Ghosts of the 1917 Halifax Explosion

Ghosts of the Explosion

 

Many ghosts have been reported in Halifax Nova Scotia since Colonel Cornwallis and 2600 settlers climbed upon its shores in 1749. Perhaps some of the more intriguing stories are a direct result of the explosion of 1917. A head in silhouette on the third window of the St. Paul’s Anglican church shines as a haunting reminder of one of the most devastating man-made explosions in human history. Several streets up the steep Haligonian hills the Victoria General Hospital,  where many of the wounded were cared for, plays host to a  grey nun who wanders the halls in search of the dying. In between these two landmarks stands a trendy restaurant which was once the morbid scene of piled coffins hastily prepared for the explosion victims where the dead are now said to live.  

Halifax Explosion

 

In 1917 Halifax Harbour was a bustling hub of activity where ships, troops, and supplies were gathered and transported to Europe in support of WWI. Her population had grown in relation to the war effort with many moving to Halifax to take advantage of the prosperity war often offers. In short, she was a boom town. The morning of December 6 was no different than any other typical morning – boats were being loaded and unloaded, children walked to school, businesses opened for the day, and trains ran on time.

At 7:30 am both the French freighter Mont Blanc and the Norwegian ship Imo weighed anchor from the Bedford Basin heading for The Narrows and points beyond. The Mont Blanc was loaded with a volatile mix of wet and dry picric acid, TNT, gun cotton, and benzol; bound for the European arena. The Imo under ballast was destined for New York. At approximately 8:40 they collided as the Imo struck the bow of the Mont Blanc. Fire broke out immediately on the French freighter. The captain and crew, fearing an imminent explosion, took to lifeboats and rowed to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Mont Blanc burned for twenty minutes and came to rest by Pier 6 of Halifax’s north end. Curious at the unusual sight many stopped to observe, unaware of the boat’s dangerous cargo. Between 9:04 and 9:05 she exploded and disintegrated into fragments decimating population and property. Almost 2000 people died, well over 4000 were maimed and injured, 1630 buildings were reduced to rubble, and 12,000 damaged. Windows rattled up and down the distant shores of the province. While Halifax already had her share of ghost stories, they would grow to legendary proportions after the explosion.

St.Paul's window from Argyle Street. Upper right hand pane.
St.Paul's window from Argyle Street. Upper right hand pane.

St. Paul`s Head

A favourite story, and the most obvious to anyone walking down Argyle Street, is based upon the silhouette of a man’s head in a window of St. Paul`s Church, the oldest Protestant church in Canada. Several times since the explosion the window has been changed in an attempt to banish the shadowy reminder, but every time it reappears as if the old building refuses to allow the city to forget. There are differing stories attached to the silhouette. The most popular story, which is told in a local walking ghost tour, is the tale of a young organist practising in the church at the time of the explosion. The young man’s head was severed from his body by way of the explosion’s concussion or a shard of glass and blasted through the window. Another story states it is the head of one of the hapless sailors from ground zero. And yet a further tale says the silhouette bears a remarkable likeness to the Reverend Jean-Baptiste Moreau who served as an assistant to the church between 1750 and 1753. Whoever the head is modelled after, the sight is sure to grab the attention of anyone walking down Argyle for the first time. The Haligonians, however, have accepted the mysterious silhouette as part of their beloved city.

Snow's Funeral Home 1917. Image Credit: halifaxnewsnet
Snow's Funeral Home 1917. Image Credit: halifaxnewsnet
Building today as the Five Fishermen
Building today as the Five Fishermen

Five Fishermen

Not far from St. Paul’s Church stands a lively and popular centre of entertainment and good food called the Five Fishermen. The building has been part of Halifax history since 1817 when it was built to house the First National School – the first school in Canada to offer free education . In its next incarnation it became the Halifax Victorian School of Art, owned and run by Anna Leonowens more widely known as the writer of “Anna and the King of Siam”. Once Anna had moved her school to another location in the city the building became the property of the John Snow & Co. Funeral Home. Here is where the building’s history becomes truly fascinating. Before the 1917 explosion was another great disaster – the sinking of the Titanic. Because Halifax was the nearest port, rescue operations were launched from its harbour, and the Snow funeral home became the place for final arrangements of many Titanic victims. Whether the bodies were transported back to various hometowns in Europe or the United States, or whether they were buried in Halifax’s Fairview cemetery the building remembers and honours its many guests. A scant five years later the Snow funeral home became the macabre scene of stacked coffins piled row upon row after the explosion changed the history of the city. Over the years the building changed hands several times and eventually became the Five Fishermen in 1975. Reports of flying silverware, and arguing voices after the doors have been locked for the night abound. An elderly gentleman in a long black coat is often seen walking into and through a wall mirror. Two Victorian dressed ladies wander the staircase only to vanish. Cold spots frequent the premises. A close family member of mine who worked there for a time observed locked bathrooms doors opening as if by themselves. The restaurant is such a hotbed of activity that many paranormal investigators have arrived with cameras in hand, and yet the business boasts a loyal and constant clientele.

Map of explosion area. Image credit: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Map of explosion area. Image credit: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The Grey Nun

As one walks further into the city up South Street a large hospital complex commandeers several blocks of the city where a little known tale originates from the oldest part of the complex on Tower Road; the Victoria General. The hospital had a tentative beginning, but by 1867 the doors remained open to heal and care. Within the halls of the hospital wanders the grey nun; an apparition observed by many nurses through the years. She is thought to be a victim of the Halifax Explosion who came to work in the hospital during WWI. Since her untimely death she is said to comfort and guide the dying during their final minutes. While administering to her charge a soft grey light and the faint smell of incense accompanies her.

If ever you find yourself wandering the streets of Halifax be sure to walk past the Old Victorian Hospital and imagine the grey nun making her rounds. On your way up from the waterfront take a good look at the silhouette in St. Paul’s window, and cross the street to enjoy an excellent meal at the Five Fishermen where the company may be more than you anticipate.

Works consulted

1) Government of Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management. March 30, 2010. Oct. 9, 2009. <gov.ns.ca/nsarm/virtual/explosion/explosion.asp>

2) Vernon, Steve. Halifax Haunts; Exploring the City’s Spookiest Places. Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing LTD, 2009.

 

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Comments 8 comments

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

This is fascinating. Of course, I knew the tale of the Halifx Harbor explosion -- required learning for all students in Canadian schools, right up there with Louis Riel and the Republic of Manitobah, but these ghost stories are new to me. Thank you.


E. Nicolson profile image

E. Nicolson 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Immartin, glad you enjoyed it. I'm off to Halifax again in May and hope to search out some more stories related to the explosion.


Jaque C. 6 years ago

Thanks for the info! Me and friend are in Canadian ghost hunting business, and going to head to Halifax and trace the paranormalities there. (Sorry about grammar, English is not strong.)


E. Nicolson profile image

E. Nicolson 6 years ago Author

Halifax is full of ghost stories, especially in the old downtown area. Enjoy your trip -- it's a wonderful city.


Ron 6 years ago

Thanks for some very interesting history and great ghost stories!


duncan macleod 5 years ago

my grandparents were survivors of that horiffic disaster on december 6 1917 i remember them telling me about what really happened on that cold day.they were both teenagers when this happened me nanny was 16 and my grandfather was 15 and were going to school when the city was destroyed. they were getting ready to go to sch


Jason R. Manning profile image

Jason R. Manning 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

Terrific story, I am surprised I haven’t come across it in WWI books. Thank you for sharing this, what an interesting, and sad story. Those darn French, always causing trouble…

Cheers.


Neil 4 years ago

The explosion WAS the most powerful manmade explosion up to that point in human history - akin to a low grade nuclear explosion. Looking out at the size of the harbour and seeing the pictures of the damage it is almost impossible to imagine how powerful it was. A half-tonne chunk of the ship landed nearly 4 kilometers away.

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