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

Original project research by Joel Zemel and Pierre Richard
ISBN #978-0-9684920-7-9 2009 Joel Zemel
Continuing research 2009-2017 Joel Zemel

Page 5



1917 Halifax Explosion Blast Cloud Photos, Location, Description and Reference Numbers:

UPDATE, 6 October 2017: After due consideration and more research of archival photographs and in the field, I have updated the origin probabilities of the series of (cropped) five blast cloud images shown in the French publication (January 1918) Le Miroir (below):

The location of HMCS Acadia in Bedford Basin at the eastern head of the Narrows on 6 December 1917 is conducive to the notion that these photographs were taken from aboard this vessel. The relative co-ordinates of the guard ship were established through the testimony at the inquiry by one of the officers aboard, Lieutenant Arthur McKenzie Adams, RNVR, who confirmed Acadia's location after being shown exhibit M.B.E. 63 while on the stand.



Additionally, the recent emergence of material associated with one of her British complement, Frank Herbert Baker, has contributed to the idea that he was the one who photographed these striking images. According to his diary, he and other personnel had been transferred from the examination boat Berthier to Acadia on 4 December, two days before the explosion. The photograph below from 1917, shows Mr. Baker (left) with what appears to be a Model E Kodak camera.



A colleague, Stephen Osler, was kind enough to transport me in his sailboat up to Acadia's position where I took the photograph seen on the right below. The image on the left is the uncropped version of the iconic blast cloud image. After comparing these images, there should be little doubt, if any, that the original blast cloud photographs were taken from the deck of HMCS Acadia.



I have narrowed the possibilities to the ship in the foreground as one of three examination boats that could have been in this position: Curlew, Constance and Speedy II. This conclusion was determined due to the odd shape of the vessel's prow shown in the expanded denigrated image of the vessel (below).



The look of the raised area on the bow suggests the object is a whaleback, a metal covering used to deflect water away from the foredeck. Images of Curlew and Constance (below) confirm the use of whalebacks and also demonstrate the vessels' unique prow design.



UPDATE, 11 August 2017: Five blast cloud photographs, one of which is usually referred to as the "iconic" photo, were taken from a French vessel in Bedford Basin. These were originally printed in the 1918/01/13 edition of Le Miroir. The ship from which the images were taken is likely HMCS Acadia, a guard ship moored on the eastern side of Bedford Basin. It should be noted that the "iconic" photo is cropped and not shown in its entirety as published in the 14 February 1918 issue of Church Work and subsequent booklet by C. W. Vernon as shown further down the page. The images are available for viewing in more detail at Gallica.

.

Rough translation of the accompanying text:

"On December 6, an unprecedented explosion, complicated by a terrible fire, destroyed half the city of Halifax, Canada. The explosion, believed to be due to an attack, occurred as a result of an incidental collision between a small vessel of the Belgian Relief Commission, the Imo, and the Mont-Blanc, a ship loaded with three thousand tons of explosives.

The whole quarter of the harbour was ravaged, as well as the northern part of the city, while the deaths of two thousand persons had been reported. Three thousand others were wounded. By an extraordinary chance, the ship colliding, the Imo, having turned back, was not destroyed. One sees it, stranded, in one of our photos which represents the place of the catastrophe.

In the foreground, the small mound is all that remains of the vessel which collided. The other snapshots reproduce five phases of the explosion, seen from a ship six kilometers from the scene of the disaster. The steamship, which is seen at the anchorage, and whose masts are elevated forty-five meters above the sea, makes it possible to judge the height of the plume of smoke."

Commentary:

The mention of six kilometres distance as well as the mention of the masts of the vessel in the foreground being 45 metres high is somewhat irrelevant. Aside from the fact that information contained in newspaper stories can be wildly inaccurate, we also have noblest as knowledge of the source of this information. Besides, research over the years on various versions of image #1 has shown that it is unlikely the photographer was no more than one and a half miles (2.4 Km) from the initial blast. It is possible the cloud was approximately 6Km away in image #5 of the blast cloud. We simply do not know the timeframe to which the comments in the article refer or if these comments are accurate in any way.

Furthermore, in the middle image, second row, it should be noted that whomever supplied information to the article actually perceived the wreckage of the destroyed Acadia Sugar Refinery as that of Mont-Blanc; therefore proving that the article's accuracy should not be taken at face value. Please see the two photographs numbered 9 (below) for further commentary.

Information of the photographic source (Le Miroir) provided by Alan Ruffman with credit to philatelist, Leon Matthys, from Aurora, Ontario for initially finding the file.


UPDATE, 12 December 2015: The six previously unseen photographs below (including composite) are from several in the collection of Sub-Lieutenant Victor Montague Magnus, RNVR. They show the blast cloud in its very early stages. The animal head configuration has not yet risen to the top of the blast cloud. Magnus was stationed aboard HMS Changuinola, moored in the dockyard. In these rare photographs, the blast cloud is seen from the front.

   

The location of the ship was roughly in midstream, abeam of HMCS Niobe. Looking along a line of sight to the northwest, the top of the blast cloud was pointed to the southeast. The photo above left is of the remnant of the blast itself and the plume. To the right is the top of the plume. The image below left, is the bottom of the plume and a bit of the blast remnant. To the right is a composite photo.

   

Another of Magnus's photographs (below left) and the photo to the right are from HMS Changuinola's location looking towards the northwest Halifax shore. Magnus labelled tis "Fire at Halifax" so there is no way to tell whether the photograph was taken before or after the explosion. Two unidentified vessels at the left of frame. Without high resolution images to view, identification is virtually impossible.

   

The fire on the Mont Blanc raged between fifteen and twenty minutes before the explosion. The thick smoke from the spilled benzol on deck rose high in the sky and could be seen from a distance. One or two of these photos could be pre-explosion photos of the fire but it is hard to be certain. Some photos may also be cropped.

There is cable or rigging of some kind visible in a few of the images. On the day of the explosion, there were a number of ships in Bedford Basin. Within the first few minutes, the fire alone would have already been a significant event. It is not unreasonable to assume that pre-explosion and explosion images, known and unknown, were taken onboard any number of these vessels. By 1917, cameras had evolved to the point where they were fairly compact and easy enough to use quickly. Anyone aboard a ship in Bedford Basin who had a camera would have had a good line of sight to the Narrows but still be far enough away to safely take a photograph of the fire or the explosion.

Photo 1 ended up in the possession of the U. S. Coast Guard which implies that this particular photo was taken from one of their vessels. Photo 3 was taken by Ernest McPeak on Tyrian. A well known cropped version of Photo 4, the main subject of this website, came as an Underwood and Underwood image to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) from the U.S. Records of the War Department General and Special Staff.

1. Blast cloud resulting from the fire on the Mont Blanc (not much context within the photo and no information available); Source: the United States Coast Guard website. Click here for higher resolution photo.



2. Blast cloud from the fire on the Mont Blanc; Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic - Reference MP 207 1 184 431.



3. Blast cloud taken approximately 10 seconds after detonation by Ernest McPeak of the cable ship, Tyrian. Heavy, dense smoke cloud from the fire on Mont Blanc; Source: The Halifax Herald - 06/12/18.

In "Ground Zero", there is a reference on page 301 to a photograph of the blast cloud taken ten seconds after the explosion. It is further explained in the notes on page 464 that this image was taken by Ernest McPeak, fourth engineer on the government steamer, Tyrian, at anchor in the Northwestern section of Bedford Basin about three kilometres from the blast. The notes go on to say that a poorly reproduced version of the photograph appeared in the December 6, 1918 edition of the Herald. Below is the digital image from microfilm of the explosion taken by Ernest McPeak.



Though not of good quality, there is enough of an image present to indicate that it is clearly an image of the explosion and not just the fire cloud. The ship shown in the picture is a cable repair craft only a few hundred yards from Tyrian. With the cloud rising to the Southeast, the distance of 2 miles appears to correlate well with our other photographic evidence.

This documented photograph effectively corroborates our contention that the Halifax Explosion/Boat photograph (Item 3.) was taken from Bedford Basin as well. View this
comparison.

The diagram below illustrates the theoretical lines of sight regarding Item 3 and McPeak's photograph. McPeak's line of sight may have been anywhere along the western line of the triangle.



Below: Tyrian (date unknown) and her officers (ca.1900).

   

Photographs from History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network
.

4. The ominous-looking cloud in this photograph has been accepted as one of the explosion. Because of the rigging visible in the lower left quadrant of the image, it also appears to have been taken from a relatively low angle. The writing on the back of this photograph indicates the Canadian National Railway (most likely CGR) as the source. It is highly retouched with a black marker pen; Source: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management - No. 2 CNR, PANS - 1571, N - 874.



5. Blast Cloud (left) - taken just over a mile away from the explosion. Line of sight is to the Southeast looking toward the Narrows at the entrance to Bedford Basin about 15 - 20 seconds after detonation. There is a vessel in the foreground. The upper section of the cloud faces toward the Southeast and a semi-horizontal debris cloud juts out to the east around the middle section. At the base of the cloud, the half-sphere remnant of the actual explosion is clearly visible. Historians, authors and publications going back to 1918 have made various claims as to the camera location: 1) from 13 miles/21 kilometres away looking back at the Northwest Arm, 2) from a position off Point Pleasant Park and 3) from Eastern Passage.

Source: February 14, 1918 issue of "Church Work". Cropped versions sources: U. S. National Archives and Records Administration - Reference #165-WW-158A-15. National Library and Archives Canada - Reference #PA-166585 - safety film (Copy negative 1970-007 NPC) Reproduction services no longer available; Sources: Underwood & Underwood via the U.S. Military (U.S) and the David Millar Collection (Canada). No original negative available. See UPDATE at top of page.

   

Unlike any of the NARA/Underwood & Underwood prints which appear in publications and proliferate the Internet, this image allows one to actually determine the approximate distance between the photographer and the explosion by close examination of the reflection of the blast cloud in the water; especially if one knows the height of any given area within the blast cloud. A shadow results from something blocking a light source. However, a reflection results when light bounces from one source to another.

It is well documented that the heaviest damage from the initial blast (one-fiftieth of a second) was within one half mile of ground zero. The "Church Work" photograph appears to have been taken within a time period from between ten to twenty seconds after the initial blast. This timeframe can be determined when the image is compared with the fully documented photograph taken by Ernest McPeak aboard Tyrian from the western side of the Basin ten seconds after the explosion. By that time, the half-sphere at the bottom of the cloud, the remnants of the explosion itself would have been approximately one-half mile in height and diameter (perhaps a bit more). What can be seen in the reflection is approximately one and a quarter miles of the blast cloud's height. Therefore, it follows that the distance of the photographer from the explosion would most certainly have been within the range of one and a quarter to one and a half miles.

6. Blast Cloud (added February 20, 2010) - possibly a copy of an original complete print heretofore referred to as the "McNab's Island" photograph allowing a greater view of the surrounding area. I discovered this photo in the Halifax Herald while researching other aspects of my Halifax Explosion project. It is from the January 16, 1918 edition, page 6, under the title "That Never To Be Forgotten Cloud." The photograph in the paper was reversed but instantly recognizable. The quality of my digital photo, from one of the microfilm readers at PANS, is poor - as the source is extremely degraded. Yet some interesting details can still be made out.



For example, the outlines indicate the area is made up of dense brush. Interestingly enough, the caption reads that the cloud is seen "from a point six miles distant" - the approximate distance from York Redoubt to the city. At first it would seem that the fort is the only likely area from which this image could have been taken (see g-map below). However, according to all documented evidence, the cloud is shown more along a line of sight from from west to east than from south west to north east. Therefore, the exact location and when the photograph was taken are two important unknowns.

Two similar, documented photographs from the Ron Fralick Collection were taken from York Redoubt but the cloud formation, as a whole, had degraded slightly by that time.





In these composited images, I have gradually superimposed the McNab's Island photograph (wall insert included). The first frame is the newspaper photo only. I thought the two fit fairly well. Evidently, a couple of the treetops just behind the cloud actually match up quite well. Inconsistencies can be attributed to a number of factors, mostly having to do with photographic quality, relative image sizing and my cursory syncing of angles.

Even so, I believe there is enough evidence present to deduce that the original of this newspaper photograph was the source of both the "McNab's Island" photo and the Cox Bros. postcard image. It is now apparent that the original photograph was cropped and that these manipulations were done for the sake of dramatic commercialization or simple experimentation - as evidenced by the additions of a wall or clouds. It is possible this photograph was taken by the same person who took those in the Ron Fralick Collection.

One would assume that those wanting to exploit this image found no intrinsic value in the surrounding sky and landscape of the original photograph and simply cropped them out. As yet, I have not been able to locate a quality copy of the original unsullied photograph. However, there still may be one tucked away somewhere in someone's attic or basement.

7. Blast Cloud (with added wall) - photograph/postcard, probably taken from York Redoubt shortly after detonation. The base of the cloud is very dense and has risen substantially. The photographer is unknown but the postcard photograph was reportedly "developed by Captain Baird." Information in pencil on the reverse of this photo states it was taken off McNab's Island; Source: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management - Reference Accession #1976-166.106, Negative #N-2373.



8. Blast Cloud (with added clouds) - printed postcard, low-quality version of the previously listed photograph with unlikely cloud formations (the morning of December 6, 1917 was cloudless); The blast cloud is dark and sooty and the base is still intact. Postcard credited to Cox and Cox, Haliax photographers, Copyright Canada 1918. Information with the image claims the view is to the Northeast. The writing is not on the post card but on the cardboard backing to which the item is glued along with three other postcards depicting scenes of the Halifax Explosion; Source: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management - Reference Accession #7644 a-d.



9. Blast Cloud (left) - documented as having been taken outside the gates of York Redoubt near the road leading to Ferguson's Cove looking Northeast. Good land references. The upper cloud is still intact and the base looks as if has dissipated somewhat. However, the photograph I referenced was in "Ground Zero". It shows a clear spot in the base which may be a photographic flaw. One historian claims this photograph was taken from 40 km away in Elmsdale, N.S.. This is not accurate by any means. The image on the right was taken at approximately the same time from this location and clearly shows that the base is fully intact, though both images show the cloud as more extended than in photo 7. Source: Ron Fralick Collection, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic - negative 16,274.

   

Blast Cloud (right) - photo noted by historian Janet Kitz in her book, "Survivors - Children of the Halifax Explosion", as having been taken by a soldier stationed at York Redoubt from a slightly closer and straight-on vantage point. Also good land references. Although it has been published at least twice, this photograph has not been presented with the quality of the original. Source: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic - negative 16,275.

UPDATE 13 August 2017: After examining the five photograph sequence from Le Miroir, I have come to the conclusion that several of the previously established locations for some of these explosion photographs may be inaccurate. The photos above are prime examples. The Le Miroir images are taken in sequence from a fixed position over a short period of time, perhaps over fifteen to twenty minutes. From beginning to end of the sequence, the bottom of the blast could appears to have remained stationary over the city while the top of the cloud has taken a distinct course to the southeast. Judging by the direction of the top of the blast cloud, and given the fact the "iconic" photo was taken from Bedford Basin looking to the southeast, the previously held notions that the photo above were shot from Ferguson's Cove seem a bit off target - especially when looking at shots four and five in Le Miroir.

In actuality, from the perspective of Bedford Basin it appears the path of the cloud is moving along the eastern side of McNab's Island. Below is a screen shot of a possible location. The lay of the land at Fort MaNab probably has not changed much in the last hundred years. The clear cut to the left more resembles the area in the original photograph than any area around York Redoubt or the road leading to Ferguson's Cove. The Le Miroir photographs have opened up the possibility that the so-called "McNab's Island" photo (perhaps from Ives Point Battery) and two Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt photos above (perhaps from Fort McNab) were all actually taken from the same location - on McNab's Island. Compare the photographs for yourself.





10. Blast Cloud - purported to have been taken near Melville Cove looking Southeast "some time after the event". The upper blast cloud has lost its shape and the base has almost completely dispersed; Source: Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, File P 1720.

Please Note: It is highly unlikely that this photograph was taken in the Melville Cove area. The over-extended base and the loss of shape in the upper cloud mass shows that the blast cloud in this photograph has almost run its course. Existing documented photographic evidence indicates that the 1917 Halifax Explosion blast cloud was intact as it passed Ferguson's Cove. Logically, a photograph taken from Melville Cove, four and a half to five miles Northwest of Ferguson's Cove, could not possibly have the perspective of the image shown here.

The only location in Melville Cove that allows for a view similar to the photograph is directly adjacent to the Armdale Yacht Club. The direction of this line of sight to the blast cloud is to the Northeast.

The extreme close-up (right) of the lower left hand side of the purported 1917 Melville Cove image is not good quality but is clear enough to make out structures on the hill. These type of structures have never existed in the area of the North West Arm above the Saint Mary's Boat Club. Much of the land along this line of sight was and still is owned by the Catholic Church and would have been nothing more than an empty field in 1917. The first house was built nearby in 1921 by an employee of the CNR who enjoyed gardening. No structures exist atop the hill along this line of sight even today. This area of the boat club property is made up of a parking lot and a tennis court.

11. This photograph of the blast is purported to have been taken from the deck of a ship moored below the south batteries of George's Island. Unfortunately, the top right and left are mostly washed out in this photo and it is difficult to accurately parse the content. The image shows of the remnant of the blast itself where the water line is clearly visible. Ref: 1991-242, NSA, photograph taken by Harry Torraville.



12. A photo from the Stairs Collection (N. S. Archives). The image appears to have been taken from the back and to the right of the blast cloud. There is rigging and the top of a mast of another ship in the foreground. This indicates that the photograph was taken on the western side of Bedford Basin in the area between Fairview Cove and Rockingham Station. The blast cloud is fully-formed and and has begun to move down the harbour. Though unproven, it may very well have been another photo taken by Ernest McPeak of Tyrian.



There are several other archived photographs of the blast cloud but these images are too nondescript.

---

The following photo gallery contains images of ships that were in and around Halifax Harbour at the time of the explosion. Here is a list of "Ships of the Halifax Explosion" originally compiled by the MMA but reformatted and corrected.

HMCS Acadia, HMCS Canada, HMCS Cartier, Curaca, Sambro/Erg

                

CGS Gulnare, Highflyer, HMCS Hochelaga

        

Hovland, HMCS Margaret, Tampican (Imo), Imo

            

HMCS Lady Evelyn, Mont Blanc, Morrill, possibly Booton or Nereid, Niobe

                

USS Old Colony, Rowland H. Wilcox (PV-VII), Picton (cargo ship to right) and Picton at Avonmouth Dock

            

Calonne, St. Bernard, SS Stella Maris, USS Tacoma, HMS Knight Templar

                

USS Von Steuben, Stella Maris (remnants), CSS Acadia (museum ship), Middleham Castle with its damaged funnel (1917).

            

Middleham Castle refit as Delia (1932), Morrill (Lot M. Morrill in 1889), Morrill Gun, HMS Changuinola

            

HMCS Grisle, HMCS Grisle in Bedford Basin (1916), Submarines CC 1 & CC 2 (1918)

        

CC1, CC2

    

Click on this link is to read a PDF excerpt from "Source of Threat and Source of Assistance: The Maritime Aspects of the 1917 Halifax Explosion" by Joseph Scanlon which gives a detailed account of events leading up to and following the Halifax Explosion. Source: The Canadian Nautical Research Society.



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.

| Main | Jazz Guitar | Shakespeare Sonnets | About SVP/HalifaxExplosion.net | Links | SVP News | Contact SVP |

2009-2016 SVP Productions. All text protected. All rights reserved.