It’s late fall in Brooklyn, New York. Despite a chill in the air, fishermen are still trying to coax bass and sea robin out of Gravesend Bay.
Located less than a mile from the boardwalk at Coney Island, the Gravesend shoreline is almost deserted today. A dozen locals stroll alongside the seawall while container ships sail under the Verrazano Bridge.
You won’t find a more peaceful setting in New York City. But it was here 102 years ago that the horrifying Halifax Explosion was empowered.
In 1917, thousands of tons of wartime explosives were shipping through Brooklyn and the locals were fearful – and rightfully so.
Only a year earlier, a sabotaged barge of TNT exploded at nearby Black Tom Island. The explosion, felt in Philadelphia, shattered windows in Gravesend Bay and damaged the Statue of Liberty.
The week before the Halifax Explosion, US soldiers had been dispatched to guard the Brooklyn piers. A brand new law allowed for unauthorized port visitors to be shot on sight.
At Gravesend Bay, barges carried explosives to ships anchored thousands of feet from shore. To minimize the risk of explosion, only three ships were permitted to be loaded at one time.
In December, 1917, one of those ships was the French freighter, SS Mont Blanc, a plodding relic from the 1800s that carried two tiny cannons for protection. A wiser crew might have turned the cannons inward and scuttled the vessel.
Halifax Explosion historian Joel Zemel explains why the questionable ship was pressed into service at all: “Because of relentless U-Boat attacks, France was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find ships to carry munitions and explosives.”
Mont Blanc had never carried munitions previously and needed to be outfitted for her new mission. The captain watched as Brooklyn shipwrights installed wooden floors and partitions in his aging ship’s holds. To reduce potential sparking, the men used copper nails to fasten the boards. Then they covered the walls with tarred cloth.
Longshoremen wore rags over their shoes to help reduce any chance of sparking as they loaded three-thousand tons of explosives aboard Mont Blanc.
The ship’s holds were stocked with 22,000 kegs of picric acid, which made up three-quarters of the load. The rest of the cargo was 250 tons of TNT and 62 tons of gun cotton, all packed in wooden boxes and barrels.
A last minute addition was 494 steel barrels of benzol, a liquid fuel. These barrels were strapped on deck.
Just before midnight on December 2, 1917, the overloaded Mont Blanc limped out of Gravesend Bay on course to join a convoy in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The very next day in New York, a British ship crashed into an American freighter near the foot of 57th Street. The British ship lost twenty-feet of her bow while the other ship sank. As wartime fleets increased dramatically in 1917, ship collisions in New York harbor were becoming all too common.
And now it was Halifax’s turn.
On December 6, 1917, Mont Blanc and the Belgian relief ship Imo collided in the narrows of Halifax Harbour. Imo’s bow plowed ten feet into Mont Blanc’s hull, rupturing benzol barrels on impact.
As Imo reversed, sparks from steel grating on steel ignited the picric acid just above Mont Blanc’s waterline. Benzol rained down upon the thousands of wooden containers filled with explosives. Once the benzol ignited there was no question what was coming next.
The ensuing explosion killed 2,000 people and injured 9,000 while flattening huge swaths of Halifax and Dartmouth.
The day after the Explosion, Brooklynites were stunned to learn that Mont Blanc was loaded in their Bay. In response, an editorial in the Brooklyn Eagle cautioned, “An explosion wrecking part of Greater New York is at anytime possible.” Citizens lobbied to stop the loading of explosives in Gravesend Bay.
There is no commemoration of Brooklyn’s role in the Halifax Explosion. No monuments. No Christmas tree from Nova Scotia. Not even a tiny brass plaque. It would seem some memories are best left to die and be buried at Gravesend Bay.