The Approach from the Water


Retracing the ships’ passages from the mouth of the harbour to the Bedford Basin.

This is a waterborne excursion in the debris field. The Imo and the Mont-Blanc collided in the narrows of the Halifax harbour, at a point just west of the French Cable Wharf. What caused the two vessels to be on this collision course? After the collision, as fire engulfed the Mont-Blanc, it drifted for 20 minutes, ending up at Pier 6 where it exploded. Before the blast threw it ashore, the Imo drifted east, towards Dartmouth. The ferry operated without interruption throughout the crisis. Can you imagine this sequence of events from vantage points on the water?

The route is a suggestion, but feel free to drift and explore. You may contribute your own photos, videos and comments along the way. Stay safe in the debris field. Carry a whistle.


Ground Zero

1 0 A 1917 Map
1 0 B Blast Cloud
1 0 C Assembly Hall
In the decades since the explosion, the Graving Dock and Shipyard businesses grew, and now they are both part of the Irving empire. The Irving Shipyard is where Canada’s east coast Navy procurement program is centred; Arctic patrol vessels are being assembled here now. They will play an important role in the Canadian Arctic, as climate change frees up the waterways, and resources, that are now locked in ice.

Ground Zero, where the SS Mont-Blanc exploded, is next to where Pier 6 stood at the foot of Richmond Street. This location is now within the Halifax Shipyard, Irving Shipbuilding Inc.


Examination Grounds

The SS Mont-Blanc was en route from Gravesend, Brooklyn to Europe, carrying munitions intended for the Front. Because of its heavy load and modest size, it was sailing at a slow speed, making it more vulnerable to enemy attack, and needed to join a convoy before sailing across the Atlantic. Scheduled to enter the harbour on the afternoon of December 5, it arrived late, and had to anchor overnight at the Examination Grounds just off McNabs Island, with the crew and Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey aboard. The nature of the cargo was known only to them and a few other officials.


McNabs Sub Net 1

Anti-submarine, or ‘boom’ nets were installed across the mouth of the Halifax harbour during WW1, to keep German U-boats from entering at night. The Mont-Blanc arrived after the nets had been put into place for the night on December 5, 1917.

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McNabs Island Sub Net 2

The nets were secured at points on George’s and McNab’s Islands, at Point Pleasant Park and the harbourfront in Halifax, and in Dartmouth. Floats were installed along the top edges of the nets, and they were kept in position with a series of anchors. The nets were opened and closed at the beginning and end of each day. The Mont-Blanc anchored overnight, just outside the nets, after arriving late at the mouth of the harbour.

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Georges Island Sub Net 1

The WW 1 anti-submarine nets were in place for a very good reason. In 1917, the threat presented by German U-boats was real. In fact, after the explosion, many people held the view that the catastrophe was the work of German agents suspected of living in Halifax.

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Georges Island Sub Net 2

The anti-submarine net attached to this point on George’s Island went across the eastern side of the harbour, to the Dartmouth shore.

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Georges Island Sub Net 3

One end of the anti-submarine net was attached at this point along the Halifax shoreline.

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Georges Island Sub Net 4

This is where the anti-submarine net was attached on the Dartmouth shore.

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The 1917 explosion in the Halifax harbour was not an accident. Permitting dangerous vessels to enter a civilian harbour has consequences. What have we forgotten about the history of these decisions?
In 1984, the Casimir Pulaski US Ballistic Missile Submarine was moored in the centre of Halifax harbour. This submarine contained eight 100-kiloton warheads.


Harbour Pilot

7 8 1  Francis Mackey

In 1917, and today, Harbour Pilots are responsible for bringing ships in and out of the harbour safely. On December 5, 1917, Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey boarded the SS Mont-Blanc, out past the mouth of the harbour. Too late to proceed into the harbour that evening, he stayed on board overnight, and in the morning, got ready to bring the vessel to the docks.

In this video, Janet Maybee discusses how she stumbled on the story of Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey.

The url below is for an award-winning animated storymap created by cartographer Gordon Campbell, which gives a detailed account of the collision.



Maritime Museum

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The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, part of the Nova Scotia Museums, has a large number of significant artifacts and records related to the Halifax Explosion in its collection. Their permanent exhibition ‘Halifax Wrecked’, is now accompanied by a special exhibition, ‘Collision in the Narrows: The 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion’, which will be on display until November 2018. NiS+TS has carried out a research creation project based on the Mont-Blanc fragments in the MMA. This art project is on exhibition at Dalhousie Art Gallery from October 11 to December 17, 2017.



Five Fishermen

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You might recognize this corner as the current home of the Five Fishermen Restaurant. At the time of the Halifax Explosion, the Victoria School of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) was located at the corner of Argyle Street and George Street, Halifax, next door to Snow & Co., Undertakers. Pine coffins were stacked here in the days following the disaster, in readiness for the many burials that took place.

Photo dated, December 1917, Photographer: W.G. MacLaughlan, Reference no.: Halifax Relief Commission Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1976-166 no. 64


HMCS Dockyard

7 11 1 Shale Retaining Wall 1
7 11 2 Shale Retaining Wall 2

This is one of the parking lots for the HMCS Dockyard. An example of some of the oldest infrastructure in the city, the original sections of the retaining wall between Barrington Street and the asphalt are made of stacked pyritic shale.


Angus L. Macdonald Bridge

This video of the experience of traveling through the Narrows was produced by Evan Cameron and Matt Harrison, who were originally commissioned by NiS+TS to produce the audio for a scholarly symposium in the fall of 2016.

Niobe Anchor

The HMCS Niobe was the first ship in the Royal Canadian Navy and was tied up here on the harbourfront when the explosion happened. The anchor chain snapped in the blast, and the anchor was lost until excavations took place in October 2014. A fragment of the rusted surface of the anchor is being exhibited by NiS+TS at the NS Archives, December 2017. https://archives.novascotia.ca/chase-gallery

A CBC story about the lost anchor can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/hmcs-niobe-anchor-damaged-in-halifax-explosion-found-1.2806106’

Niobe Rust 1
Niobe Rust 2
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Niobe Anchor 2
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Admiralty House

Just up the hill from the harbour is the Naval Museum of Halifax, in what was known as Admiralty House. It was used as a hospital during WW1, and sustained serious damage during the Halifax Explosion. Fragments from the Mont-Blanc crashed through the north east corner of the roof, and were found years later, embedded in the rafters.

Admiralty House 3
Admiralty House 1
Admiralty House 2

Halifax Train Station

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The main Halifax train station at the time of the explosion was located closer to the waterfront, not far from where the footing of the bridge is now, near Valour Way. The blast of the explosion caused the glass roof of the station to smash and collapse onto the platforms and waiting areas below. Image courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives, Photo Drawer - Places - Halifax - Explosion, 1917 - Postcards. Negative: N-822
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HMCS Stadacona

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This is the old Fleet Club at HMCS Stadacona, being demolished last summer. It has since been replaced. It’s a reminder that Halifax is still very much a garrison town, a city that was established as a strategic military site by the British. Now, as at the time of the Halifax Explosion, the city is a temporary home for sailors and soldiers from across Canada and around the world. How does this affect the ways in which we establish our sense of community? There are many stories of the tireless rescue and relief efforts made by members of the military in the hours and days after the explosion, and of the loss of life and injuries that came to many.

7 16 3 Fleet Club

Graving Dock

No photos can be taken here since the graving dock is still in use. It is also a National Engineers’ Historic Site. ‘Graving dock’ is another phrase for ‘dry dock’; to ‘grave’ something is to lay it down. The graving dock survived the explosion, with very little damage. The first image shows the graving dock just after the explosion. The second photograph, taken in 1905, is of the Niobe in the graving dock. The last photograph shows the graving dock under construction. These photographs are courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives, Notman Studio collection.

7 17 5 Graving Dock
5 04 05 Graving Dock Timepiece
Following the explosion, a watchman’s timepiece was found at the bottom of the Graving Dock. It is now in the collection of the Citadel Army Museum
1 0 C Assembly Hall
In the decades since the explosion, the Graving Dock and Shipyard businesses grew, and now they are both part of the Irving empire. The Irving Shipyard is where Canada’s east coast Navy procurement program is centred; Arctic patrol vessels are being assembled here now. They will play an important role in the Canadian Arctic, as climate change frees up the waterways, and resources, that are now locked in ice.

Veith House

Site of the former ‘Halifax Protestant Orphans’ Home, destroyed in the explosion.
Aftermath2 1 Anti War Song Poster
‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier’ Written by Alfred Bryan & Al. Piantadosi. Morton Harvey, tenor, with orchestra. 1914.
I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier
Morton Harvey with Orchestra
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Veith House was built as part of the Halifax Relief Commission reconstruction efforts. It is now a community centre dedicated to the well-being of families affected by poverty.

Vincent Street

7 19 1  Corner Of Vincent St

This section of Albert Street was renamed for Vincent Coleman, the telegraph operator memorialized in the Canadian Heritage minute. If you are on the water, and look up the hill, you can just about see this section of Albert Street.


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View to Ground 0

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Model of the Acadia Sugar Refinery, built by Anton Christiansen
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If you look up the hill on the Halifax side, you can imagine the busy industrial scene in front of you. On that shore was a major structure on the Halifax waterfront -- the Richmond sugar refinery, which was completely destroyed within minutes during and after the explosion, with great loss of life.
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Walkers pause on a previous walk in the Richmond neighbourhood to reflect on the impact of the explosion. The destruction of the model included the smell of sugar burning.

Collision Point

7 21 1  Mont Blanc Cargo

Through a series of miscommunications and misjudgements, both ships were off course, and on wrong sides of the passage through the narrows on the morning of December 6. The captains and pilots realized that they were on a collision course, and attempted to redirect their vessels. Following a confusing sequence of whistle signals, the bow of the Imo swung into the hull of the Mont-Blanc, puncturing it. The friction generated when the Imo reversed and pulled back out caused sparks, quickly igniting the munitions on the Mont-Blanc.


Memorial Bell Tower

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Walkers approaching Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower, December 6, 2014.
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The monument was designed to lead you down to Ground Zero

Brian Downey quotes David Suzuki & Harlow Shapley, showing how we all share in the air we breathe.

Richmond Train Station

5 7 1 Train Station
The train station on the waterfront was destroyed in the explosion
5 7 2 Tree Richmond 1977
This photo was taken in the 1970s, and the tree no longer exists.
7 23 1  Train Station Model Burning
Look towards Halifax. This is as close as we can get to the original location of the Richmond train station, where dispatcher Vince Coleman worked, and sent his final message from, warning that the explosion was imminent, and that the inbound passenger train should not come into Halifax.
5 7 4 Intercolonial Railway Station 1902
Caption: Vince Coleman was a train dispatcher for Canadian Government Railways, and worked at the Richmond station. When the collision happened and the Mont-Blanc drifted to Pier 6, he realized that a disaster was imminent. Just minutes before the explosion happened, he telegraphed this message, warning incoming trains to stay away: ‘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.’ Hailed as a hero who lost his life in trying to save others, Vince Coleman’s story was commemorated in a Historica Canada Heritage Minute video from 1991: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/halifax-explosion

Inside Mulgrave Park

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Mulgrave Park is the largest residential development closest to Ground Zero.
1 12 Mulgrave Park 1878
‘The slope of the site would require terracing and retaining walls, which were used to define parking and play areas. After its completion in October 1960, the Mulgrave Park project won numerous awards for its quality.’ (Peter Ziebrowski, builthalifax.ca).
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Map of debris field area including Mulgrave Park (Nova Scotia Archives).
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Opening Day at Mulgrave Park.

Narrow Narrows

7 26 1  Mont Blanc Terrace
7 26 2  Assembly Hall From Turtle Grove

Halifax is a busy international port. But here at the Narrows, you could unravel a spool of thread to span this distance. What do you see as you look across the Narrows?


Under the Bridge

7 27 1  Welcome To Africville
7 27 2  Under The Bridge
7 27 3  Under The Bridge

Once Africville was cleared, the city began to develop sites for the Fairview Cove Container Terminal and the footings for the MacKay Bridge.


Africville Museum

This church was rebuilt several years ago, and replaces the original structure, which was destroyed when Africville was bulldozed in the early 1960’s as part of the city’s “urban renewal” campaign. It is the heart of this historic Black community, founded over 150 years ago.
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The Africville Church, c. 1965. Image taken by Bob Brooks, and courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

This church was rebuilt several years ago, and replaces the original structure, which was destroyed when Africville was bulldozed in the early 1960’s as part of the city’s “urban renewal” campaign. It is the heart of this historic Black community, founded over 150 years ago.

The Community of Africville:
On the shores of the Bedford Basin, on the northern edge of peninsular Halifax, lies Africville. For over 150 years, Africville was home to the hundreds of individuals and families who settled there, some of whom could trace their roots in Nova Scotia back to the late 1700s. Africville was a vibrant, self-sustaining community that thrived despite the harshest opposition. The majority of those who lived in Africville were landowners; in fact, the first registered deed dates back to 1848. The 5 original land purchases belonged to families Arnold, Brown, Carvery, Hill and Fletcher. Just one year later, the first church was built and the settlement grew by the addition of families Dixon, Bailey and Grant, making a total of 8 families to settle on these shores. (Excerpted from the Africville Museum website [Africville Heritage Trust http://africvillemuseum.org/the-organization/]

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The Africville community. Neg sheet 8A, image 20, Bob Brooks collection, NS Archives.

You can continue walking through the park here, instead of on the sidewalk by the road, if you wish.


Imo Anchorage

Imo Runic I Starboard Side Pre Explosion

The Imo was to have left its anchorage near Birch Cove in the Bedford Basin late on the afternoon of December 5, 1917. Delays meant it had to anchor in the Basin overnight, and it was making its way south through the narrows and towards the mouth of the harbour at 8:30 am on December 6. This image shows the Imo (formerly the Runic 1, from the starboard side.


Arthur Lismer’s House

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"The Hour of Horror in Devastated Richmond" Pen & ink drawing by Arthur Lismer, future Group of Seven artist, who was the Principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax from 1916-19. The image is found in "The Drama Of A City, The Story of Stricken Halifax" 1918, facing p. 14, 9.0 x 14.7 cm, from Collection of Alan Ruffman.

Artist Arthur Lismer lived in Bedford at the time of the explosion. When the blast occurred, he set out on foot from his house on Cliff Street, and walked through Bedford, Richmond and central Halifax, to reach the school (located where the Five Fishermen Restaurant is now). Along the way, he made drawings of the scenes of horror and devastation he encountered. The images were reprinted in popular publications, and were some of the first depictions of what had happened. These works of Lismer’s are on exhibit from October to December 1917 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.



1 0 B Blast Cloud

The vantage point for this iconic image of the explosion cloud, and the identity of the photographer, have been unclear for many years. Explosion researcher Joel Zemel, in his essay ‘Anatomy of a Disaster’, proposes that the photograph was taken by a sailor who was on board the Acadia that morning, while it was at this location in the harbour. The Acadia is now in the collection of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and moored on the Halifax harbourfront.


Shannon Park


We are now close to what was the military housing community of Shannon Park. It was named after the Royal Navy Ship, the Shannon, which defeated the American ship the Chesapeake, in waters off Boston in 1813 (during the War of 1812). The Chesapeake was towed into Halifax Harbour following the battle. For millennia before then, this area was inhabited by Mi’kmaq people. Their community of Turtle Grove stretched along here to the area south, towards what is now Grove Street in Dartmouth.

6 18 3  Ojibwa Street Sign

Shannon Park was developed for Navy family housing in the early 1950’s Cold War era. Street names were given in the 60’s, after Navy vessels in the “Tribal Class” of destroyers (except Ojibway Way, which was named after a submarine). It has been vacant since 2003, and all the buildings were demolished in 2017. Most of this land is being redeveloped for residential and commercial uses.

This narrow strip along Nootka, along with the shore of the cove and the tip of the point of land, has been given to the Millbrook First Nation.This recognizes their right to the land of Turtle Grove, lost in the Explosion. Of the approximately 30 Mi’kmaq who were living there at the time, 9 or 10 were killed, others injured, and their homes and school destroyed. The survivors were scattered, and dispersed to other communities. No relief or support for reconstruction was given to them.


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Look at the three smokestacks of the Nova Scotia Power plant. Adjacent to the plant is land that is part of the parcel owned by Nova Scotia Power, and is available for sale or lease. You can see past the fuel tanks close to the shoreline to scrubland further up the hill. This is a good example of the kind of semi-urban non-space that NiS+TS is intrigued by. There are no landmarks here, and it’s far from scenic, but it’s a site that tells a story nonetheless.


Tufts Cove Cemetery

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Just behind the distinctive smokestacks of the NS Power Generating Station is the Tufts Cove Cemetery. It is a place for reflection. It is lovingly maintained by descendents of those who were buried here. Some graves of Explosion victims from the settler community are located here.


Harbour Shore

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Walk down this road and to the parking lot at the end, near the shore. It was along here that the Mont-Blanc crew came ashore after rowing their lifeboats away from the burning vessel. The French sailors raced up the forested slope, trying to warn the Mi’kmaq gathered in the area of the impending catastrophe.

The view has changed dramatically since 1917. Walk back up towards Windmill Road once you’ve had a look.


Army and Navy Brewery

Army Navy Brewery
North of the French Cable Building, close to the shore, was the Army and Navy Brewery, which was destroyed in the explosion. A number of brewery workers lost their lives or were injured here.

French Cable Wharf

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At the foot of Grove Street is the French Cable Wharf building, which was built in 1916 and used by the French company that was installing and maintaining transatlantic communications cable. Made of reinforced concrete, the building was the only major structure on the Dartmouth shore to survive the explosion. There was a wharf extending from the building into the harbour at that time. The French Cable Wharf building is a recognized Federal Heritage Building, and is now part of the Defence Research and Development Canada facility here. http://historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=7843


Imo on Shore

Following the collision with the Mont-Blanc, both ships drifted in the harbour for approximately 20 minutes. When the explosion eventually happened, the Imo was violently blasted across the harbour to this part of the Dartmouth shoreline.

Imo Port Side Wrecked
Despite the loss of life and serious damage to the upper decks of the Imo, the vessel was repaired and put back into service in 1918.

Alderney Ferry

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There were several passenger ferries between Dartmouth and Halifax in 1917. The public ferry service, which operated from this point along the shore, ran without interruption when the explosion took place, although the glass windows below deck shattered. In the hours and days following the blast, the ferry was used to transport the injured to hospitals in Halifax and Dartmouth.

More Drifts


Catastrophe & Resilience

View Drift

A Natural History

Survivor trees and community gardens

View Drift