Shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, in the midst of the First World War, the largest human-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb was set off when the munitions ship Mont Blanc and the steamer Imo collided in Halifax harbour.
It had a catastrophic effect on Halifax, levelling five square kilometres of the city and killing as many as 1,600 people instantly. But, as the Manitoba Free Press told its readers in the following days, "the calamity was a national one."
News of those saved and lost in the Halifax disaster arrived slowly in Manitoba. One of the first to receive information was Winnipegger J.R. Crawford, whose son was on HMCS Niobe, which had been moored in the harbour. "All right," read the Dec. 8 telegram.
Another relieved city resident was Mr. R. Munro, who received word his son, Lieut. J.C. Munro, was safe. However, on the same day, Mr. J.A. Davidson learned his father-in-law, Isaac Creighton, and likely his entire family, had died.
Due to the demand on Halifax's damaged telegraph facilities, wires survivors sent were necessarily brief. On Dec. 10, Ald. William Bourke of Brandon was informed the building in which his son, Sgt. E.R. Bourke, was housed was demolished, but his son was safe. "OK physically. Lost all effects. Broke," was the message. The following day, Winnipegger Mrs. Helen Wood received an even shorter telegram from her 16-year-old son on the Niobe. "Safe-Henry."
Between Dec. 10 and 12, both the Manitoba Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune published the names of lost and saved with a Winnipeg connection:
-- J.R. Boutiller's -- learned his father William Boutiller, his sister Mrs. John Hills, as well as her husband and three children had perished.
-- Mrs. Carter's brother -- Arthur Hickey died in the disaster, but another brother, Capt. W. Hickey, survived.
-- Clara Rice of Dartmouth -- wife of Lieut. F.D. Rice, oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Rice, was killed instantly.
-- Winnipeg Salvation Army officer Mrs. Minnia Cranwell perished.
-- Able Seaman Albert Saunders --18, crewman on Niobe's six-man boat party, son of Annie McPhail, died instantly.
-- Mrs. Fletcher Bowser -- received news her sister, Mr. George Bowser, and two children, Clara, 11, and Alfred, 5, were fatalities.
-- Mrs. T. Zwicker -- learned her brother Gordon, 25, was killed at the North Street railway station.
-- Among city naval men from whom word of safety has come were Walter McKean, Bob Martin, Iven McBride, and J.R. Barden.
-- Mrs. Macky, Helen and Mr. and Mrs. Campbell are safe. They have many friends in Winnipeg.
-- Mrs. C.A. Taylor -- received a wire from her son, Harry, who is on a minesweeper St. Eloi, which was within 200 yards of the explosion. The upper deck of the sweeper was destroyed by the force of the blast and a number of the crew injured by the debris, although no one was killed.
-- Mr. Godwin -- received word from his brother, Ald. J.E. Godwin, that his father, mother and four children and Ald. Godwin's wife are all safe.
-- Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie -- learned their son, R.J. Mackenzie, RCN escaped uninjured.
-- Mrs. W.R. Carter -- son Capt. Arthur Hickey alive but his wife dead.
-- Mr. A. M Wright -- son Lieut. Frank D. Wright alive but wife perished.
-- Don Taylor -- brother Harry on St. Eloi minesweeper, safe.
Perhaps the most anxious for news among Manitobans were mothers of the 14- to 16-year-old naval cadets in training at Halifax and the East Coast. According to a Dec. 11 Free Press front-page story, these mothers "have kept ceaseless vigil since the disaster hoping each minute to receive a reply to numerous wires sent. It has been impossible to get word through by telegraph to Halifax but some have secured information through Sydney or Ottawa." Fortunately, by Dec. 13, they were relieved to learn their sons were safe.
The escape of the 36 cadets in the Halifax Royal Naval College was nothing short of miraculous. When the blast occurred, the young men watching the fire on the Mont Blanc were about 300 metres from Pier 6. There was a deafening roar and then the red sandstone building collapsed around them, leaving only the walls standing. One young man was flung across the room by the concussion and most were hit by flying plaster, metal and shattered glass. Luckily, most were able to escape through a large broken window. An officer soon arrived to find most injured but none dead.
On Dec. 7, both the Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune reported Winnipeg Mayor Frederick Davidson had wired Halifax Mayor Peter Martin with the following message: "Winnipeg stands ready to offer any aid we possibly can. I am waiting for full particulars, and if relief is needed, as it most certainly looks as if it will be, I am confident we will demonstrate our sympathy in a very practical manner."
The next day, Brandon city council voted $3,000 to a disaster relief fund. In addition, local citizens and organizations eventually pledged $1,000 more, while pupils of the three public schools contributed $38 collected in a penny drive.
Within 48 hours of the event, the Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune announced the formation of separate Halifax relief funds.
The Free Press printed a front-page notice headlined Halifax Relief Fund. Reminding readers the calamity affected the entire country, the paper offered to open its columns for donations "to facilitate sending to the sufferers in Halifax the assistance of which they stand in such dire and pressing need."
Below the notice was a list of the first subscriptions already received and the amount given. Some of the larger donors included:
-- Manitoba Free Press Co. Ltd.: $200
-- Sir Augustus Nanton and Lady Nanton: $500
-- James A. Richardson: $500
-- R.J. Whitis Co., Ltd.: $250
-- Mr. and Mrs. Edward Parnell: $250
-- His Grace Archbishop Sinnet: $100
-- Mr. and Mrs. G.R. Crowe: $500
-- His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor
and Lady Aikins: $200
On the same day, the Tribune also used its front page to announce the Help Halifax Fund. The paper provided a blank form for readers to complete and send in with a cheque to the Tribune-Halifax Fund Editor. The paper published the names of several contributors and the amounts donated the next day. Among the larger donors were:
-- Mr. and Mrs. Macdonald: $350
-- Robinson & Co. Ltd.: $200
-- Mr. and Mrs. G.H. Connolly: $500
-- Macdonald-Chapman Ltd.: $200
-- J.J. McLean & Co.: $100
Also on Dec. 8, the Tribune ran a story headlined Halifax Men In Winnipeg Go To Seek Their Families. Readers were told that after waiting 48 hours for news from Halifax about the fate of their families, three Halifax men had left Winnipeg for the stricken city.
According to the story, Thomas Hessian, A.C. Mitchell, and A.R. Webster would not reach Halifax until midnight on Dec. 10.
On the same day the newspapers' relief funds were announced, the Manitoba Red Cross sent $5,000 to the organization's representative in Halifax, and official messages of sympathy and support were sent from Winnipeg by representatives of the provincial and municipal governments, the Canadian Club, Board of Trade, and Independent Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE).
Typical of the telegrams of support to Halifax was one sent by Minnie J.B. Campbell, regent of the IODE's Manitoba chapter, to the Halifax municipal regent. "On behalf of the Manitoba provincial chapter IODE and Children of the Empire, please accept our deepest sympathy in your tragic disaster, sorrow and suffering. Would we could aid in the ministering to you. Opening a fund."
Also on Dec. 8, the Free Press reminded readers "a fund to be subscribed by the motion picture theatres of Winnipeg and its environs for the relief of the sufferers of the Halifax disaster was started last evening."
The story reported that the "Motion Picture editor of the Free Press" was named as trustee of the fund, and "so far cheques have already been received as follows: Province $100, Bijou $50 and Gaiety $50."
On Dec. 10 the Free Press announced additional fundraising efforts:
"At all the churches in the city yesterday (Dec. 9), some reference to the great disaster was made... In Westminster and St. Paul's Presbyterian churches the sums of $800 and $148 respective were collected."
"Yesterday the Garland Girls gave two concerts... and the amount raised by these two efforts was $217.68... the Roma society at its meeting yesterday voted $50 toward the relief fund."
"The management of the Orpheum Theatre has decided to put on a concert next Sunday night in the aid of the Free Press fund... Also next Sunday the Army and Navy Veterans association will put on a concert in the Pantages theatre, while during January the whole of the proceeds of the sales throughout the Dominion of the Pictorial Review will be devoted to the relief fund."
Not to be outdone, the Tribune published an account of the fundraising efforts of Nellie Stebbings, a 12-year-old Grade 6 student at Winnipeg's Alexander School. According to the story, which included her picture, Nellie announced to her parents that "I must do my bit to help these poor people." After they contributed $5, Nellie called on her neighbours and collected more money. She walked into the Tribune office on Dec. 8 with $14.90 and a list of 33 contributors. She returned two days later with an additional $17.10.
Nine days after the explosion, the Free Press announced the relief fund had raised $34,182.19 "from all parts of the country," including Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Grand Forks, N.D., and 25 Manitoba communities.
Manitoba's various Halifax relief funds would eventually raise $100,000. Meanwhile, substantial funds were being raised elsewhere for both relief and reconstruction. The Canadian government voted nearly $20 million and the British government added $5 million, and other large donations came from Chicago, New York, Massachusetts and even Australia. Altogether, the money that flowed into Halifax ran close to $30 million.
Perhaps the most heartfelt donation to the suffering citizens of Halifax was made by Winnipegger W.W. Robson.
According to the Free Press, Mr. Robson brought a cheque to the newspaper "for invaluable help received from Halifax twenty years ago." Mr. Robson was then living in Windsor, N.S., which was destroyed by fire. "On that occasion," he stated, "Halifax had a trainload of supplies in the stricken town the day after the fire and did everything humanly possible to help the fire sufferers."
In paying back his old debt, Mr. Robson declared "it was only a slight token of his gratitude."