In Boston, there stands a beautiful Christmas tree every year on the Commons. We admire it, perhaps watch the tree-lighting ceremony, and carry on with our holiday errands. But did you know that the tree in Boston is a standing symbol of gratitude and selflessness? It is a memorial to an event in Nova Scotia’s and Boston’s history that you may not be aware of. I certainly wasn’t, until a travel companion mentioned it while we were in Montreal recently. She knew the tree was a gift, but couldn’t recall the story behind it either. Upon getting home, my curiosity was sparked, and I started doing some reading. As it turns out, it’s a pretty interesting tale.
In 1917, we were in the midst of World War I. Cargo ships were often moved between New York and Halifax before making the journey to Europe. In December of that year, there was a Norwegian ship, the Imo, waiting to depart Halifax Harbor. It was bound for New York to pick up relief supplies, and then onward to Belgium. Another ship, the french Mont Blanc, was waiting to enter the harbor. The Mont Blanc was fully loaded with TNT, picric acid, and the highly flammable fuel Benzol. In attempts to avoid attack by German submarines, this ship was flying no flag to warn anyone of the very dangerous cargo aboard.
In the harbor, there is a strait called the Narrows, where ships must carefully navigate around one another. On December 6th, the Imo was passing through here. It has been reported that they were traveling well above the speed limit as they were running late on departure and were attempting to make up the time. Another ship, the American steamer SS Clara was traveling up the wrong side of the harbor, and the Imo switched agreed to switch to the Eastern side to pass by. They were forced to move even further to this side to avoid a collision with the tugboat Stella Maris. Unfortunately this put them right in the path of the incoming Mont Blanc. The two ships signaled back and forth with whistles, asking one another to adjust their course. The Mont Blanc halted her engines and turned slightly starboard, toward the Dartmouth shore of the harbor. The Imo suddenly decided to reverse their engines though, which caused the prow to swing directly into the french ship, breaching cargo hold no. 1 in the collision, which took place at 8:45am.
While the damage was not severe, it did cause several barrels of benzol to break open and spill the highly volatile fuel all over the hull. As the Imo quickly reversed, it caused a flurry of sparks that ignited the fuel. The fire quickly spread to the Mont Blanc’s decks where more barrels of benzol had been crushed and broken open during the initial collision. The crew realized the imminent danger, and abandoned the ship. They tried to yell out warnings to the other ships, and to the growing crowd on the docks, but amidst the noise and confusion, no one seemed to comprehend.
At 9:04:35, the Mont Blanc exploded. The absolute devastation that followed is barely imaginable. An area of over 400 acres was completely destroyed. The mud of the harbor was exposed briefly as the shock wave and heat vaporized the water. This sudden void caused a tsunami wave, which hit and grounded many of the ships in the harbor. The Mont Blanc’s anchor, which weighed half a ton, landed 2 miles away.
Over 1,600 people were killed instantly, and another 9,000 were injured. In the following hours and days, the death toll climbed to nearly 2,000. The blast turned over many stoves and lamps, sparking fires throughout Halifax. Hundreds of onlookers were blinded as their windows burst inwards from the shock wave. Homes and factories were destroyed, the falling roofs contributing to the death toll. The explosion was felt, or heard as far as 200 miles away. It is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history, and is the 3rd deadliest.
I’m sure you’re wondering by now, what does this disaster have to do with Boston and a Christmas tree? I’m getting there, I promise!
You see, Boston was informed of the devastation shortly afterwards by telegraph. Mayor James Michael Curley sprang into action, reaching out to the US representative in Halifax and working with Governor Samuel McCall to create the Halifax Relief Committee. They quickly worked to raise funds, putting ads in the Boston Globe asking for donations. Within an hour, it is reported that over $100k was raised. Curley also secured $30,000 worth of army blankets from President Woodrow Wilson.
Train tracks were cleared of snow and the first relief train left Boston a mere 12 hours after the explosion. On board were some of Boston’s finest medical professionals. 30 physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, and a fully equipped 500 bed base hospital. They also brought countless supplies of clothing, food, and water as well, reported the Boston Globe. The train was delayed by a blizzard, but they managed to reach Halifax the morning of December 8th. It was the first non-Canadian relief to arrive, and was sorely needed. Many of the local medical professionals had not been able to take any breaks since the explosion. The subsequent winter storm had made rescue efforts through the debris and rubble even more dire and difficult.
Within hours, they had set up teams to work with the basic needs of the survivors. Along with the thousands of injured, around 6,000 people were left homeless and over 25,000 were with “insufficient shelter.” On December 9th, a second train arrived from Boston, and Halifax announced that they had all the clothing and doctors currently necessary, as support continued pouring in from other Canadian cities as well. In total, Massachusetts raised over $750,000 in aid contributions. The money was used in efforts to rebuild the city and provide temporary housing apartments.
One year later, Nova Scotia sent a Christmas tree to Boston as a token of their gratitude for the city’s swift and generous response. Then in 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association revived the gesture. Their aim was to both thank Boston, and promote the sale of Christmas Trees. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia government, and is used to promote tourism and goodwill between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
Throughout the year, there is an employee in the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources whose title is “Christmas Tree Specialist” and their job is to find that year’s perfect tree. The trees do not come from Christmas Tree Farms, but rather are chosen from public or private land. In Nova Scotia, it is considered a high honor to have one of the trees on your property chosen. This year’s tree actually comes from the land of a former Boston Marathon runner. Boston.com posted a great article about the 2016 Tree’s origin. It is a 49-foot-tall White Spruce, and comes from Cape Breton.
You can follow the Tree via the Tree for Boston facebookor twitter pages if you would like to learn more about the process next time around!