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Gilbert: The Halifax Disaster

(Host) This time of year, the sight of truckloads of Christmas trees on the highway headed south, remind commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert of the story of Boston's Christmas tree. It goes back exactly ninety-five years to Halifax, Nova Scotia and the first World War. Here's Peter Gilbert with that powerful story.

(Gilbert) On December 6, 1917, the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with explosives, collided with a Norwegian ship in Halifax Harbor. Within ten minutes, the Mont-Blanc was ablaze, and twenty-five minutes later, the ship exploded. The blast leveled Halifax,killed 2,000 people, injured 6,000 more, damaged buildings ten miles away, and shook buildings eighty miles away. The explosion was felt and heard more than 200 miles away, and caused a tsunami in the harbor that contributed to the death toll and the damage. The explosion remains the world's largest man-made accidental explosion; later, J. Robert Oppenheimer studied it to predict the effects of the atomic bomb.

Before World War I, ships carrying dangerous cargo weren't allowed into Halifax harbor, but because of concerns about German submarine attacks, the policy was changed so they could be protected by anti-submarine nets and the royal navy.

Acts of heroism abounded. A tug boat, the Stella Maris, jettisoned the barges it was towing and raced to the Mont-Blanc. The crew sprayed the burning ship with their fire hose and were beginning to tow it away from the city when it exploded. Amazingly,five of the tug boat's crew of twenty-four survived the blast.

When railroad dispatcher Vince Coleman learned of the danger from the burning munitions ship, he started to evacuate. But then he realized that a passenger train was expected from Saint John, New Brunswick within minutes. He returned to his post and sent out a telegram: Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching Pier 6. Goodbye. Not only did the urgent message stop all incoming trains, it also alerted railroad officials elsewhere of the situation, enabling them to respond immediately. Vince Coleman's selfless sacrifice saved not only the three hundred people on that train but also the train itself, which was used to transport injured and homeless citizens to the help they desperately needed. To make matters worse, that night, a massive blizzard buried Halifax, making it hard for help to reach them and making efforts to help the injured and homeless even more urgent.

Within hours of Boston learning that Halifax was demolished, hundreds of volunteers and critical supplies were on their way by train. And in the days that followed, Massachusetts residents raised large sums of money for Halifax.

A year later, in December 1918, Halifax sent a large Christmas tree to Boston to thank its citizens for their help in the days immediately after the disaster. In 1971 another large evergreen tree was sent, and they've continued every year since. The trees, which are between forty-five and fifty feet in height, come from private land,but they're selected by the provincial Department of Natural Resources.Sure, the annual tradition promotes tourism in Canada and trade, especially tree exports, but more than anything else, it is a poignant nod to a painful event that happened now nearly a century ago, a gesture across national borders that speaks of humankind's capacity for compassion, generosity, and gratitude.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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