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 6

- The National Library and Archives description of Photo #1, the boat photo:
"View, from a distance of thirteen miles, of the column of smoke raised by the Halifax Explosion."

- The Nova Scotia Records and Management description of Photo #2, the McNab's Island photo:
"Smoke cloud from the Halifax Explosion, probably taken off McNabs Island."

One has to remember that for the most part, an archivist or curator is not a researcher and is not responsible for establishing the true provenance of acquired items. Often, when these items are presented to the public, the associated information regarding their provenance can very well be be false, inaccurate or misleading. The Halifax Explosion/boat photograph is a perfect example of this.

The description of the second photograph as having been taken "off" McNab's Island is misleading. It could be interpreted that the only foliage in the photo was on the island itself or that the object in the foreground was also on or near the island. Whether or not this was the intent is unknown but this information was not helpful regarding the establishment of a camera location. The description in pencil on the reverse of the photograph was written by an archivist - in the same handwriting as the accession number. This information most likely accompanied the photograph upon acquisition.

There are many cases in which portions of photographs have been manipulated or falsified by reputable artists and amateurs alike. Certain items, either a single donation or part of collection, may exist in an archive for many years and never be subjected to any scrutiny whatsoever. This appears to be the case with the "MacNab's Island" photograph and the Cox Bros. post card where not only the provenance of the images is in question but their truthfulness, as well.

Our Conclusions:

Photo #1 - The Boat Photo: As far as we are able to ascertain, there is nothing about the photograph of the Halifax Explosion that would indicate it is not genuine. Had there been any manipulation in this photograph, it would certainly have been revealed in the super-sized blow-up at the Maritime Museum. There are no original negatives at the Canadian or American archives. Known prints were obtained from Underwood and Underwood. The true provenance of the original photograph may never be traced. However, we believe our research has yielded enough information, based on documented and circumstantial evidence, to at least provide a proper context to the photograph's content and a workable theory as to where it was taken.

The Halifax Explosion took place in the area of Pier No. 6 in the Harbour Narrows at 9:04:35 AM on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917. We theorize that the photo of the blast cloud and Gulnare was taken from the deck or possibly the stern of ship looking toward the Narrows from a distance of approximately one mile from the blast, fifteen or twenty seconds after detonation.

We see a huge, dark blast cloud rising to the sky with the upper portion turned to the Southeast. A large semi-horizontal mass is shooting out toward the Northeast almost halfway up the cloud. Everything from here to the top of the cloud is from the fire aboard the Mont Blanc. Below this point, we see a large ball - the result of the lightning-fast and powerful detonation that wreaked so much havoc a few seconds before - as it continues to expand.

In the foreground, we see a boat what may be the service vessel, CGS Gulnare. She is idling (no smoke emanating from its stack) in front of a spit of land. This small area lies in front of what is today, an abandoned Canadian Forces base known as Shannon Park. Located on the Dartmouth side of the entrance to Bedford Basin, it is just inside the one mile radius of the blast.

We see a line of roiled water rushing toward the vessel's port side; most likely surface turmoil created by swift air movement from the explosion. The blast cloud is vividly reflected in the calm water. Assuming the photograph was taken with a 50 mm lens, the camera would have been no more than 1200 feet away from the boat in the foreground. If the photograph was taken from this area approximately one mile away, it would have been within the first 10 to 15 seconds of the blast. The position of the half-sphere at the bottom, which would have spread out equally in all directions, was still within the one-mile mark. The land on the left is inside that area. From all appearances, one can judge the edge of the half-sphere at somewhere between a half-mile and three quarters of a mile from the epicentre. The height of the cloud at this point may have been approximately 9,000 to 10,000 feet in height and still rising.

The photograph on the right was taken at approximately 2:00 on the afternoon. therefore the lighting is not correct. The spit of land is still relatively the same.However, the dockside at the front of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography has been built up and filled in over the years so that very few of the land characteristics look the same as they did in 1917.


Photo 1. Probable line of sight of blast photograph.
Photo 2. Probable photograph location - present day.


Photos #2 and #3 - The "McNab's Island"/Cox and Cox Photos: The resemblance of this blast cloud to the one in the York Redoubt/Ferguson's Cove photographs is unmistakable. The configuration of the upper cloud is very pronounced. There is evidence that indicates some manipulation in the lower right hand quadrant. However, the blast cloud and foliage do appear genuine. The actual photographer is unknown.

We theorize that a camera location near York Redoubt is fairly consistent with the York Redoubt/Ferguson's Cove photos from the Maritime Museum, as the perspective is very similar. The line of sight travels a few degrees to the Northwest. We see the dark, sooty blast cloud rising high in the sky. The base has risen and lengthened but the cloud is still a well-defined cohesive mass. The photo appears to have been taken a short time earlier than two other two York Redoubt/Ferguson's Cove photos in which the base of the blast cloud has almost dispersed.

[Update 31/05/10: It has come to light that this photo was apparently cropped from a much larger photo that was obtained by the Herald and published in an article (06/01/18), "That Never To Be Forgotten Cloud". See Item 3a on Page 6 for details.]


There are three descriptions of the blast cloud that should be noted. The first is the scientific explanation of how it was formed and can be found on page 277 of the book, "Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour”, edited by Alan Ruffman & Colin D. Howell (1994). The segment authored by David Simpson and Alan Ruffman is entitled, "Explosions, Bombs, and Bumps: Scientific Aspects of the Explosion".

The second description is the eye-witness account of Judge Benjamin Russell from his book, "Autobiography of Benjamin Russell" (Halifax, N.S., The Royal Print & Litho Ltd., 1932), page 264-265.

The third is offered by Pierre Richard. His comments result from both experience and observation.

1. "The detonation itself took only a fraction of a second. Once begun, the explosion ripped through the Mont Blanc and its cargo at more than 1,500 metres per second. At the centre of the explosion, extreme temperatures and pressures - on the order of 5,000 degrees centigrade and thousands of atmospheres - accompanied the moment of detonation. The enormous volume of the gaseous products of the explosion rushed outward from the doomed ship, pushing the air and water ahead of it. Immediately, the harbour waters surrounding the ship were vapourized. Part of the energy in the shock wave converted to a water wave, part entered the earth to propagate outward as a seismic wave, and part sped into the atmosphere. In the sky directly over the shattered ship, a characteristic explosive cloud formed as the fireball of hot gases rose rapidly into the atmosphere. Initially, because of its extremely high temperature, the gas fireball, carrying with it vapourized parts of the ship and its cargo, rose directly upward, forming a narrow chimney, similar to the stalk of the mushroom cloud often associated with nuclear explosions. As the gas cloud cooled, its upward speed decreased. Under the influence of the prevailing winds, the lighter suspended materials began to spread outward, forming the head of the mushroom. The heavier particulate material - including pieces of the Mont Blanc, unconsumed portions of its bunker coal, and the carbon byproducts of the explosion - fell back on the city as the dark rain described in eye-witness accounts. Many of the features of the explosive cloud - the narrow chimney of the lower portion of the cloud, the spreading to the southeast, and the dark particulate material falling back to earth beneath the cloud - can be seen in the few photographs taken soon after the explosion."

2. "The explosion was attributed by my friends in the house in which I was a roomer to a bomb in the sky, and they called to me earnestly to come down into the cellar, where the only possible safety was to be found. I was only half dressed, and, as the immediate shock was over, I went at once to the front door to see whatever was to be seen. It was one of the most gloriously beautiful sights that ever greeted my eyes. A gently curving column of fire, of all the colors that fire can assume, was ascending from the region of the Dockyard, spreading and becoming wider and wider as it rose in height, but not scattering. On the contrary, it seemed as if the innumerable brilliants that composed the gracefully curving column were under some mutual attraction that held it to a majestic, ever-widening and continuously rising display of splendid colors."

3. Although the resemblance of the Halifax Explosion to a nuclear blast is undeniable, there are several other aspects that must be considered. It is unlikely that a massive, fully formed cloud, such as the one seen in the boat/explosion photo, could be present only 15 or so seconds after the detonation.* The oil fire that resulted from the collision raged for almost twenty minutes before the explosion occurred. There would have been a pre-explosion fire cloud; produced mainly from the intense burning of copious amounts of benzol (246 tons) on the deck of Mont Blanc. These were contained in many barrels tied down from stem to stern. The benzol fuel was exposed to the open air which contributed greatly to the size of the fire cloud. There was enough time for the cloud to have already reached a great height and mass before detonation. As evidenced by the boat/explosion photograph, the blast spread out equally in all directions as evidenced by the half-sphere. Also, the detonation would have also immediately dispersed the thermal column. There would have been constant movement, growth and disturbances within the cloud itself as more and more debris was thrown upward into it from the blast, but its general shape and height had already been established.

(*The fire cloud was fully formed in this documented photo taken by Ernest McPeak from aboard Tyrian just 10 seconds after detonation. - JHZ)

Below is an exhibit from the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry - a diagram that depicts the distribution of benzol on deck and the other explosive elements within the cargo compartments of Mont Blanc. There were also 300 live rounds of ammunition sitting on deck for the fore and aft guns.


Closing Notes:

The Halifax Explosion is an important part of Halifax's history. This major event not only had a tremendous impact on our city but on the rest of the world, as well. The stories of bravery and pain, death and destruction, greed and selflessness and ultimately, rejuvenation and rebirth are endless. They come from all people, all races; stories retold and stories that are as yet, untold. They are as real and vital almost one hundred years after the fact as they were in the very moments they occurred.

All things considered, this project was a rewarding and worthwhile experience. The institutions and individuals we approached with our requests for material were open-minded, courteous, and helpful.

Even with its lack of provenance, we feel confident that the explosion/boat photograph is the real deal. On the other hand, we believe the "McNab's Island" photograph and the Cox Bros. & Co. post card do not stand up very well to scrutiny.

Even with all of the research involved with this project, there will most likely be several on-going issues that may never reach consensus:

1) The vessel in the explosion/boat photograph may, of course, not be Gulnare. In truth, it could have been any one of a number of trawlers or minesweepers anonymous or otherwise, that were in Bedford Basin in the weeks and days leading up to the explosion. To make a definitive statement regarding its identity would require much more time and research. Most importantly, we have produced more than enough evidence to back up our notion that the actual location of the photograph was near the top of the Narrows at the entrance to Bedford Basin and that the image was captured within one mile of the explosion.

2) The blast cloud has been estimated to have reached as high as 20,000 feet. This seems most unlikely. Even without scientific measurement, the photos themselves do not substantiate a figure anywhere close to that height. When the actual size of the explosion and the areas of physical damage are factored in, a maximum height of approximately 9,000 to 10,000 feet is credible.

3) There has been some speculation that the boat/explosion image itself had been reversed. From the start of my research, I took the photograph at face value. There was nothing to indicate that I was looking at anything other than the image taken at the time. As it turns out, this image is consistent with every other available photograph, documented or otherwise. I am aware of only one instance where this particular photograph has appeared reversed in print. That turned out to be an unfortunate error by the publisher.

If anyone can offer a viable alternative to any or all of the aspects of our presentation, Pierre and I would certainly be happy to entertain your ideas over a cup of coffee at Steve's.

The explosives aboard the Mont Blanc that devastated Halifax on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917:

Explosive Type - Weight in Tons / Yield / TNT Equivalent in Tons:

Picric acid, wet - 1,766.5 / 1.1 / 1,943.1
Picric acid, dry - 600 / 1.1 / 660.0
TNT [trinitrotoluene] - 250 - 1.0 / 250.0
Guncotton - 62.1 / 1.0 / 62.1
Benzol - 246.0 / 0.3 ? / 73.8

Totals - 2,924.6 Tons of Explosives with a TNT Equivalent of 2,989.0 Tons

Source: "Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour"

There were also 300 rounds of live ammunition.

"Apart from her own crew and pilot Frank MacKey and the naval examining officers, nobody had a clue about the stuff she [Mont Blanc] had on board." - Thomas H. Raddall

Sources (information and/or Photographs):

Halifax Explosion/Boat photo image: www.firstworldwar.com
"MacNab's Island", Cox Bros. & Co. post card, Picton, Calonne and Wallace R. MacAskill photos
courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
The Halifax Public Library
Specific reading material on the Halifax Explosion available from the Halifax Public Library
“Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour” edited by Alan Ruffman & Colin D. Howell
Nova Scotia Museum
Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough, England
The Naval Museum of Manitoba
Roll of Honour.com
McCord Museum
Don (Byrd) Awalt, Mi'kmaw historian
Maps: Google Earth, Yahoo! Maps
Morrill 1889 photo: www.uscg.mil
Morrill Gun photo: www.antiquephotographs.com
Photographs of Acting Cdr. T. K. Triggs and Middleham Castle with damaged funnel:
from "The Town That Died" by Michael Bird (1962). Sources not listed
Rowland H. Wilcox photo:
"The Coast Guard in World War I" by Alex Larzelere
Images of HMS Changuinola and Delia (Middleham Castle): www.photoship.co.uk
Canadian Navy Heritage Project, Project Pride (no longer online): photos of Gulnare, HMCS Grisle, CC1 & CC2 (Ken Mcpherson / Naval Museum of Alberta), HMCS Margaret. Courtesy the Department of National Defence
Explosion in Halifax Harbour by David B. Flemming
Forrest Building and Science Building photographs: dal.ca
Milford Trawlers
Fleetwood Trawlers
Ferguson's Cove Sketch © 2009 Joel Zemel
The Internet
Early map of Halifax: National Library and Archives Canada website.

Three excellent books to read for a much wider perspective of the Halifax Explosion: The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy - Inquiry and Intrigue by John Griffith Armstrong (2002), Shattered City - The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery by Janet F. Kitz (1989) and The Town That Died by Michael J. Bird (1962).

Websites with information on the Halifax Explosion:

A Bibliography of Publications concerning the Halifax Explosion. Compiled by Alan Ruffman and Wendy Findley.

CBC.ca - The Halifax Explosion
This website contains an animated timeline from four different vantage points.

The Chronicle Herald - Explosion Memories
Personal video and audio accounts of the Halifax Explosion and its aftermath from Wilfred Creighton (13 years old at the time), who died in 2008 at the age of 104. Please note that the Creighton house was on LeMarchant Street within the two-mile radius of the explosion.

In the Privy Council on appeal from the Supreme Court of Canada between the Ship "Imo" (Southern Pacific Whaling Company, Limited, Owners), (Defendant), Appellant and La Compagnie Generale Trans-Atlantique, (Plaintiff), Respondent : record of proceedings : volume 1 / Constant & Constant, Appellant's Solicitors [and] William A. Crump & Son, Respondent's Solicitors.

Published in 1919, this is a complete record of all the proceedings from the Drysdale Inquiry through to the appeal to the Privy Council with verbatim testimony from all parties. Transferred from the hardcover book at the Halifax Public Library. Downloadable individual PDF pages provided by Canadiana.Org.

Thanks to Garry Shutlak & Barry Smith at PANS/NSARM, Jeanne Howell at the Cambridge Military Library, Lynn-Marie Richard and Dan Conlin at the Maritime Museum, Susan McClure at the HRM Archives and the staff at the Halifax Public Library for their co-operation and assistance.

Special thanks to Pierre Richard for his knowledge, his keen sense of observation and being the ever-present voix de raison.

I would like to make special mention of the RCN's Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic FDU (A) stationed at CFB Shearwater and Coxswain, Mark Simonsen. I recently spent an afternoon discussing the history of diving and of the unit. I was given a tour of the facilities and the beginnings of a museum that Mark is working on to preserve their long and colorful history.

This unique and highly skilled unit of divers, consisting of 150 personnel, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They assisted in New Orleans after Katrina and spent a gruelling year of recovery following the Swissair disaster.

The unit lent an original print of a photograph of W. George Critch, R.N.R. to scan for my Halifax Explosion Project. Able Seaman Critch, along with Chief Master at Arms, John T. Gammon, MBE. saved two Niobe divers from certain death on the morning of the explosion.

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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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