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Aftermath of the 1917 Halifax explosion. Photo courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives

Halifax blast remembered

A century ago, on the frigid morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a blast rocked the city of Halifax, obliterating everything within an 800-metre radius of the waterfront, damaging hundreds of other buildings and killing nearly 2,000 people.

By David Gilchrist


A century ago, on the frigid morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a blast rocked the city of Halifax, obliterating everything within an 800-metre radius of the waterfront, damaging hundreds of other buildings and killing nearly 2,000 people.

The disaster occurred when a French cargo ship laden with explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel in the Narrows, a strait connecting Halifax Harbour to the Bedford Basin. The explosion deeply affected the local Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. In fact, it brought the two denominations together well before the national United Church union in 1925.

Within weeks of the explosion, Frederick William Killam, of Kaye Street Methodist, and his good friend William McTaggart Orr, of Grove Presbyterian, realized that there were not enough survivors for two congregations, and suggested to their parishioners that they join together for worship in a temporary shelter. Early in 1918, a tarpaper structure was built, which they called Kaye-Grove Memorial Church. In 1920, five years before denominational union, they became one fellowship and built a beautiful brick building they named United Memorial Church.

A niece of William Orr’s, Barbara Orr, who lost her family in the explosion, gave part of her inheritance to provide the new church building with a bell tower and a 10-bell carillon.

In 1945, another explosion rocked Halifax when an ammunition barge blew up and set off a series of blasts at the magazine on the Dartmouth side of Bedford Basin. Although the incident was minor by comparison, it was enough to weaken the foundation of the bell tower, rendering it unsafe. The bells sat on the ground outside the church until 1985, when the carillon was installed in a cement structure on Fort Needham, the hill overlooking the site of the 1917 explosion.

Sadly, United Memorial Church closed its doors in 2015. But you can still hear those bells on Fort Needham every Dec. 6.



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