Halifax Explosion
The Anatomy Of A Disaster
An Analysis of Two 1917 Halifax Explosion Blast Cloud Photographs
by Joel Zemel

Project research by Joel Zemel and Pierre Richard
ISBN #978-0-9684920-7-9 © 2009 SVP Productions

Page 1


My main professions are musician, filmmaker and occasional writer. Over the years, I have taken on projects simply because questions or mysteries present themselves and beg to be solved. Initially, I embarked on this project to keep my mind occupied while looking for work. However, for a short while between January and April of 2009, the research for the presentation of this article became my work as well as a great source of enjoyment.

The study of the Halifax Explosion and its ramifications would take a lifetime. As far as some dedicated historians and researchers are concerned, it already has. The parameters and goals of this particular project are considerably smaller with our research being limited to the analysis of just two photos. Even so, there was a fair amount of research involved.

The whole scenario started because of a photograph of the blast cloud from the Halifax Explosion that I happened to come across on a Wikipedia web page. I thought about the lack of provenance and the misinformation that surrounded this image. Although some well-intentioned people post information on Wikipedia, this website is unreliable for the most part. At the very least, information taken from it must be cross-referenced with a viable resource.

I decided to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the origins of this photograph. This website chronicles my investigation. My ideas and opinions expressed are based on the 1) evidence gathered (some documented, some not) and 2) the powers of observation - in other words - deductive reasoning. These pages are for those who enjoy the subject of history, realize the importance of learning from it and are interested in the pursuit of unravelling some of its mysteries. I have published these results not to put forth any hard-nosed, cast-in-stone points of view but to create more discussion and opinions. As the time frames continually bounce from present to past, please allow for abrupt changes in tense.

A brief background on the Halifax Explosion:

The disaster occurred at 9:04:35 AM on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917. It was the result of an unlikely collision in the narrows of Halifax Harbour, involving the French ship, Mont Blanc - loaded with tons of wet and dry picric acid, TNT, gun cotton and benzol - and the Belgian Relief vessel, Imo, under Norwegian registry. A fire on the Mont Blanc resulted in a 2.9 kiloton explosion about twenty minutes later near Pier 6 that devastated the community of Richmond in the north end of the city and killed approximately 2,000, severely injured 9,000. The major devastation was within a half mile radius of the blast with over $35,000,000 damage. Two back-to-back severe winter storms began the following day and exacerbated the already grim situation.

Due to the fact it was wartime, the disaster was initially thought to have been orchestrated by German spies. When the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry was convened less than a week after the explosion, these persistent rumours were dispelled somewhat as more facts about the circumstances emerged. The people of Halifax wanted answers as to why and how such a disaster was allowed to occur and desperately looked to assign blame. At the time, anti-French sentiment was very high due to the conscription issue. In addition, there was discontent aimed toward the fledgling Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), which was responsible for marine traffic in and out of the port and especially Acting Commander Evan Wyatt, Chief Examining Officer (CXO) for the port of Halifax.

One result of the Inquiry was that Aime Le Medec, Captain of Mont Blanc and the pilot, Francis Mackey, were arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of Imo's pilot, Willaim Hayes. Also arrested and charged was Acting Commander Wyatt. The charges against Le Medec and Mackey were eventually dismissed by Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Judge, Benjamin Russell. Only Wyatt was brought to trial. In March of 1918, the jury trial, also presided over by Judge Russell, lasted only a day and ended with an acquittal. However, Commander Wyatt's career was ruined.

By 1919, after appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Privy Council in London, blame for the disaster was assigned equally to Mont Blanc and Imo, thereby putting an end to litigation between the owners of the vessels.

I have provided numerous links to websites with information regarding the broader events leading up to the explosion and its aftermath.

A map of the blast area showing the severity of the explosion.
Taken from a Royal Society of Canada report. Item (linked) part of:
Royal Canadian Navy first central registry system [textual records] 6 R112-614-4-E

The above map does not show piers 7, 8 which were adjacent to piers 6 and 9 so, I have provided the map below (left). This map also shows Patrick Vincent Coleman's dispatch office (in red) just across the tracks from Pier 7 and the railway footbridge which spanned the tracks from the bottom of Duffus Street to Pier 7. The footbridge was blown away in the explosion and only this segment of one abutment survived (middle). Piers 6, 7 and 8 were completely destroyed in the explosion. However, Pier 9 is still very much in use. The photograph to the right is a recent view from Pier 9 looking South towards "Ground Zero", the former locations of Pier 6, and Piers 8 & 7, respectively.


Before beginning this project, my knowledge of the tragic events of December 6, 1917 was fundamental. I knew the date, of course, the amount of devastation from old photos, the famous flight of the Mont Blanc's anchor shaft to the Edmonds Grounds and other general facts, but beyond that, nothing substantial. Though the dramatic photo (below) of the Halifax Explosion is fairly well-known, it was the first time I had ever seen it. As a matter of fact, I have never seen photographs of the explosion itself and had no knowledge of their existence.

I did not set out to prove the genuineness of this photograph and claim no level of expertise in the area of forensic photography. Evidently, those that attempted to track down its provenance and put the content into perspective were not very successful. Perhaps there are those who even believe the photo is a fake. My goal was to establish a context for everything contained within the photo. To accomplish this, all of its components had to be identified and the point off view (POV) or location of the camera and line of sight of the photographer established - with a forgivable amount of leeway.

Perhaps if I had known earlier about the photographs of the blast cloud in “Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour”, a comprehensive collection of papers by various authors on the subject of The Halifax Explosion compiled by Alan Ruffman and Colin D. Howell (Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Studies - 1994), or some crucial evidence at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia (PANS), I could have saved myself some time and effort. Initially, I did not want to be influenced too much by the work of others and took the longer way around for a while. I wanted to come to my own theories through analysis and discernment of the content of the photo itself and other photos of the explosion (if I could find them) via some online research and a bit of footwork. Afterwards, I would cross-reference my preliminary findings with other known sources and resources and eventually come to my own conclusions based on what I had learned.

My first impression was that it was an incredible image. The gigantic, dark, ominous blast cloud looming over a small spit of land with a two-masted boat sitting calmly in the foreground. Picture perfect and...wait a minute...too perfect! I had hardly begun my research and already, tiny pangs of doubt about the photo’s veracity were beginning to manifest themselves.

The Search Begins:

A link on the Wikipedia website led to a blurb that simply stated the photo's source was the National Library and Archives Canada (Ref #PA-166585 - photographer unknown) and had been taken 15 to 20 seconds after the initial explosion. "May be the only photograph of the blast itself. 6 Dec. 1917 / Halifax, N.S. (vicinity)."

The poster of this photograph made two versions available; a so-called "unaltered" original photo and a cleaned up “smoother” version. Even though Wikipedia's so-called “unaltered” photo was an adequately sized file at 1200 x 1905 pixels, the scan was only 72 dpi and extremely grainy. There was no minute detail present in this image, especially regarding the boat in the foreground.

I have always believed that libraries, museums and archives are the best places to conduct research: where one can find the most comprehensive, reliable information and is provided with the means to fully cross-reference material. I don’t like using the internet for serious research. With diligence, one can find some very helpful information but many internet resources are not comprehensive, reliable or accurate. However, the internet can help you leads and clues; it can help you to access some legitimate libraries, archives and databases that are otherwise inaccessible. There are also good maps and photographs available.

I wasn’t planning to spend too much time on this project because the scope was limited to only one photograph. I thought it was actually possible to get most of the information I needed via the internet but this was only the case for a very short time. I can not state strongly enough that much of the validation of my research came as a result of taking the time to access sources other than the internet. However, I was disappointed on many occasions with some of the information, the lack of information and/or pockets of misinformation from every available resource.

In my investigation of the National Archives website, I found out that the photo was from the David Millar Collection. It stated that transcripts and photographs were received in 1971 from David Millar. The photographs in this collection are copies from many institutions and individuals and that the collection is available for study purposes. It also stated that the reproduction service has been withdrawn with no indication as to when or the reasons why. The photograph of the blast cloud is listed as a 100 x 125 mm from Negative Film B/W - safety film (Copy negative 1970-007 NPC) Photographer unknown.

I enthusiastically trolled for other, better digital versions of the photograph as well as ones taken from different perspectives. However, this first endeavour turned out to be rather fruitless and at the end of the session all I had to print out was the so-called “unaltered” version from Wikipedia guy. The next day, I took the photo image with me when I went for coffee to Steve-O-Reno’s, a local café located conveniently across from the Halifax Public Library. It was a fairly safe bet that the small circle of people with whom I enjoy having discussions would let me rant on about the photo for a while, at least.

Meeting Of The Minds:

One of the regulars at the coffee house is an affable Quebecois by the name of Pierre Richard. We had only talked briefly up to that point but it turned out he possessed a well-rounded knowledge of history, photography, the movie business, explosions and all things marine. He was also unfamiliar with the explosion photograph. One of the first comments he made was that it looked like a fake. He also noted that the blast cloud looked very much like an oil fire. However, he made it clear that this was only a first glance impression and that he would never commit to a definitive stance without first knowing all the facts. When I told him that the information from the National Archives and Wikipedia stated that the photo of the blast was taken "from 21 km (13 mi) away from the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbour", he quickly pointed out several inconsistencies such as wind direction and land/water discrepancies. His statements seemed quite logical which begged the question: Why is the accepted information so seemingly incorrect and would it stand up to scrutiny?

- From what location was this photograph actually taken?

For a year, in 1979, I lived on Shore Drive at the far end of Bedford Basin. Every day, I looked out on a spit of land that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one in the photograph. Upon my first look at the photograph, it was this location that came to mind almost immediately. However, in order to prove the veracity of the accepted information about the image, it was necessary to put that thought out of my mind for the time being. Pierre commented that the look of the boat was not in keeping with the era and that the make-up of the blast cloud as well as its direction appeared iffy. Even the spit of land in the background was suspect. Wasn't the water a bit too calm for that area? Where exactly was the vantage point at which this picture was taken? What kind of camera was used? Was it taken from a boat? Lots of questions and no answers as yet.


The coffee shop chatter was ramping up. I have found, in my experience, that people generally tend to take history for granted, especially when it has to do with things local. So, I was surprised to discover just how many people were interested in the Halifax Explosion and mysteries surrounding it. I liked discussing the photo with Pierre because his approach to research was similar to mine. To debunk a myth, you must try everything within your power to prove it is true before you can successfully begin to tear it down. When conducting research, there is no room for ego. You have to be willing to quickly change direction and give up your own theories as soon as better ones are presented. In the immortal words of Gus Grissom: "People lie. The evidence does not."

- Where did the photograph originate?

Pierre was intrigued by the photo enough to say he would do some research of his own and let me know the results the next time he dropped in for coffee. Later that evening, I found one other version of the blast cloud photo on a CBC website devoted to the Halifax Explosion but it was a very low resolution image. The photo was credited to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic but the mystery was further enhanced by the presence of a reference number from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (#16S-11-1S8A-1S). Furthermore, as the safety negative measurements are recorded as 100 mm x 125 mm (4" x 5"), according to the National Archives, it appeared that both photos had been cropped to varying degrees. There is also more shoreline present in the photo on the left.

After many lengthy searches on the internet, I was not able to find this photograph in its complete, original format. It was apparent that the source for the Wikipedia guy's image was not the National Archives website but more likely from internet postings such as University of Maine web page or this First World War web page. The photo was then modified to a further extent and posted on Wikipedia.

I decided to look up the photo on page 269 in "Ground Zero". It is a well defined photograph but surprisingly, it is displayed in a 5" x 5.75" format. These measurements translate to the relative proportions of 100 mm x 115 mm not 100 mm x 125 mm - the measurements of the original safety negative at the National Archives. The image was cropped at the top by approximately 1/4 inch - probably as an editorial decision.

This low resolution outline graphic illustrates my approximation of the original 4" x 5" image.

[Update - 17/12/10: The image on the introductory page shows a newspaper copy of the original complete photograph. I have superimposed a known image over the MacMechan Papers photo. Aside from the direction of the head of the blast cloud and the laws of reflection, the amount of surrounding water and distance to the land appears to exclude an Eastern Passage connection. Also see Debunking the 13 Mile Myth]

- What is the name and class of the boat in the foreground and what circumstances led to it's being in the photograph?

Establishing the class and identify the boat in the photo was crucial. I knew next to nothing of boats or ships. I sailed on an old Bluenose type sloop for one summer twenty-five years ago but that’s the extent of my experience on the water. The first thing to do was to find out what ships were in the harbour the day of the explosion. This information was relatively easy to find at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's web page "Ships of the Halifax Explosion". It turns out there were only four vessels in the harbour approaches that day: Baleine, an ocean-going tug that was re-commissioned as a minesweeper by the RCN, the Rowland H. Wilcox, a herring trawler/minesweeper (one of seven that were designated PV- I to VII), the inbound cargo ship Acadian, and HMCS Lady Evelyn, an auxiliary patrol ship. None of these classes of vessels seemed to fit the bill. For the time being and given the limited choices available, I settled for the idea the photograph was most likely taken from the deck of the Acadian and that the boat in question was The Baleine. Proving this assumption was going to be a lot easier said than done.

I continued to go through a plethora of marine websites in an attempt to nail down the actual class of boat in the photo and Pierre was doing the same. We looked at hundreds of herring trawlers, CDs, tugs, pilot boats, and more. One problem was that most photographs of vessels are taken from a view that shows only one side. The boat in the blast cloud photo is almost facing the camera. Pierre and I would discuss our relative findings when we got together but it was becoming apparent we were on the wrong track. I could not find a photo of Baleine, the most likely candidate for our scenario. It got to the point where the frustration of the chase was taking away from the sense of adventure. I had to stop for a while and would come back to the identity search from time to time. I began to focus more on determining the most logical location of the photographer. I printed off some maps of Halifax and the surrounding area, drew some lines and came to some preliminary conclusions.

- Was the photograph actually taken from the harbour approaches?

The only place 13 miles from the blast cloud is in and around the area of Duncan’s Cove/Chebucto Head. This location is actually only 10 miles from the Narrows as the crow flies but was close enough to start with. I was looking for any spit of land that could be the one in the photo but beyond the Cove, the coastline turns to the Southwest and does not allow for the POV of the photograph.

The captions with the photograph claim that it was taken looking back toward the harbour making the line of sight roughly Southeast to Northwest. There are many problems inherent with this claim, the least of which is that the land and sea around Duncan’s Cove is harsh, rocky and completely different from the calmness of the area shown in the photo. All in all, a highly unlikely camera location.

It also looked as if the photograph was taken from another vessel. All traffic into the harbour travelled to the West of McNab's Island. The water in the area of Eastern Passage is much too shallow to accommodate vessels of substantial size. Therefore, this area did not appear to be a viable camera location either - but read on.

Map of Halifax Harbour and approaches:

Page 1  Page 2  Page 3  Page 4  Page 5  Page 6  Page 7
Faces of the Halifax Explosion  Debunking the 13 Mile Myth

The majority of the photographs on this website were obtained from the Internet
or created by Pierre Richard or Joel Zemel. Exceptions are listed on Page 5.

If anyone sees an image on this website that is incorrectly credited
or where due credit is omitted, or believes there is an existing copyright issue,
please contact me through the "Contact SVP" link.

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