By Michael MacDonald - National Post
Across Halifax, a trove of artifacts tell of what happened one terrible day 100 years ago.
Just after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, the bustling city was shaken by a thunderous blast that cut a swath of unimaginable destruction through its north end. Two ships, the SS Imo and the SS Mont Blanc, had collided in the harbour.
As the Mont Blanc’s hull was sheared open, a shower of sparks set fire to its volatile cargo of bomb-making chemicals and ammunition. Almost 2,000 people were killed by the Halifax Explosion. Another 9,000 were injured.
Inside two of the city’s museums, new exhibits help commemorate the disaster’s 100th anniversary on Dec. 6, showcasing relics that few have seen before:
No. 1: Handkerchiefs
As bodies were recovered from the blast site, those handling the remains were careful to collect all personal effects to help with identification. Among the many items left unclaimed were the mundane, everyday objects found in people’s pockets. These items included silk handkerchiefs, workingmen’s bandannas and children’s hankies, some of which are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
“They’re pretty much exactly as they were when they were recovered from the rubble in the days after the blast,” says curator Roger Marsters. “They’re crumpled, they’re dirty, they’re rough … Every one of those has a story.” One of the cotton handkerchiefs belonged to a girl, believed to be about 10 years old. She was identified as No. 256, with “light complexion” and “long dark hair.”
She was wearing a dark dress with a red and black striped apron, and a light flannel petticoat.
No. 2: Prosthetic eyes.
As the Mont Blanc burned in Halifax harbour, hundreds of people watched the spectacle, unaware that the vessel was a floating time bomb. When it exploded, the resulting shock wave blew out windows across the city, blinding hundreds of people.
About a dozen ophthalmologists treated 592 people suffering from eye injuries, which included performing 249 eye removals.
As part of its exhibit, the museum is displaying a unnerving collection of hand-painted prosthetic eyes, on loan from the Medical History Society of Nova Scotia.