December 6, 1917 marked a horrifying event in Canada when over 2,000 people lost their lives in the explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax harbour that also made over 25,000 people homeless. Imagine~one fifth of the population was killed or injured. As the Vancouver Sun reported the explosion resulted in the opportunity to rebuild the city with better constructed houses, paved roads, and proper water pipes and discharge sewers, an effort that took many years. Many organizations, the City of Boston as well as the Rockefeller Foundation teamed together to bring health and sanitary services back to the community. This has been documented in a new book edited by David Sutherland called We Harbour No Evil Design: Rehabilitation Efforts after the Halifax Explosion of 1917.
Halifax still had open sewers and a declining tax base in 1917 but the funding that came to rebuild the city in a sanitary way was not distributed evenly. In Halifax’s North End author Michelle Herbert Boyd observed that while wealthier areas such as Richmond were provided for, the African Canadian neighbourhood of Africville received scant assistance. Instead while Richmond was “being reconstructed and improved after the Explosion, the main sewer line was brought directly through Africville to empty into Bedford Basin; Africville residents were not themselves given sewer service, and to add insult to injury, they had to endure raw sewage from their Richmond neighbours running through their backyards whenever a line broke.” In the 1960’s Africville itself was destroyed as part of the rehabilitation projects in vogue at the time; only a handful of residents had proof of title.
Remnants of the force of the 1917 explosion are still evident today. Arborists taking large trees down in Halifax find trees girdled by metal shrapnel from that blast. Only three types of trees can survive catastrophic explosions-maples, poplars and willows, due to their softer bark and adaptability. Halifax could never sell its timber anywhere after the blast due to the shrapnel in the tree trunks potentially damaging sawmill saws. But each year a Christmas tree is still sent to the City of Boston to thank the citizens for the help and service during that disaster one hundred years ago.
Images of the devastation after the Halifax explosion can be seen in the YouTube video below.