The explosion on December 6 1917 at 7.30am between the French ship Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian vessel Imo left the north end of the city of Halifax in ruins and chaos.
An official enquiry was opened a few days later. The captain and pilot of the Mont-Blanc and the naval commanding officer were charged with manslaughter. These charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence proving gross negligence.

Initially the courts ruled the Mont-Blanc solely to blame, however this was later overruled. In 1919 the Supreme Court of Canada judged both ships equally at fault. As a result no blame was ever laid in what was the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are many artifacts, monuments and gravestones serving as reminders of the event throughout the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. The Memorial Bell Tower at Ford Needham overlooking the explosion site, and donated bells at the United Memorial Church, built to replace two destroyed churches, remain as a memory to the victims. Each year at 9 am on December 6, a memorial service is held for the victims.The bells ring out across the area devastated by the Explosion of 1917.

Railway Dispatcher - Vincent Coleman
On that fateful morning of December 6, 1917, Railway Dispatcher, Vincent Coleman went to work for the Intercolonial Railway in a small wooden station in the middle of the Richmond rail yards in the North End of Halifax. He left his wife and 2 year old daughter at home a few blocks away.

Only a few feet from the harbour, his job was to control the massive freight and passenger train traffic generated by the war.

As Coleman relieved the night dispatcher there was a muffled crash in the distance, followed by a plume of black smoke. A sailor sent ashore to warn everyone, suddenly burst through the station door calling to everyone that the Mont-Blanc full of ammunitions was burning and about to explode. Coleman began to leave with his boss, William Lovett, the chief clerk at Richmond but decided to turn back to send his now famous telegraph message.

Coleman was particularly worried about the overnight passenger Train No.10 from Saint John, New Brunswick, due to arrive in Halifax at 8.55am with approximately 300 people aboard. It was due to pass directly in front of the blazing Mont Blanc within minutes.

There are slight variations on the exact message sent but its content was consistently reported to be as follows:
Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.

It was obvious that Coleman knew he was doomed and he even signed off with a telegraph shorthand for “Goodbye Boys”.
At 9:05 am, the Mont-Blanc exploded. Pier 6 and the ship vanished in flame. Boxcars were vaporized or hurled through the air. Coleman’s station, 750 feet from the blast, was crushed and buried in debris as waves roared back and forth over the yard. In the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic you can see his wallet with water stains, and his watch with its crystal and hands blown away and its back pounded.

There is no doubt Coleman died instantly at his telegraph key.

The message he telegraphed went out to be heard by every station from Halifax to Truro. Each station agent would have quickly moved the station order boards from “All Clear” to “Stop!” positions, bringing all Halifax bound trains to a halt.

It is not known whether Coleman actually stopped Train No. 10. However, that was clearly his intention and his message certainly halted all other inbound trains to Halifax. His message, importantly, alerted the entire Intercolonial Railway to the catastrophe. Otherwise when the telegraph lines went dead, hours would have been wasted trying to figure out what was wrong in Halifax, delaying aid responses.

Detailed interviews were conducted with the passengers and crew of Train No 10. Some indicated that the train was running a few minutes late and that the train was past the point were it could be stopped in Rockingham, 4 miles from Halifax. Other records indicated the train was on time and was held 15 minutes at Rockingham. Either way, the explosion broke windows and caused minor injuries but everyone onboard was safe.

Coleman’s message, followed by more detailed calls for help from Intercolonial officials, brought numerous relief trains to Halifax with firefighters, doctors, nurses, medical supplies and wrecking crews. This help was vital to the lives of hundreds of people, particularly as the next day a snowstorm slowed everything down. The rapid response meant heavy equipment and construction crews were able to mobilize Halifax quickly.

American relief trains arrived two days later. Within a week, the port of Halifax was operating again, with trains with passengers and supplies returning to the repaired North End station and cleared wharves of the harbor.

Vincent Coleman’s home, only 2000 feet from the explosion, was wrecked and burned. His wife, Frances, and 2 year old daughter, Eileen, were badly injured. His two older children, Gerald and Eleanor, rushed home from school to take their mother and sister to hospital. Eileen’s little blue dress spattered with bloodstains can be seen in the Maritime Museum today. Frances, and all four children, recovered and survived.

Coleman's body was found a few days after the explosion in the wreckage of the Richmond rail yards. Vincent had quickly become famous. Frances was presented with the telegraph key, and her husbands’ watch and pen.Years later, Frances and the Coleman family donated these items along with his wallet, and Eileen’s dress to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. These artifacts now form part of a permanent, special exhibit on the Explosion in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Coleman’s action was truly heroic. There were many heroes of that day including Horatio Brennan, a tugboat captain who died trying to pull the Mont-Blanc away from the city, and many firefighters, soldiers, sailors and ordinary men and women who rushed into burning, collapsing houses to save family, neighbours and strangers.

Author's Bio: 

My name is Avril Betts, I have over 25 years experience in all aspects of Travel and Tourism. I hold a CHA (Certified Hotel Administrator). Along with my partner Khaled Azzam we own A-Z Tours and Action Travel in North America along with Travelocity Travel Egypt in Cairo, Egypt.

I have co-chaired Atlantic Canada Showcase an International Travel Trade Show, managed 450 volunteers for the Tall Ships Visit in July 2000, and was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia. In 1996 I hosted the president’s wives luncheon for the G7 conference. In 1988 I founded the Country Inn Association in Nova Scotia.

As an experienced speaker I have presented seminars for many years on subjects ranging from Marketing and Sales and Life Skills to Tourism, Travel and Real Estate, and operating an online Travel business.

I enjoy working with tourists to pass on my knowledge to help our clients make the most of their vacations. Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or travel inquiries.

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