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 2

At the outset of the project, Pierre and I conducted our research independently - getting together every so often to compare notes. My hard copy envelope continued to grow as I gathered more material and our regular conversations continued to be quite productive. I was very pleased to find the above photograph (from a negative to a postcard developed by Captain Baird) with a different view of the blast cloud on the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management website.

Even though the perspective was different and the base of the cloud had risen substantially, I saw a strong resemblance in the physical make-up of the blast cloud to that of the boat photograph. However, the caption stated that it had been taken off McNab’s Island. In order for this image to be in sync with the first photo, it had to have been taken on the right side of the blast from what looked like several miles away. The semi-horizontal cloud that jutted out from the middle of the blast cloud in our photo is not visible. Logic dictates that it was on the other side of the cloud.

In order to be consistent with the available information, the only location for the camera would be on the Dartmouth side - somewhere along Highway 7, perhaps. At first glance, the "McNab's Island" photo looked to me as if it could even have been taken at almost a 90 degree angle to the blast in our boat photo. However, without any recognizable reference points in either photograph, there was no way to determine comparative sizes, accurate direction, angles or distances at this juncture.

The blast cloud in the boat photo appears darker than in the first photo. I thought the second photo was merely overexposed. It could be that after the material taken up into the cloud as a result of the explosion fell back to earth, the blast cloud may have taken on a lighter appearance.

"A widening column of smoke and burnt-out gases rose for three miles into the sky above the North End. It hung there for many minutes, turning from black to grey and then to cotton-wool white, and it looked for all the world like some enormous, mutated mushroom."

- from "The Town That Died" (1962) by Michael J. Bird


- Back to the boat photo:

As I continued to study the boat photo, I noticed a white line in front of the spit of land that, at first glance, looked like a shoreline that stopped on the port side of the boat but did not extend west beyond the starboard side. Pierre saw almost immediately that it was roiled, rushing water. A tsunami overpowered the Richmond District of Halifax, Tuft's Cove on the Dartmouth side of the harbour, also known as Turtle Grove, where a thriving Mi'kmaq community was completely decimated and Nevin's Cove where at least five Mi'kmaq children were drowned by a large wave.

It was too early to tell if the line of water had anything to do with the tsunami. Pierre also mentioned that there were problems with the lighting and general perspective within the photograph. The sun, at that time of the morning, around 9 AM, should have been shining directly on the prow of the boat as well as on the land in the background but both are darkened.

- Are there clues within the boat photograph that could help determine from how far away it was taken?

The size of the explosion and the height the blast cloud at the time the photo was snapped combined with its reflection in the water simply were not consistent with a distance of 21 kilometers or 13 miles. Regardless of the lighting situation or blast size, a reflection would not extend beyond the height of the blast cloud itself. At the time, we thought the The Halifax blast cloud reached a maximum height of 20,000 feet or 3.8 miles [I later found out the actual height of the blast cloud was 11,811 feet or 2.25 miles (see Page 5, Item 2)]. Either way, this precluded the reflection extending beyond either distance. Pierre and I were in agreement that had the Halifax Explosion been the size as shown in a photograph actually taken from a distance of 13 miles away, the whole area today would probably be known as "The Great Crater that used to be Halifax, Nova Scotia".

After three weeks or so our attempt to contextualize the boat photograph within our current parameters was becoming increasingly difficult. We realized the more we tried to build the case to support the accepted information associated with our photo, the less it stood up to scrutiny.

It became apparent that there was no feasible location on either side of the harbour approaches where this photograph could have been taken on the water - from any distance. It was time to, literally, turn things around.

A Change in Direction:

In order for our boat photograph to be in sync with the lay of the land, the position of the sun and the blast cloud's reflection in the water, it was necessary to turn the perspective around 180 degrees and make the location (POV) somewhere in Bedford Basin with the line of sight aimed directly toward the Narrows. Pierre had already passed the tipping point in his own research and agreed with the notion that the photo had indeed been taken from Bedford Basin. He suggested that the boat in the photograph was HMCS Acadia (not to be confused with the inbound cargo ship, Acadian). The ship’s present appearance as a floating museum is not as it was in 1917 and was as good a candidate as any. Pierre also surmised that the photo may have been taken from the deck of the S.S. Santa Clara, an American ship. This made sense as one of the photograph's reference numbers is from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Once we finally acknowledged that our boat photo had most likely been taken looking from the Northwest to the Southeast, everything that had been askew in the equation, all of a sudden, seemed to fall into place. With the lay of the land in its proper perspective, the first location I had thought of for the photograph - close to the far end of Bedford Basin - turned out to be outside the maximum parameters of the blast cloud reflection at about 4 miles away.

I decided to ignore this discrepancy for the time being. After all, I was still basking in the glow of the turnaround. Pierre thought the spit of land in the photo was closer to the Narrows near Wright's Cove which to me, seemed much too close to the explosion. Regardless, we were basically on the same page so I decided to come up with a proposed line of sight that complimented both our theories.

This Google map looks toward the Narrows with the proposed line of sight from camera to explosion.

I began looking for photos, old and new, of the end of Bedford Basin near Shore Drive near where I used to live. Everything seemed to fit together - the perspective, the distances, the boat - all the anomalies were beginning to disappear. I even found what I thought was another “smoking gun”, as it were, that came with the discovery of a photo in the Marion Christie collection housed at the Fort Sackville Foundation. It was of the 1945 explosion at Magazine Hill, taken from a rowboat in the Basin with the seemingly familiar spit of land featured prominently. Or, so I thought.


Our First Documented Evidence:

Three weeks after the beginning of our sojourn, I arranged to meet with Lynn-Marie Richard, Registrar at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Pierre came along so we could go over some xeroxed photos of the explosion together and view the museum's copy of "Ground Zero". I had seen the book at NSARM the day before and was quite anxious to show Pierre the blast cloud photo in Alan Ruffman's book that had been taken from outside the gates of York Redoubt near Ferguson's Cove (see map on Page 1).

As there may be copyright issues, a pencil drawing will suffice.

We looked at two xeroxed Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt photographs from the Ron Fralick collection that were documented as being taken from that area. The photographs confirmed we were on the right track as far as the POV of our boat photo was concerned and the location and lay of the land in these photos was in keeping with the blast cloud travelling in a South-Easterly direction. The "McNab's Island" photo, which I had earlier thought was taken from the Dartmouth side of the harbour, had to be turned around for all of the photos to be in context with each other. Ferguson's Cove and York Redoubt face the midpoint of McNab's Island from the Halifax side of the harbour.

At first look, the Ferguson's Cove photographs appeared to have been taken from a further distance away than the "McNab's Island" photo (more about this on Page 3). The base of the blast cloud was extended but the upper cloud configurations were surprisingly similar. We thought our McNab's photo could have been taken from the vicinity of York Redoubt at a closer vantage point. We also considered Point Pleasant Park as a possible camera location. Either way, Pierre was convinced The "McNab's Island" photograph was taken in or near one of the old military forts or batteries.

This notion was based, in part, on his consideration of the enigmatic, lower right section of the photo. Below is a close-up of what I thought looked like a decorative railing; possibly attached to a dark wall. Some have described it as part of a pier or wharf. Pierre thought it could be a series of air ventilators sitting on the roof of a military bunker with a drainage pipe visible under the eaves at the lower right. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough information in the photo to make any kind of positive identification.

- Why is is so difficult to identify the vessel in the Halifax Explosion/boat photograph?

After our meeting with Lynn-Marie, we went down to the Halifax Explosion display in the museum to take a photograph of the huge blow-up of our boat/blast photo (source: Alan Ruffman - photo credited to NARA). Details of the boat in the foreground were much clearer than what we got from the online photos - especially with the prow and the rigging - though the prow was still not clear enough. I always had my doubts the vessel was the Acadia because it appeared too large to be our boat. As soon as Pierre saw the display, he concurred. So, we were back to "square one" regarding the boat's identity.

Later over coffee, Pierre mentioned why he had reasoned the boat in the photo was the Acadia. The record of ships in the harbour and basin on December 6, 1917, stated that the Acadia (the only boat that even came close to fitting our description), was the only vessel located on the Eastern side of Bedford Basin at the time of the explosion. So, it seemed we were now faced with having to find a boat that had either gone unrecorded, or one that had moved from its recorded position.

Pierre reiterated his idea that the spit of land in the photo was close Wright's Cove. I was still fairly convinced that the location was in front of the small spit of land at the far end of the Basin. I also thought the size of the line of roiled water coming around the spit of land was too small to have been generated by an explosion less than a mile away. Pierre was hesitant to agree but stated that if my hypothesis was correct, the American ship, Santa Clara, would have been much too big to be in that small an area and then suggested it was possible our photo may not been taken from a vessel but from onshore.

For a time, our respective theories seemed to get a bit convoluted but all the while, we were confident enough to know that we would eventually come up with a viable explanation on which we could both agree.

We made a concerted effort to establish the identity of the boat in the photo. It was a very important piece of information that would serve to verify the location of the photograph. The only thing that was apparent was that it looked like a trawler but Pierre was not convinced. He knew a lot about boats and I had no basis on which to build an alternate theory, so I just thought it best to just keep on searching the internet for more boat photographs.

During World War I, the Royal Navy purchased and converted several classes of trawlers and provided them with light armaments. These included Merseys, Castles and Straths. Other smaller fishing boats were requisitioned to perform minelaying or minesweeping duties. After the war, these boats returned to their original trade. The overall lengths of the six vessels shown here ranged from around 121 feet to 184 feet with displacement of 221 tons to 438 tons.

Below is a CU photo taken by Pierre of the boat in the wall-size display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic - an enlargement of the NARA print of the explosion. The horizontal white line and the other angular lines across the prow are flaws within the actual display photo. The image has been de-colorized. The wheel house is not bright white in the original image. A fair amount of brightness and contrast had to be added to Pierre's photo to make some of the very dark areas more discernible.

It is very difficult to make out any detail in the prow area. Because of the lack of illumination, we can not be certain how much of what we see is actually part of the vessel or some unknown material sitting on deck; specifically when looking at the bottom section of the forward mast. In a way, it's a catch 22 situation. To see more in the photo, we "effected" the image by changing degrees of brightness and contrast. Unfortunately, with inferior ones, it is best to proceed with caution. With digital manipulation, the photo content is altered on many different levels - sometimes to the point where conclusions derived from the results are merely subjective interpretations. Relying on these techniques is a double-edged sword. Information gleaned from "effected" material may lead to the next piece of the puzzle if you know exactly what you are looking for or your conclusions lead nowhere. Fortunately for us, the CU photo of the display blow-up needed little alteration and added significantly to our knowledge base.

Without a quality print of the original photograph to work with, we were not able to make any categorical statements. It is impossible to see any real detail. From all appearances, the prow configuration of the boat in the blast cloud photo is not flared, the prow is unusually high and the downward curve drastic. The flared prow was not commonplace until the Twenties. The photo of the Norrard Star (below) was taken in the mid-fifties.

The downward curve on the side of the boat in the CU photo is much more pronounced than on many of the vessels we viewed from the late 19th Century through the early 20th Century. The Celtia, a Milford trawler circa 1907 (top left), HMT St. Ives, circa 1908, a Fleetwood trawler, S. T. Shackleton, circa 1913 and a Mersey Class trawler, Blackwater, circa 1914-15 all have high bulwarks or what Pierre refers to as "whalebacks".


The lack of detail, clarity and perspective in the photograph inevitably resulted in some outside-the-box speculation on my part. I thought it possible that the dark area in the CU photo that leads into the prow may not be a continuation of the bulwark but some unknown shadow or object that extended behind the foremast and along the front of the wheel house. Pierre did not agree, stating that maintenance of the area in front of the wheel house and keeping the deck clean of any obstruction was of the highest order. However, given that the explosion had just taken place and there was debris raining already down all around, and the fact that it was indeed wartime, may have allowed for certain extenuating circumstances.

It seemed to me that had the prow been completely visible in the photo, the lines of the boat may have looked more like these other Milford trawlers; Bush, circa 1908 (left) and The Roman, circa 1909. Note the dark mass to the immediate left of the bulwark in the CU photo. It could be part of the winch, which is visible on all six vessels shown here.


The "Ships of the Halifax Explosion" page of the Maritime Museum website states that its list of vessels present in the harbour and Bedford Basin on December 6, 1917 is selective. If we wanted a more comprehensive list, it would be necessary to go through the Pickford & Black business records on microfilm at NSARM to find all of the vessels that were in Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin in the week prior to and on the day of the explosion.

At this point we were in agreement that the POV of the boat photo was either at the far end of Bedford Basin or near the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO), and that the line of sight ran from Northwest looking Southeast toward the Narrows. We also agreed that the line of sight in the documented Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt photo ran Southwest to Northeast from the gate of York Redoubt near Ferguson's Cove Road to the upper section of the blast cloud at an angle of roughly 75 or 80 degrees from a location of about 2 miles away. Our "McNab's Island" photo appeared to have been taken along or somewhere close to this line of sight, as well.


In our search for the boat in the photo, Pierre caught one piece of information we had both overlooked early on. When going through the list of ships and their whereabouts the day of the explosion, we had overlooked the activities of a tug, Booton, as they happened after the event.

It was recorded that she towed the USS Old Colony to Pier 4 around 1:00 o'clock in the afternoon. This meant that it was possible for Booton to have been in Bedford Basin at the time of the explosion in the morning. For a time, we could not find any photos of the tug by itself but realized it was possible that the tug, Booton could be the boat in the photo. Even though the boat in the photo did not appear to be a tug, it still seemed to be a lead worth following up.

The Maritime Museum has a panorama photograph on the wall of its Halifax Explosion exhibit that shows the aftermath of the explosion on the afternoon of December 6, 1917 with Hovland in the foreground.

In this composited image of the photograph, we see a large ship back to the right of center, with her smoke stack belching, dockside at Pier 4. The prow, foremast and top of the second mast, wheel house and smokestack of a smaller boat is visible just to the left of the big ship's bow. We thought this boat may be Booton.

Panorama Photograph: © in Canada, 1917 by W. G. MacLaughlan. Dimensions: 45.5" x 11.5".

Image obtained from Library and Archives Canada - Canada and the First World War.

The CU image (below) was taken by Pierre from the original panorama photo at the Maritime Museum. I removed the color and added a small amount of brightness & contrast. Upon close examination, it is clear the large ship at dock is not USS Old Colony but the Diadem Class cruiser, HMCS Niobe and the smaller vessel alongside her is definitely not the boat in the explosion photo.

However, it could still be Booton or any one of several other tugboats. A small amount of smoke can be seen emanating from the stack and hardly any water is being moved by the boat. The detail and quality of workmanship in McLaughlan’s photograph is outstanding. Even the silhouette of a person (smaller than the size of a pinhead) can be seen standing near the foremast.


By this time, the boat photo and the "McNab's Island" photo had become integral to each other but by themselves, without any recognizable reference points in either photo, it was difficult to make definitive conclusions regarding camera locations. However, the Ferguson's Cove photo from "Ground Zero" did contain known reference points. We knew that evidence gleaned from this photo would ultimately shed more light on our two blast cloud photographs.

Still, after a month and much progress, Pierre and I did not have the name or class of the boat nor did we have enough information to pinpoint the camera location of either photo with any measure of certainty.

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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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