 20, 1917 and 1919.

Owen McCarron's historical docu-comic "A Tribute to the Halifax Fire Department on the 85th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion" was created in 2002. The award-winning cartoonist was an avid historian, and was working on a publication for the 100th Anniversary of the Explosion when he died in 2005.

HRM Archives VFE-158-E We gratefully acknowledge the permission granted by Mr. McCarron's family to post this digitized copy of his docu-comic.

 

 

Halifax Property Assessment records

Halifax and Dartmouth property assessment rolls are available at the Municipal Archives. A comparison of property assessments in the devastated areas both before and after the Halifax Explosion could be a fruitful research project. Halifax Property Assessments: (102-19A); Dartmouth Property Assessments: (101-19A)

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City Home registers

The City Home, formerly known as the Halifax Poor Asylum, housed not only the City’s poor but also senior citizens, orphaned children, people with mental and physical health conditions, essentially anyone unable to care for themselves. The City Home registers show an increase in admissions of both children and adults on December 6, 1917, immediately following the Halifax Explosion. The records may provide information to genealogical researchers as they include name, age, religion, birth place, and date of admission and discharge or death.  The registers are available on microfilm at the Archives (102-33A.30 and .31) .

Town Planning Board records (102-40)

The Town Planning Board was established in 1916 and consisted of seven members including councillors, residents, and the City Engineer. The Board met sporadically until regular meetings were established around 1940. The summaries below highlight meetings with content relating to the Explosion. The nascent Town Planning Board played a minor role post-Explosion, as the Halifax Relief Commission asserted control over town planning and reconstruction within the devastated area.  At least one meeting was held jointly between the two boards.

Click here to read the summary of Town Planning Board minutes with links to digitized content.

Halifax Board of School Commissioner's records (102-53-2)

The minutes of the Halifax Board of School Commissioners document the effect of the Explosion on local schools.

Click here to read the summary of Board minutes.

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City Engineer's Office plans, (102-39P)

As the City worked with the Halifax Relief Commission to plan and re-develop the devastated areas many maps, architectural plans and technical drawings were created. Below is a list of maps and plans kept by the Engineering and Works Department that relate to the rebuilding of the North End.

Plans can be viewed at the Municipal Archives. Click here to see the list of plans. Digital copies and more details re. the plans will be added.

Nova Scotia Archives also holds many plans of the Halifax Relief Commission.

Lou Collins' Halifax Explosion reference files

Lou Collins breaking ground at Halifax Explosion Bell Tower

 

Local historian Louis Collins was active in organizing the commemorations of the anniversaries of the Halifax Explosion. He was the City's Civic Historian at the time Fort Needham was being developed as a site for the Explosion Memorial Bells.

 

His reference files contain details on commemorative initiatives, as well as some Explosion-era material he collected. See the summaries and links below. Click on the blue underlined retrieval codes to view digital copies of these files.

 

 

 

 

 

Lou Collins inspecting soil for archaeological remains of Fort Needham during construction of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower. Frank Harrington, Memorial Bells Committee; Bill Sutherland, Jacques Whitford and Associates; and John Dow, Whitman Benn and Associates look on. Collins encouraged close monitoring of all the excavation work to ensure preservation of any artifacts.
Photograph appeared in a local newspaper on April 21, 1984. Taken by Wamboldt-Waterfield Photography; re-published here with permission. (CR30A.120.1)

 

Halifax Explosion Funeral Service Program – 1917

Funeral Service Program

 

“Funeral Service held at Halifax, Nova Scotia on Monday, December 17th, 1917 of the Unidentified Dead who lost their lives in the Great Catastrophe, Thursday, December 6th, 1917”

 

Click on the image of the program to view its full contents.

 

 

 

 

HRM Archives file: CR30B.32 - NS Poems, Halifax Explosion Funeral Service Program – 1917, [1960?] - file also contains December 6, 1917 a poem by gr. gaines [sic]

Deeds, Documents Halifax Explosion, United Memorial Church [196?] CR 30B.48

  • Deed and indenture between the Grove Presbyterian Church and the Halifax Relief Commission
  • p.22 – map of Halifax showing area devastated by the Explosion and an alphabetical list of those who were killed during the blast.

Halifax Explosion Memorial Evening – 1977 CR 30A.131

  • Poster for The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia – Concerts in Historic Settlings, Series 5: A Halifax Explosion Memorial Evening, Saturday, December 3rd, 1977

 

Memorial Bell Tower Letterhead

Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee, 1981-84 CR 30D.58

  • Letter dated January 5, 1981 from Ron Wallace, Mayor of Halifax, to Otis C. O’Hara discussing the rehousing of the bells as a memorial to the victims of the Explosion
  • Invitation from Judge Robert E. Inglis Q.C. and Honourable Edmund Morris M.L.A. for the Sod Turning Ceremony for the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower at Fort Needham on Friday, June 1st, 1984
  • Letter from M.H. Frank Harrington from the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee to Keith L. Graham re: excavation techniques for the Needham Memorial Bell Tower and potential archeological material at the site

 

Invitation to 1984 Sod-Turning ceremony for bell tower

 

Halifax Explosion Bells Monument Groundbreaking. [1984] CR 30A.120

  • Letter from Alexandra “Sandra” E. Carter to Lou Collins which included a photograph of Lou Collins shovelling dirt at the ground breaking of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower [1984]

 

 

Invitation to 1984 Sod-Turning Ceremony for the Memorial Bells Tower, CR30D.58

Fort Needham Memorial Park - 1982-1987 (102-105-3-14) Halifax Planning Department reference file contains newsclippings, council minutes, correspondence from survivors, and reports on the controversial location and development of Fort Needham as a memorial park and site of the Halifax Explosion Memorial.

Halifax Explosion – Geomarine Associates Project – 1985 CR 30B.122

  • “Study of the December 6, 1917 Halifax Explosion using the recollections of senior citizens in Atlantic Canada: Review of the Study to Date, Future Plans, Schedule and Proposed Budget”

Alan Ruffman Research Project Re: Halifax Explosion – 1985-1990 CR 30B.123- Documentation relating to Alan Ruffman’s project, including a letter of appraisal from Lou Collins to The Canada Council

Halifax Explosion Commemoration Committee 1991 CR 30D.83

  • Agenda for the April 8, 1991 Halifax Explosion Commemoration Committee meeting discussing the 75th Anniversary ceremony
  • Handwritten notes from Lou Collins (May 8, 1991) re: 75th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion ceremony (December 6, 1992)
  • Newspaper article “Dartmouth of Yesterday” (Dartmouth This Week, September 15, 1983, p.10) discussing the Mi’kmaq village at Tufts Cove that was destroyed by the Explosion
  • Notes on the 1917 Explosion Commemoration Committee
  • Letter from Janet Kitz, Chair of the Committee, to Lou Collins
  • List of the members of the Committee
  • Committee meeting minutes, May 8, 1991

Halifax Explosion Commemoration Committee 1992 CR 30D.84

  • Minutes from the eighth meeting of the Commemoration Committee held on June 15, 1992
  • Messenger of Hell by Wilbert Forrest Davidson
  • Copy of the special report “The Unsung Seamen” from McLean’s Magazine, July 6, 1992
  • Copy of the article “Halifax Blown Up” from Doctor’s Review, June 1992
  • The 1917 Explosion 75th Anniversary Events Planned (as of September 3, 1992) including details of each event, date, and organizer

1917 Explosion Conference, 1992 CR 30A.43

  • Minutes from the April 15, 1992 meeting for the 1917 Explosion Conference Program Committee
    • Attachments:
      • Agenda
      • Chair’s February 24 – April 7, 1992 report
      • Copy of flyer and the ‘Call for Papers’ with June 20, 1992 deadline
      • List of abstracts and titles [and authors] received to date
      • March 30, 1992 list of other Explosion-related events and their status as compiled by the Halifax 1917 Explosion Commemoration Committee
      • List of the Explosion conference’s Committees
      • Abstracts received (May 12, 1992)
  • Memo to Program Committee – Notice of Meeting – Monday, September 21, 1992

Halifax Explosion 75th Anniversary, 1992-1993 CR 30A.121

  • 1 medal, compliments of Mayor Moira Ducharme on the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1992
  • Also included is Lou Collins’ nametag from the 1917 Explosion: Collision in Halifax Harbour and its Consequences conference

Halifax Explosion Conference – Program Committee – 1992 CR 30A.154

  • Correspondence between, from and to members of the Program Committee for the 1917 Explosion Conference, including conference schedules, abstracts for proposed papers, agendas for meetings, and letters from presenters

Draft: untitled essay on Halifax Explosion - One page draft of an untitled, undated essay by Lou Collins CR 30I.92


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Postcards of the Halifax Explosion (CR 30E-1.1)

Series of 12 black and white postcards published by Underwood & Underwood, NY.

Views of the Halifax Catastrophe (971.622 H17c )

Views of the Halifax catastrophe: showing effects of explosion December sixth, 1917. (1917). Halifax, NS: Royal Print & Litho Limited. This publication came out shortly after the Explosion - "Forty Views---showing extent of damage in Canada’s historic city as the result of terrific explosion on Thursday, December 6th, 1917, which killed 1500 men, women and children; injured 3000 and rendered 6000 homeless; causing property damage of nearly $50,000,000.”

 

Secondary Sources:

Halifax Public Library's Guide to Explosion Sources

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Primary Sources about the Halifax Explosion at other Repositories:

Nova Scotia Archives

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Library and Archives Canada

CBC

Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee Photographs - from the State Library of Massachusetts

 

For more details on any of this material, contact the Municipal Archives.

Student work for this guide was funded through the Department of Canadian Heritage's Young Canada Works in Heritage Organizations