A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, and the bonds between two peoples.
As “The Great War” dragged to the end of the third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”. With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.
The Norwegian vessel Imo left her mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City. The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.
In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive. In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.
Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo. Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.
Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc. French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.
As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor. The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day. You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running herself aground.
That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.
The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.
The ferocity of the blast literally tore Mont Blanc’s cannon from its mount and bent the barrel.
It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three. Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.
The first ray of light on the morning of December 7 revealed an apocalyptic scene of devastation, some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast as a blizzard descended over Nova Scotia.
Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”
The man was as good as his word. Mayor Curley and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid. McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone.
President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax, a sum equivalent to some $665,000 today.
Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.
Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train to arrive on the scene.
There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster. A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.
$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today. Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.
The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude. An enormous Christmas tree.
In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.
So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston. A gift of gratitude, between two peoples. More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.
This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate: 17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.
In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.
A monument was unveiled on Boston Commons on November 30, 2017, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion. The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.
This year’s tree stands 48-feet tall tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax explosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work. It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.
The trip was a little different this year as the border remains closed, due to COVID restrictions. The 2020 tree arrived by ship in Portland Maine to continue the journey south, by road.
For a small Canadian province, the annual gift is no small commitment. In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.
The 2020 tree lighting ceremony on December 3 was, like so many things in this year of years, virtual. There were televised remarks from Mayor Marty Walsh and Karen Casey, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia, accompanied by Santa Claus and a squadron of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The switch was thrown and and a live audience of…nobody…enjoyed the ceremonial lighting of the tree.
Thank you, Xi Jinping. You have brought so much warmth into our lives.
In 2016, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense: “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”. Premier McNeil may have had the last word the following year, on the centennial anniversary of the Halifax catastrophe. “We had massive deaths and injuries”, he said. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”