Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Manitoba's reaction to the 1917 Halifax Explosion

© 2017, Christian Cassidy
Dec 7, 1917, Tribune and Free Press

Like most of the world, Manitobans were shocked by the news that on December 6, 1917, the explosives-laden French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian SS Imo, acting as a Belgian relief ship, in Halifax Harbour.

Though it would take days to get a handle on the death toll, it was clear that this was one of the world's deadliest man-made disasters. The most recent official estimate of the number of people killed is 1,835 (source) with thousands others injured.

The stories of death and destruction even manged to push World War I off of the front pages for a couple of days.

December 10, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

Initially, people's thoughts turned to loved ones in the area. Normally, this would have been a small number but, thanks to World War I, there were thousands of additional people in the region either stationed there or travelling through it to and from the front.

One such man was Harry Taylor who worked at Winnipeg's CPR freight yards before enlisting. He served aboard the HMS St. Eloi, a newly launched trawler built for patrol and escort duties, based at Halifax Harbour.

His family were put out of their misery when, four days after the explosion they received a telegram from Harry to say that he was safe. He credited the fact that he was below deck in the heavily fortified engine room at the time of the explosion for saving his life.

The commanding officer of the ship was not so lucky. He was on deck and killed by flying debris.

Harry's story was pretty typical for those awaiting word personnel stationed in Halifax. Once telegraph lines were repaired, which took about three days, messages began arriving in the city and almost all brought good news.

December 14, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

The one exception was Able Seaman Bert Saunders.

The 17-year-old was stationed aboard the depot ship HMCS Niobe just a few hundred meters away from where the two ships collided. He was one of six men who volunteered to take a small boat over to the burning Mont Blanc in the hopes of saving crew members and perhaps guiding it out of the harbour. 

The boat and its men were obliterated as they pulled up along side the Mont Blanc and it exploded. (You can read more about Saunders' life and death here.)

Saunders, I believe, is the only "Winnipegger" killed in the blast. Though there were numerous stories of local people losing family members or friends, it appears that none of them were from Winnipeg, or at least had not lived here in a very long time.

Winnipeg Tribune Donation Slip

The needs of the people of Halifax were many. The call went out across North America for money to supply food, shelter and medical care.

The governments of the day did donate to the Halifax Relief Fund. Final figures are hard to determine, but in the immediate aftermath Manitoba donated $25,000, Winnipeg gave another $25,000 and Brandon $3,000.

Both the Tribune and Free Press had their own relief funds that people could donate to and it seems clear that most of the money collected from Manitoba came from individuals and community organizations, not from governments.

December 10, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

Almost immediately, donations big and small poured into the newspapers.

Some were from children who were touched by the stories of the large number of schools destroyed and of the kids left orphaned by the blast. Nellie Stebbings, a 12-year-old from Alexander School, and Florence Dickson, a 10-year-old from Melrose Avenue, were two who took it upon themselves to canvas their neighbourhoods to raise money.

December 15, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

The time of year was both a blessing and a curse for fundraising.

In the run-up to Christmas there were already countless concerts, recitals, school plays, dinners and other special events planned. Many gave all or part of their proceeds to the relief fund, such as the one above play at Laura Secord School.

The downside was that this was an important time of year for many charities and some were afraid that there would not be enough money to go around. People were encouraged to dig deeper because of Halifax rather than just shift around the usual amount of their seasonal doantions.

Aside from long-standing charities such as the Community Chest and Salvation Army there were some Christmas-specific campaigns like the Empty Stocking Fund that bought gifts for orphans and poor children.

This, of course, was on top of the needs of wartime charities. The Red Cross were sending care packages to troops and POWs overseas while numerous local agencies raised funds to provide assistance to local families struggling to make ends meet while the head of the household was away fighting in a prolonged war.

December 13, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

No final figures for the amount raised in Manitoba can be found. In mid-December, though, the Free Press reported that when the public campaigns of both newspapers and government funds were added together the total was just over $100,000 and this was before what was expected to be one of the largest fundraising days of all.

Sunday, December 15, was Halifax Relief Day in Winnipeg. The city lifted its bylaw restricting Sunday entertainment so that cinemas and theatres could put on performances. In return, they were expected to donate their entire gross receipts to the Halifax Relief Fund.

Another date was an already planned speaking engagement by Nellie McClung on December 20th, 1917. It was decided that it should be scaled up and made into a relief event.

The Walkers donated the use of their theatre and Maude Cowie a local opera veteran who had recently moved back to Winnipeg from Montreal, offered to sing. The mayor agreed to be the emcee for the night.

Fundraising efforts continued long after the Halifax Explosion disappeared from the headlines.

Mrs. R. G. Rogers and Mrs. A. J. Andrews helped put on "A Little Casino" at the Royal Alexandra Hotel on January 11, 1918. It was a mix of dances, skits, games of chance for a nickel and silent auction.  The goal was to raise $5,000 towards the long-term care of those left blinded by the explosion. (The Halifax Explosion was the largest mass blinding in Canadian history with over 1,000 people effected.)

January 2, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

A man who had a long-lasting effect on the rebuilding of Halifax was J. Howard T. Falk, secretary Winnipeg's Social Welfare Commission, a city employee. Respected for his work on provincial and civic relief bodies, the Halifax Relief Committee requested his services to help oversee the rebuilding process.

City council agreed to give him a two month leave of absence, from early January to early March 1918, with the feds and city each picking up half of his salary.

Soon after he returned, he was hired away by McGill University to be their first Director of the School of Social Work.

Halifax Explosion Links:
Halifax Explosion Collection
Nova Scotia Archives
Halifax Explosion The Canadian Encyclopedia
Halifax Explosion Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
City Destroyed CBC News Interactive

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Winnipeg's Halifax Explosion Hero: Able Seaman Bert Saunders

© 2017, Christian Cassidy

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, I am working on a series of blog posts commemorating 100 Manitobans who were killed in action. For more about this project and links to other soldiers follow this link.

 This post also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion and looks at the life and death of seventeen-year-old Able Seaman Bert Saunders of Winnipeg who found himself at the epicentre of the explosion on a rescue mission. He is likely the only Winnipeg victim.

March 14, 1919, Winnipeg Tribune

Albert "Bert" Saunders was born near Holland, Manitoba on January 2, 1900 to Annie Saunders (nee Rutherford) and husband. When still a young child, his father died and Annie remarried Malcolm L. McPhail of Winnipeg, a federal government bridge inspector, in February 1911. 

The family initially settled at 162 Polson Street but moved frequently to addresses around the North End.

RNCVR Recruitment Ad, February 2017, Winnipeg Tribune

Bert enlisted to serve with the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR). Because service files for naval personnel are not part of Library and Archives Canada's Personnel Records of the First World War database his exact date of enlistment is unknown.

Saunders could have signed up as young as age fourteen as the Navy had a category of sailor known as "Boy". The fact that Saunders' date of birth in military records and date of birth in the Manitoba Vital Statistics database differ by three years, (1897 instead of the actual 1900), it is likely that he simply lied about his age when he signed up.

When his mother was interviewed for a newspaper story on December 14, 1917, she noted that he had left Winnipeg with the navy "about a year" earlier, so he was likely sixteen years of age at the time of enlistment.

Top: The Niobe in her glory years, ca. 1910 (DND / RCN)
Bottom: After conversion to a depot ship, ca. 1915 (Trident Newspaper / RCN)

Saunders was assigned to the HMCS Niobe which holds a special place in Canadian naval history as the country's first warship.

Built in 1897, she was purchased by Canada from the Royal Navy in September 1910 and brought across to Halifax. (Niobe Day is celebrated by the Royal Canadian Navy on October 21st of each year.)

By the time the First World War began the Niobe was a relic. New ships that were better suited for the rigours of wartime patrol had been ordered and the Niobe was converted to a depot ship that stayed moored in Halifax Harbour.

December 7, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Niobe was only about 700 metres away from where the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc, laden with explosives, collided with the Norwegian SS Imo in Halifax Harbour. The initial result was a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc.

Realizing that a disaster was about to occur, the Commanding Officer of the Niobe called for volunteers to go out on one of its pinnacles, (a small, steam powered boat), to assist in rescuing the Mont-Blanc's crew and perhaps help guide the burning ship out of the harbour. It was said that Able Seaman Saunders was the first of six to step forward.

W. G. McLaughlin photo soon after the explosion. The Niobe is ship producing steam 
on right side of image (Library and Archives Canada)

As the pinnacle came along side the Mont-Blanc the munitions inside exploded.

Not only was the small boat and its men obliterated, the Halifax Explosion and resulting tsunami wiped out a large portion of the city and killed nearly 2,000 people. It was the deadliest man-made disaster until the Second World War bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

December 7, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

The aftermath of the explosion was chaotic. The task of rescuing survivors and recovering the dead was hampered by a lack of people and infrastructure. A heavy rainstorm that soon turned into a snow storm added to the difficulty and misery.

For those with loved ones living in Halifax, or thought to be in the region due to military service, the wait for news was agonizing. Communications lines were cut and it took days for telegrams to reach recipients.

In the last letter Annie McPhail received from her son, he wrote that he had recently received a pass to sleep away from the ship. (He also mentioned that he got permission to come home to Winnipeg for Christmas.) She desperately hoped that December 5 - 6 was the day he used his pass and was away from the harbour or the city when the explosion took place.

Top: Saunders' grave site (Veterans Affairs Canada)
Bottom: Entry from Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book

On December 14, 1917, McPhail was informed by telegram of the death of her son who was just weeks away from his eighteenth birthday.

Though his body was never recovered, Saunders has a burial site in the Fort Massey cemetery in Halifax. He is also commemorated on the Holland, Manitoba war memorial and by the informally named Saunders Creek near Holland, Manitoba, on land once owned by the Rutherford family. 

After reading dozens of stories about Winnipeggers waiting to hear about the fate of loved ones in the aftermath of the explosion, I believe that Saunders is the only true Winnipeg victim. (This is after reading dozens of period newspaper articles and a search of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Book.)

Some Winnipeggers did lose family or friends but it appears that they all lived in Halifax or other places in Canada.

Annie McPhail contacted the Tribune after she received the telegram and shared Bert's story with the paper.

Soon after, she and the families of the other men in the pinnacle, (they were Carl C. Wilson, George Yates, Charles McMillan, Freeman Nickerson and Walter O'Reilly), received a "Letter of Appreciation" from the Canadian Navy that concluded: The boat's crew were fully aware of the desperate nature of the work they were engaged on, and by their gallantry and devotion to duty they sacrificed their lives in the endeavour to safe the lives of others.

In March 1919, McPhail shared with the Tribune another Letter of Appreciation, this one from the British Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, (the date of the letter was not mentioned.) It read:

I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have received from the director of Naval Services, Ottawa, a report on the gallant conduct of your son, the late A. B. Albert Saunders, on the occasion of the explosion at Halifax, N.S., on December 6, 1917.

Your son was one of the crew of the Niobe steamboat and volunteered to go away to the SS Mont-Blanc when she was on fire after being in collision with the SS Imo.

The Mont-Blanc was known to have a cargo of explosives on board and My Lords desire me to convey to you an expression of their high appreciation of the great gallantry displayed by your son in volunteering to save life on this occasion and of their regret that he himself lost his own life owing to the Mont-Blanc blowing up just as the steamboat got alongside.

My Lords further desire me to convey to you an expression of their sympathy with you in your bereavement.

Aside from the Letters of Appreciation, it appears that Saunders was awarded no medals or other honours for his service.

Canadian Virtual War Memorial entry
Halifax Explosion Memorial Book entry
Halifax Explosion Resources Nova Scotia Archives
Halifax Explosion Images Library and Archives Canada
A City Destroyed CBC News Interactive

Friday, 1 December 2017

2017 History Buff's Christmas Gift Guide

Here is my eighth annual Christmas gift guide for the local history buff in your life. You will find books, t-shirts, magazines, mugs, memberships and more. Check back as there are bound to be updates.


A mainstay of any history buff's gift list are books, of course!

I've created an Amazon store called the Manitoba History Bookstore and assembled about 100 titles, new and old. There's also a section for out of print books that you might be able to find at used bookstores, plus a children's category!

Here is a list of some great recent titles. Those with an asterisk indicate that they are new for 2017.
** In Snacks: A Canadian Food History, Janis Thiessen tells the back story of Canadian kitchen favourites such as Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies and Ganong chocolates. (U of M Press, McNally Robinson, Amazon)

**Jeffrey Thorsteinson (architectural historian) and Brennan Smith (art historian) team up in Green Blankstein Russell and Associates: An Architectural Legacy. This local company went on to become one of Canada's preeminent modernist architecture firms of the 1950s and 60s. (WAF, McNally Robinson)

**Bryan Scott and Bartley Kives are back with their second instalment of unique photos and commentary. (See below for their first offering.) Stuck in the Middle 2 ventures where SM1 didn’t: outside the Perimeter. (Great Plains, McNally Robinson, Amazon)

**Photographer John Paskievich revisits the places he photographed in the 1970s – 1990s for his book in his book The North End in The North End Revisited. Check out this interview with Colin Corneau. (U of M Press, McNally Robinson, Amazon)

**In 1992, Susan Thompson became the first woman elected mayor of Winnipeg. Her memoirs look at her background and the challenges she faced in the male dominated world of civic government.(Friesen Press, McNally Robinson, Amazon)

Abandoned Manitoba is a collection of remnants of the past from around the province. The sites, from grain elevators to military installations and mine shafts, are beautifully photographed and well researched to tell their story. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation continues to add items to its bookshelf. Check out the Colour Your City colouring book featuring dozens of Winnipeg's best known buildings. There is also a new children's guide called Exchange Marks the Spot and their ever-growing collection of illustrated walking tour pocket books as well.

Check out their online shop or storefront office in the Exchange District.

**Relive the Jets' golden age with Geoff Kirbyson's The Hot Line: How the Legendary Trio of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson Transformed Hockey and Led the Winnipeg Jets to Greatness. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Manitoba loves its pro wrestling but its roots go back much further than the days of Stampede Wrestling. Thrashing Seasons looks at the sport's evolution through the 19th and early 20th centuries. (U of M Press, Amazon)

In the world of fiddle music, Woodridge, Manitoba's Andy Dejarlis was - and is - a legend. Andy Desjarlis: The Life and Music of an Old-Time Fiddler looks at his life and his dedication to his music. To get you in the mood, check out some of his songs on YouTube! (Great Plains)

Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, A National History
Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, A National History is a first hand account of Canada's residential school system. It includes many historic photographs of students and their communities as well as images and site maps of of the school buildings. (Portage and Main Press - preview)

Gary Moir looks back at the radio stations and personalities that brought Manitobans together in the fun times and periods of crisis in On the Air: The Golden Age of Manitoba Radio. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

In Wish You Were Here, Stan Milosevic of ManitobaPhotos.com shares some of his wonderful collection of colour-tinted postcards from Winnipeg's past, including the inscriptions written by the senders! (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Over a decade in the making, DELTA: A Prairie Marsh and its People combines history, science and beautiful photography to tell the story of this region of the province. To hear an interview with Dr. Gordon Goldsborough, one of the co-authors. (MHS, McNally, other retailers)

Take a walk on Winnipeg's wild side with Haunted Winnipeg. Nine stories about some of Winnipeg's best known buildings and the creepy things that go on inside them at night. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is the latest graphic novel by David Alexander Robertson recounting the story of a dark chapter in our province's history. Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson. (McNally, Chapters)

You can never go wrong with Winnie the Pooh! here's the latest book written about the real-life bear! (Amazon, Chapters, McNally) Also, check out this review in The Guardian.

A Knock on the Door  The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada by Phil Fontaine and Aimée Craft (U of M Press, Chapters, Amazon) Will be available from the U of M Press in January 2016.

Brian Darragh, one of Winnipeg's last streetcar operators, put together this look back at our forgotten streetcar heritage. Check out the accompanying website. (Amazon, McNally, Friesen's)

The Patriotic Consensus  Unity, Morale, and the Second World War in Winnipeg by Dr.  Jody Perrun takes a look at what it was like in Winnipeg while World War II raged overseas. Hear my interview with the author. (McNally, Amazon)

The Roblin goes behind the scenes of Adelaide Street's Roblin Hotel, Canada's last men's only hotel and beer parlour. Check out my my interview with the author. (McNally)

From the publishers of Canada's History magazine is Canada's Great War Album to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Canada's entry into the Great War. (Direct, Amazon)

This is from 2013, but a book every Winnipegger should own. Imagining Winnipeg a collection of some of L. B. Foote's most interesting photographs of early Winnipeg, many never before published. (U of M Press, McNally, Amazon)

Also from 2013, Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. Journalist Barley Kives and photographer Bryan Scott team up to check out the highs and lows of everyday Winnipeg. To hear my interview with the author. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Also from 2013 is 300 Years of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to Brewing in Manitoba. Meticulously researched and full of many never before seen images of breweries and beer memorabilia from locations across Manitoba. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Still around is Russ Gourluck's 2012 offering: Silver Screens on the Prairies. Be sure to check out his previous works and pick them up before they're out of print. The Mosaic Village: An Illustrated History of Winnipeg’s North End and his books on the Winnipeg Tribune, Eaton's and Portage Avenue. (Great Plains, McNally, Amazon)

Manitoba History is the quarterly journal of the Manitoba Historical Society. Single copies can be purchased at McNally Robinson or get it free with your membership in the MHS. Contact them about back copy sales. (Check out a preview of the current edition)

No more snickering because The Beaver is now called Canada's History Magazine. Canada's History Society also publish Kayak: Canadian History for Kids. Both are produced right here in Winnipeg and you can order gift subscriptions through the links above.


It's Winnipeg. It's winter. It's gonna get cold. Who wouldn't want an HBC blanket? If that is a little pricey for you, HBC has a range of products from t-shirts to Swiss Army knives and even dog sweaters.

Heritage Winnipeg still has Winnipeg Streetcar 356 t-shirts, but only XL and XXL. Proceeds go towards the Streetcar 356 Restoration Project.

How about a founding father? Keepin' It Riel t-shirts are available for sale online and at select retailers around the city. Check out the website.


Many museums have their own shops where you're sure to find something unique. Here are links to some of them: St. Boniface Museum - Manitoba Museum - Daly House - Musée St. Joseph Museum - Winnipeg Railway Museum - Royal Aviation Museum - Dalnavert Museum
Besides their book collection, the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation has a wide selection of merchandise featuring iconic Winnipeg buildings. Pins, fridge magnets, mugs, tea towels and more. Shop online or visit them at 266 McDermot, (Mon - Fri from noon to 4:30)

The St. Boniface Museum Gift Shop has a wide range of items, including Metis flags, mugs, voyageur sashes, toques, and replica Red River carts.

The Golden Boy Gift Shop at the Manitoba Legislature celebrates everything Manitoba. From Manitoba crested glasses and mugs to Golden Boy scarves and toques.


Heritage Winnipeg also has an online store that includes a collection of prints by Robert J. Sweeney or how about a copy of Fonseca's 1884 city map suitable for framing? Check out more items here.

From our finest buildings to our grungiest back lanes, Winnipeg photographer Bryan Scott has captured them all and sells a selection of his images here.

Elaina El's cityscapes include historic buildings such as the Telegram Building and West End Cultural Centre.


Have fun and help out the Gas Station Arts Centre with Villageopoly. It's based on Monopoly, but has all of your favourite Osborne Village haunts.

Cinematheque sells movie pass packages, posters, t-shirts and DVDs at their online shop.

Aside from their shop, the Manitoba Museum also invites you to adopt an artefact from their collection. It costs between $35 and $500, depending on the object, and you can switch it up year after year!

Last year, the City of Winnipeg emptied out its shard yard - pieces of demolished historic buildings that were saved to be incorporated into other projects - and approached Heritage Winnipeg to help find them a home.

A section of pieces are now on display and for sale at Shelmardine's and Heritage Winnipeg has some smaller pieces for sale.

Winnipeg's Salvage Supermarket offers a wide range of old building materials, from the mundane to the downright odd. Want some letters from the giant signs that hung on the side of the Winnipeg Convention Centre or perhaps a floor safe? Check out their miscellaneous section.


I fall else fails, remember that museums and heritage groups run on shoestring budgets and are always looking to sell memberships and accept donations. Why not buy someone a membership or make a donation on their behalf ?

You can find a complete list of museums here. Some deserving groups: