Halifax Harbour explosion 1917 claims 9 Moxons

Len Moxon, member on MX25 (Downham, Cambridgeshire) and a recent (well 35 years ago) migrant to Halifax, Nova Scotia, reminded me this week of an article he wrote about another Moxon family, nine of whose members died in a tragic explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917.

This tragedy, written up in Issue 43 of the Moxon Magazine was a catastrophic event, with almost 2000 residents of Halifax killed. Here is Len’s article.

A chance discovery leads Len Moxon, member, to some heartbreaking research.

In the thirty years that Penny and I have lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, we have visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic many times. There are sometimes visiting exhibits, interesting lectures to attend, work in progress and changes to permanent exhibits. In July of 2008 an addition to a permanent exhibit drew my attention. The exhibit tells the story of the catastrophic explosion in Halifax Harbour on December 6th, 1917, a day which is etched in the minds of Haligonians and remembered every year. The additional item was a remembrance book listing almost 2000 names of those who died as a result of the explosion.

It seems that this was my day to visit the museum because the book was open at a page of surnames that began with the letter ‘M’ of which there are many but this particular page had a story to tell and propel me into some research. With a feeling of disbelief I began to count, one, two, three . . . . . . ten. Ten Moxons were recorded as dying in a conflagration that is believed to be the largest explosion caused by humans before the atomic bomb. The Moxons lived in four houses on two adjacent streets which I knew were close to the site of the explosion. They would have died within minutes, if not seconds, of each other. It seemed very likely that they were all related. My subsequent research confirmed this and reduced the number to nine because of an apparent duplication. Their ages ranged from 62 years to just eight months.

Halifax has been the major port and naval base on the east coast of Canada since the city was founded in 1749. Its harbour has seen the comings and goings of navies and merchant ships of all stripes, the arrival of immigrants, the transportation of troops, the arrival of Titanic victims and today the regular presence of magnificent tall ships and monster cruise ships. During both world wars the geography of Halifax harbour was well suited to the assembly of convoys. It has a long, slowly narrowing entrance that is moderately wide as the south end of the city and main harbour appear on the port side of a ship. Dartmouth is on the starboard side. The narrowest point, appropriately called The Narrows, is reached at the north end of the city where the harbour is only 550 yards wide but then it opens to Bedford Basin, a natural inner harbour that is some four by two miles and 250 feet deep at the centre. During both world wars this basin accommodated hundreds of ships as an arrival and assembly location for convoys.

The morning of December 6th 1917 was crisp and sunny when a ship that had been held at anchor in the outer harbour overnight was allowed to proceed towards Bedford Basin. It was the Mont Blanc, a French freighter loaded with some 2500 tons of explosives and ammunition as well as a deck cargo of benzene. It had arrived from New York and its holds were lined with wood held together with copper nails to eliminate the possibility of sparks. For security reasons the Mont Blanc was not required, while under way, to fly a flag showing its dangerous cargo. As the Mont Blanc approached The Narrows a ship began moving out of Bedford Basin. It was the Norwegian SS Imo, much bigger than the Mont Blanc, about to cross the Atlantic carrying relief supplies to Belgium. The Imo had had to veer close to the Dartmouth side to avoid another ship and this put it in the way of the Mont Blanc. The captain and pilot of the Mont Blanc wanted to stay on their course on the Dartmouth side and gave a whistle to indicate their intention. This was followed by a confusion of ship’s whistles as time ran out and a collision occurred.

The deck cargo on the Mont Blanc caught fire immediately and within minutes the captain and pilot realised that it would be impossible to extinguish and ordered all hands to the boats. They rowed with all the strength they had to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. There, they had no way of communicating the danger to the crowds gathering on the Halifax side.

The Mont Blanc drifted closer to shore at the north end of Halifax, a mixed residential, industrial and commercial area known as Richmond. The spectacular sight drew many onlookers, citizens on their way to work or school, dock workers, firemen who were wondering how they could fight the fire and residents who just came out to get a better view. Many were vying for the best vantage points. Others stayed at home on this cold morning but were drawn to their windows, a viewpoint that would prove to be disastrous. News about the Mont Blanc’s cargo began to circulate but not quickly enough for it to reach the people in the most dangerous locations. Crews on other ships in the harbour became aware of the danger and took some precautions. Staff at a railway yard heard the news and began to move away. One employee however stayed in his office to send a telegraph message down the line to get incoming trains stopped. He was never seen again.

At just before 9:05 a.m. the Mont Blanc disintegrated with a shattering roar that destroyed or severely damaged everything over an area of at least 325 acres including homes, schools, factories, shops and churches. In the immediate vicinity of the explosion docks and dockside structures simply disappeared along with anybody in or on them. Ships in the harbour were damaged, some severely, and deaths occurred on them. The Imo was lifted and dumped aground on the Dartmouth side. Huge waves swept up the shorelines on both sides of the harbour. Since it was a cold day, furnaces and fireplaces had been stoked up causing many houses that were only partially damaged to burn to the ground with injured victims still inside. Windows were broken up to 50 miles away and the shock wave went much further. Parts of the Mont Blanc were found widely dispersed including a broken section of its anchor shaft weighing some 1100 pounds that was found more than two miles away. It’s still there, mounted on a low pedestal with a memorial plaque attached.

As the huge cloud created in the explosion began to disperse, it revealed a scene of horror. As well, a “rain” of a dark, sticky, oily substance came down, remnants from the explosives. Some 1600 people died that day with hundreds more to follow. About 9000 people were injured, many having hundreds of glass shards embedded in their flesh. Deaths and injuries amounted to some 18 per cent of the population. To add to the misery, the next day would bring a severe snowstorm making further rescue and recovery efforts all the more difficult.

These are the circumstances in which our Moxon family members died. They lived on Duffus and Roome Streets which are still there and run parallel up a hill away from the harbour, close enough to the exploding ship to be a completely devastated area. Photographs taken in the days after the explosion show those two streets and others almost devoid of standing houses.

The Nova Scotia Archives Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book shows details of those who were lost. I have listed our Moxons below and added other relevant information from census records and other sources.

At 17 Roome Street:
Richard Benjamin Moxon, 62. Body identified by son, Charles Moxon. Census results show that Richard was a truckman or teamster and was born August 7th 1855 in Rawdon, Hants County, Nova Scotia.
Ellie E. Moxon, 58, formerly Cann, wife of Richard, born in Prince Edward Island. Body not identified.
The children of Richard and Ellie in 1917 were Charles, 36; Alex, 28; Fred, 26; Roy, 23; and Lily, 20. None of them died in the explosion but the wives of Fred and Alex did, see below.

At 23 Roome Street:
Cora Evelyn Moxon, 24, formerly Manning, wife of Fred A. Moxon (son of Richard and Ellie). Body, charred remains, identified by Fred Moxon.
Richard William Moxon, 4, son of Fred and Cora. Body identified by Fred Moxon.
Albert Charles Moxon, 3, son of fred and Cora. Body identified by Fred Moxon.
Fred Gordon Moxon, 1, son of Fred and Cora. Body identified by Fred Moxon.
Ruby Evelyn Moxon, 8 months, daughter of Fred and Cora. Body identified by Fred Moxon.

At 22 Duffus Street:
Mrs. Mealie (Amelia) Moxon, 19, formerly Veniot, wife of Alex Moxon (son of Richard and Ellie). Body not identified.
Alex and Amelia were married in March 1916. Alex, also a teamster like his father, died of influenza and pneumonia in October 1918. It is believed that they had no children.
Another record for this address shows a Mrs. “Alex” Moxon with all other details similar to Amelia’s. I believe that this is essentially a duplicate record and should be ignored, taking our total Moxon death toll to nine instead of ten. There was no doubt a strong possibility for errors in recording such a large number of deaths in a short time.

At 24 Duffus Street:
Blanche L. Moxon, 32, single, daughter of Thomas Moxon and Agnes, formerly Eisenhaur. Burned to death.

Blanche, a niece of Richard and Ellie, was living at this address with her cousin Clifford Driscoll and his wife Annie Kane. In her book Shattered City, Janet Kitz tells us that Clifford was working on an engine at a railway workshop when the explosion occurred. Damage to the workshop was extensive but the massive engine shielded him. He made his way home as quickly as possible, meeting people along the way with blood pouring off them and finding the devastation worse the farther he went. At Duffus Street he found that the house containing his apartment was on fire but he had a hunch that Annie had gone to his parent’s house. Sure enough, she was there, huddling by the wreckage of the house with other family members. Blanche Moxon was not so lucky, probably dying in the house or perhaps she had gone down to the dock to see what was happening.

In the official records, burial locations are given for some of the victims but at time of writing I have not determined whether they are in individual or mass graves.

Remarkably, I found a photograph of Richard Moxon in the archive. In 1892 he is shown as a manager of a champion Truckmens’ Tug of War team. There are also two similar photos of a “Rough and Ready” team, from 1891 and although his name is mentioned he is not in the photographs.

Having researched the names and relationships of those who died as well as others in the family my task was to determine their ancestry. That was simple. I was sure they were descendants of one of the families that emigrated to Nova Scotia in the early 19th century, see Roots 5 in MM22 of October 1998, The Moxons of Ebbesborne Wake and their descendants, a result of extensive research work by Natasha Moxon of Truro, Nova Scotia and the late Gaylord Moxon of California. Everything knitted together thus adding just a bit more to MX37. I am not a member of that tree, just call me a Moxon interloper in the Nova Scotia scene!

Readers may be wondering what happened after this terrible event. In spite of the chaotic situation, rescue efforts started spontaneously and the injured were taken to medical treatment centres that seemed to spring up wherever they could be established such as in schools, the YMCA and other institutional buildings outside the affected area. Calls went out to other provinces and to the national capital of Ottawa for medical supplies, doctors and nurses. The military became heavily involved.

Within that first day the local authorities had set up groups to deal with different aspects of the disaster including medical services, temporary housing, transportation, repair of essential services etc. There was a world-wide reaction with donations flowing in from many countries and fund raising events held in many places. Whenever the explosion is discussed here in Nova Scotia the city of Boston and the State of Massachusetts are remembered. The reaction there was quick and generous with a train ready to leave within hours of the explosion. Doctors, nurses, volunteers, medical equipment and supplies were on board. As the train steamed through the province of New Brunswick more doctors and nurses climbed aboard and more equipment was stuffed into the train. Massachusetts stayed involved in relief work well into 1918. That is why, every December, Nova Scotia sends a Christmas tree to Boston.

St. Paul’s Church in downtown Halifax is the oldest Anglican church in Canada, built in 1749. On entering the church one may look up into its wooden tower and see an iron rod projecting through the wall, an ever-present reminder of that fateful day in 1917.
The explosion, experiences of individual families, short and long term relief, and the public inquiry are given complete coverage by Janet F. Kitz in her excellent book Shattered City, published by Nimbus of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On-line resources can be found on the website of Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management at www.gov.ns.ca/nsarm. Click on Virtual Exhibits and then on the various links. Use a map website to find Roome and Duffus streets and zoom out to see The Narrows and Bedford Basin.

These Moxons were descendants of the Moxons of Ebbesbourne Wake in Wiltshire (between Salisbury and Shaftsbury).