Thursday, December 1, 2011

Swift Action, Strong Bonds: the Origins of a Holiday Tradition in Boston

Have you ever pondered the origins of Boston’s official Halifax Christmas tree tradition? The story behind the generously lit tree displayed in Boston Common, marking the beginning of the holiday season, is one that originates from the horrors of a devastating accident that shook Halifax, Nova Scotia one wintery morning in December, 1917.

On Thursday, December 6, 1917, Halifax, Nova Scotia experienced a powerful explosion—one that is still considered the largest man-made, non-nuclear accidental explosion in history. A French munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, transporting 2,300 tons of pyric acid, 35 tons of benzene, 200 tons of dynamite, and other chemicals collided with the Belgian Relief steamer, Imo, as the steamer maneuvered down the wrong side of the Bedford Basin to avoid other vessels. The Mont Blanc caught fire immediately, and soon after the crew, aware of the extremely dangerous situation, was ordered to abandon the ship. As it drifted toward the piers and the city’s residential and industrial Northend, a series of small explosions drew the attention of Halifax citizens preparing for the day. A few minutes after 9:00am the Mont Blanc exploded entirely, causing a fiery mushroom cloud to rain hot iron fragments from the destroyed ship down onto the city. The force of the explosion sparked a series of chain reactions. A tidal wave crashed down over nearby neighborhoods; men, women, and children were swept from the lower streets into the harbor where they drowned. Fires raged uncontrollably, tremors could be felt as far away as Prince Edward Island, and blasts of wind caused by the explosion fractured and toppled buildings throughout.

A day after the accident the Halifax Herald vividly described the destruction:

“Buildings over a great area collapsed, burying men, women and children. Tug boats and smaller vessels were engulfed and then a great wave washed up over Campbell Road. Fires broke out and became uncontrollable, stopping the work and rescue. Not a house in Halifax escaped some damage, and the region bounded on the east by the harbor, south by North street (sic) and west by Windsor street (sic), is absolutely devastated. The wounded and homeless are in different institutions and homes over the city … Hundreds of the bodies which were taken from the ruins are unrecognizable and morgues have been opened in different parts of the city.” (Friday, December 7, 1917)

It is estimated that about 2,000 people died as a result of the explosion. A vast number of those who survived suffered injuries, many of which were disfiguring, and thousands were left homeless. Property damage climbed above $30,000,000.

The Massachusetts State House received news about the accident two hours later, at approximately 11:00am. Under the leadership of Governor Samuel W. McCall, Massachusetts, especially Boston, began immediate work to organize relief efforts. McCall sent a series of messages, including the following, to the Mayor of Halifax:

“Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me immediately.”

“Since sending my telegram this morning offering unlimited assistance, an important meeting of citizens [Massachusetts Public Safety Committee] has been held and Massachusetts stands ready to offer aid in any way you can avail yourself of it. We are prepared to send forward immediately a special train with surgeons, nurses and other medical assistance, but await advices from you.”

With his previous messages left unanswered, and fully aware of Halifax’s urgent and dire need for medical assistance, McCall made the decision that Halifax could not afford any delay:

“Won’t you please call upon Mr. Ratshesky for every help that you need. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will stand back of Mr. Ratshesky in every way.
Respectfully yours,
Samuel W. McCall
Governor

P.S. Realizing that time is of the utmost importance we have not waited for your answer but have dispatched the train.”

A train carrying a corps of surgeons, doctors, nurses, and medical supplies pushed through blizzard conditions and reached Halifax on December 8th. In a report written for Governor McCall by A.C. Ratshesky, the Governor’s representative and Commissioner-in-Charge, he describes his first encounter upon arrival with C.A. Hayes, General Manager of the Canadian Government Railways and West Springfield, MA native:

“He was so affected that tears streamed down his cheeks. He arose and greeted me with: ‘Just like the people of good old Massachusetts. I am proud of them.’” (December 8, 1917)

A meeting was held by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee at Faneuil Hall, resulting in the establishment of a relief fund which raised $100,000 on the first day alone. Supply ships loaded with donated goods were sent from Boston to Halifax, and arrived at their destination 3 days later. Boston and other cities around Massachusetts continued to tirelessly pull together to raise money and collect provisions that were soon after delivered to the devastated city.

In 1918, Halifax gifted to the city of Boston a giant Christmas tree as a token of appreciation and remembrance for the immediate assistance that the Boston Red Cross, the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee, and the citizens of Boston provided during the most critical and darkest period after the 1917 explosion. In 1971, the practice was reinstated and has since continued as a yearly holiday tradition that signifies humanity and selflessness in times of disaster.

Two of the digitized images above were adapted from original photography that can be found in Manuscript Collection 90, located in the State Library’s Special Collections. Also included in this collection are reports prepared by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee and other officials, meeting minutes, records of aid distribution, letters, and photographs that document the damage in Halifax and efforts to rebuild.

Kaitlin Connolly
Library Technician, Reference Dept.