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German U-190 and the HMCS Esquimalt

The U-190, launched in Germany on 3 June 1942.  It left Germany on its first working patrol on 20 February 1943, returning to its base at Lorient, France on 30 March. Thereafter it made a total of six working cruises into the Atlantic before surrendering on the last of these to the Royal Canadian Navy on 11 May 1945.

The U-190 does not seem to have been all that successful, during the first five of its cruises it sank only one allied vessel – the 7015 ton cargo ship Empire Lakeland on 8 March 1943. It fired torpedoes on a number of other occasions, but without result. It was to have one other success on the last of its cruises, and this was to bring it firmly within the context of Canadian naval history.

U-190 left a base in Norway on its sixth and last mission on 22 February 1945. Armed with 6 contact torpedoes and eight T-5 Gnat acoustic torpedoes, it mission was to interdict allied shipping off Sable Island and the approaches to Halifax harbour.  It was part of new strategy for the commander-in-chief of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Dönitz, initiated in the dying days of the Nazi regime, to increase pressure on shipping in North American waters trying to ease allied naval pressure in waters closer to home.

Early on the morning of April 16 the Boat was sitting in a favorite spot off the Sambro light ship when a pinging on the hull indicated that her place was being picked up by asdic signals from a vessel on the surface. The ASDIC was in fact aboard the Canadian Bangor class minesweeper, HMCS Esquimault, engaged in carrying out a routine patrol of the area. Perhaps lulled into a sense of ease by the news of the eminent German collapse in Europe, she was observing none of the standard security measures that were mandatory for vessels operating in these waters. She was not zigzagging as required, she was not streaming her Canadian-designed Cat gear, developed specifically to deflect attacks from German Gnat Torpedoes, and she had even turned off her (admittedly obsolete) radar. And no-one on board seemed aware that the ASDIC had in fact picked up a contact. Below the waters the crew of U-190 was sure that their location was found. And when the Esquimault suddenly turned towards them and headed directly towards their periscope they though an attack was made. The U190 swung about and fired off one Gnat torpedo from a stern tube, expecting that it fired too close to have any effect, as they desperately attempted to get clear of the perceived danger.

The torpedo in fact hit home, tearing into the Esquimault’s starboard side. She immediately began to list to starboard and sank within four minutes. She was the last Canadian vessel lost due to enemy action in the Second World War.  While eight of Esquimault’s crew probably went down with her, the rest escaped and managed to get into Carley floats on the water. Its sinking was so rapid, however, that there was no time to send out distress signals, so that it was hours before anyone realized what had happened and after eight hours later that HMCS Sarnia first came across any survivors. During this period a total of 44 had died of exposure, and only 26 remained alive.

After its meeting with the Esquimault, U-190 successfully escaped the area and remained on patrol off the Canadian coast until instructions were received from Dönitz to surrender on 8 May. The boat was finally intercepted by Canadian corvettes 500 miles of Cape Race in Newfoundland on 11 May. Within hours her captain signed a document of unconditional surrender. With the white ensign flying from her masthead, she sailed under Canadian escort into Bay Bulls, Newfoundland, on 14 May. The crews were then taken as prisoners to Halifax.


When the U-190 surrendered in May 1945, the senior officers included: Lt Werner Muller, 22 years old, and Lt Ernst Glenk, 21 years old, both veterans of three years in the U-boat fleet.

The Post War Story of the U190 continues here.

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Edward Cornwallis

In recent years Halifax’s Edward Cornwallis statue has been attacked by ninjas, doused in fake blood and given street-art gender reassignment surgery via a felt vagina (photo below).It’s a strange turn of fortunes for a man who for generations was quietly revered by many Nova Scotians as the founder of Halifax. Edward Cornwallis has been honored with schools, streets and the statue, but attitudes began to change in the 1990s, when Mi’kmaq historian Dan Paul started campaigning against the man who had issued the notorious scalping proclamations paying for the murder of Mi’kmaq people trying to drive them out of Nova Scotia.

The 300th anniversary of Edward Cornwallis’s birth is in February, but no biography has yet been written of him. Curious how a man could be so controversial, yet so unknown. I decided to take matters into my pen and write his life story. It’s almost finished, and due out in time for his birthday. Here’s a sneak peek at my findings so far.

Edward Cornwallis was born Feb 22, 1713. His father was a baron, his mother a lady, and his twin brother Frederick went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. The twins grew up on Leicester Square in London – the same street as King George II.

Edward Cornwallis joined the military and his first big test came in 1746 at the Battle of Culloden. Remembered in old and new Scotland alike as the massacre of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland Army. After the victory, Cornwallis was dispatched into Scotland’s mountainous northern regions to carry out the Pacification. Cornwallis’s 320-man unit was famous for its violence as it marched through the rebel homelands chasing off livestock, burning villages and dismantling the clan system by force.

Anyone with a kilt, broadsword, crucifix, or anything vaguely hinting at rebel sympathies, was executed.

Cornwallis’s next assignment was to found Halifax in 1749. The land we today call Nova Scotia was then three places all at once. To the Mi’kmaq people, it was Mi’kma’ki, the collective name for the Seven Districts that comprised the main Mi’kmaq government in what is today Nova Scotia.  The others were New Brunswick, P.E.I. and parts of Maine. For France, it was Acadia. For Cornwallis and Britain, it was Nova Scotia – territory France ceded to Britain in 1712.

Halifax would offset the French fort at Louisbourg and set up British control of Nova Scotia. In his letters to the board of trade, Cornwallis outlines his plan to clear the province of Mi’kmaq people and reserve the land for Europeans. This led to years of war and the scalping proclamations.

From a British perspective, Cornwallis’s time in Nova Scotia was marked by success in establishing Halifax, and failures outside of the fortress walls. Streets were opened through the woods around the Grand Parade; Cornwallis’s own home was on this site. But the bloody war with the Mi’kmaq ultimately failed.  Cornwallis was unable to force them off the peninsula. He he struggled to expand British presence beyond Halifax and Annapolis. Halifax had a first-year budget of £39,000, but the war drove expenses to £170,000. Cornwallis was repeatedly warned against overspending.

When Edward Cornwallis sailed out of Halifax in 1752, he left a growing settlement that had homes, a court, a budding dockyard and St. Paul’s Church. From a Mi’kmaq perspective, he left a devastated population that would continue to suffer various forms of government violence for the next two centuries. For the Acadians, his tactic of bringing in “Foreign Protestants” to settle Nova Scotia paved the way for the Expulsion.

Back in Britain, Cornwallis resumed his military career. In 1756, he was ordered to relieve his regiment on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. The island was besieged by France. Cornwallis sailed to the rescue with Admiral John Byng, but their massive fleet turned for home after deciding the French were too well entrenched. Byng, Cornwallis and other leaders were arrested and faced court martial. Byng was found guilty of disobeying orders and executed – an event that shocked Europe. Cornwallis pulled in some favors and was acquitted.

His last post was to another Mediterranean island, Gibraltar, where he served as governor from 1762 until his death in 1776.

Today, he is little remembered outside of Nova Scotia. His name is a powerful word that provokes strong emotions cutting right to the core of the province’s existence. It seems after 300 years, we’re still not sure where we are: Mi’kma’ki, Acadia or Nova Scotia? Was Cornwallis the founder of Halifax, or an invader? Perhaps he’s both. Perhaps it’s the task of this generation to find a way to make this land home to all three places at once.

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer based in Halifax, Canada. He writes features for Readers Digest, Canadian Geographic, Halifax Magazine, Progress, Atlantic Business Magazine, Atlantic Books Today and others. He is an online and broadcast journalist for CBC and reports for Metro Canada and the Chronicle Herald. His debut novel, Black Snow, was published by Pottersfield Press in April 2009. His first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville,was released in Africville on July 24, 2010. It won the Coast’s Best Book 2010 and was a finalist for the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing.

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Sable Island August Gales of 26 – 27

To the fishermen and sailors of the east coast, the gales of August are legendary. But none are so feared as those of 1926 and 1927. In August 1926 and August 1927, 138 Lunenburg fishermen and boys lost their lives around the shores of Sable Island, a slim crescent of sand scant feet above sea level and well known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Alistair Firth was only seventeen.  He tried to talk his way out of going on an American schooner Columbia but his father insisted.  Neither father nor son ever returned.

On the same ship, Columbia, the Mayo brothers, Bert, Ab and George and their father, Joseph, were lost that August of 1927.  (Some stories say that Bert survived but this is not confirmed.)

There was also aboard, James McLeod, aged 65, who had retired but the lure of the sea had brought him back for one for voyage – his last.

August Gales were first recorded at Sable Island back in 1873.  Many vessels were lost.  However, it was not until 1926 that the Lunenburg fishing fleet felt the full force of this “dark isle of mourning”.
In a single day, August 8, 1926, the Lunenburg schooners Sylvia Mosher and Sadie A. Knickle were lost with all hands onboard.

According to the Atlantic Museum, plans were made after the 1926 Gale to add radio equipment and engines to the fishing schooners.  With these additions, schooners would be better prepared to survive similar storms.  However, the improvements were not made in time to help during the 1927 August Gale.

In August 1927, the Lunenburg schooners Mahala, Uda R Corkum, Clayton W. Walters, and Joyce M. Smith were lost with their entire crews.

We take fish for granted where I live.  We go to the store and point out what we want to buy.  Maybe it is time that we look back at the experiences of the “fisherpersons of yore” and give credit and thanks to them for their heroism.

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Eyewitness in a Killer Storm – August gale of 1892

Many Nova Scotia ship wrecks were banking schooners. During exceptionally stormy weather conditions, it was not uncommon for these sail-powered vessels while fishing far from port to be overwhelmed. Several disappeared with the loss of all hands without any word of exactly what happened. Owners, relatives and loved ones remained in anxiety and distress for weeks until hope was finally abandoned. Had anyone seen or witnesses the ship in its final minutes? Had the crew fought in vain for their lives? What exactly had happened?
“Clues to a Mysterious Disappearance”

So it was for a LaHave schooner many years ago. One vessel Cashier, a schooner owned and operated out of LaHave in 1892, disappeared while on an August fishing voyage. To the Nova Scotian town, an ocean storm had claimed her with no survivors to tell the tale.  Yet, there was one man who saw Cashier in her final hours — a man who lived far away from LaHave and maybe had no opportunity to tell the tale to those left behind. Although the story is related indirectly, I feel it is vital to put Cashier’s story on paper; perhaps then some family questions may be resolved.
Several years ago Clyde Forsey, an elderly gentleman of Grand Bank, Newfoundland, told me how his father James, the master of the fishing vessel Mary F. Harris, survived the effects of a killer storm on the fishing banks. Two other schooners, one a Nova Scotian banker and the other from his home town, anchored near the Harris were lost.

During the tail end of a tropical hurricane, which lashed the South Coast and the off shore banks in 1892 (later referred to as the August Gale of 1892), three fishing schooners were lying to in close proximity on the Grand Banks: the Nova Scotia schooner Cashier, Captain Alfred Reinhardt; and two banking schooners from Grand Bank, the seventy-one ton Mary F. Harris, Captain James Forsey; and the seventy-eight ton George Foote. The latter was a seventy-two foot vessel built six years before at Grand Bank and commanded by Captain Sam Patten.

A knowledge of weather lore gathered from years on the high seas led all three captains to believe that an intense gale was pending. As the wind rose to gale force later in the evening, each captain knew it was useless to attempt to sail for some sheltered harbour. Time was short. Knowing their only recourse was to ride out the storm, they anchored their schooners on the banks and battened down to weather out a gale with winds, at times, of hurricane force.

That night, during the high winds and mountainous waves, a worried Captain Forsey carefully made his way to the bow of Mary F. Harris. Gripping lifelines to keep from being swept off the deck, he sat on the windlass to check the straining anchor chain. Seas and wind ripping over the deck forced him to hold lifelines tightly to keep from being swept overboard. Unable to use his hands, he slipped off one boot and felt for vibrations on the cable or chain with his foot. Movement and play would indicate if the anchor dragged or held firm. Should it drag the vessel would be at the mercy of the wind and could easily capsize or collide with another schooner bringing death to all on board. Carefully nursed throughout the gale, Mary F. Harris stayed afloat through that long night.

After checking his own vessel Captain Forsey noted, as he looked through the driven spray, that the riding lights of one of the other vessels had disappeared. He was unable to identify which schooner, nor could he determine if the vessel in question had capsized or driven away.

At daybreak Forsey found the answer. Cashier, still lying at anchor, was partly submerged, waterlogged and swaying helplessly before the wind. There was no sign of life. The other schooner, George Foote, from his home town and with seventeen men — many of whom he knew well — was nowhere in sight. One fisherman on George Foote was Leonard Hartling, age forty and born in Liscomb, Nova Scotia, who was married to Mary (Patten) of Grand Bank. They had a child, Almira.

When wind and sea abated, Captain Forsey and another seaman  rowed over to the derelict hull of the Cashier, climbed aboard, but saw no one. Fearing a major sea disaster had taken place in the night, Forsey then put on a general search of the area for some indication of what had happened to the schooner George Foote and to the crew of the partially-submerged Cashier. If the crew of the latter had taken to lifeboats or the dories, Forsey knew they wouldn’t last long in the high seas. Later he discovered buoys, trawl tubs, broken dories, and other
floating debris clearly marked and identified as belonging to George Foote.

“Solution to the Mystery” This evidence led Forsey to believe both vessels had dragged anchor during the storm and collided with tragic results. He sadly concluded he would never see Captain Sam Patten nor his fellow townsmen again.  For Forsey and Mary F. Harris the fishing season ended quickly and unhappily and, since he sustained storm damage, he had to return to home port. There concerned relatives and the owners, Foote Brothers, anxiously awaited for the arrival or for news of George Foote.

Captain Forsey had the heartbreaking task of relating the fate of the schooner and all her crew. He had been the last person to see George Foote through the spume and high seas as she prepared like the Cashier, to beat the August gale of 1892. On September 26 a St. John’s newspaper reported, albeit with no crew list, the disaster on the Grand Banks:

“Besides the losses (already reported) from the effects of the storm, grave fears are entertained that George Foote of Grand Bank, Samuel Patten master, has been lost with all hands, comprising a crew of 17 men.

“Captain George Brett arrived here (St. John’s) a few days since, and reports having spoken to Captain James Forsey of Mary F. Harris, who said he was fishing in the same neighbourhood with George Foote and a Nova Scotian schooner and, when the storm was over, he saw the Nova Scotian at anchor, full of water with spars and sails gone.

“Near the same place he picked up a lot of wreckage, which evidently belonged to George Foote, and he came to the conclusion the two schooners collided, and the crews of both were drowned by the angry waves. But, as there is “hope from the sea”, their friends cling to the idea they may have escaped in their dories, or the schooner became dismasted and is still driving about the ocean, and they will be rescued by some passing vessel.

“More Solutions to the Mystery: Author’s Notes” While digging through archival papers some time after my initial conversation with Forsey, I located a reference to the loss of the LaHave schooner Cashier. News of Cashier’s wreck reached Nova Scotia in early September. By September 12, 1892, an article in the Halifax Herald reported Cashier had been lost with crew. ”

The one hundred seven ton Cashier, one of the finest vessels of the Nova Scotia fishing fleet, carried nineteen men. She was owned in LaHave by T.A. Wilson and Reinhardt Brothers and had been built in 1888 at Conquerall. Captain Reinhardt had previously captained the schooner Cletia which his brother Benjamin now commanded. Three of the captain’s brothers worked in LaHave; one was the collector of customs and two were in business.

Several of Cashier’s crew, many of whom lived in LaHave and area, were identified:

  • Captain Albert Reinhardt, age 32
  • Two Legay brothers, Enus and Titus
  • George Richard, leaving a family
  • Andrew (or Lewis Leander) Mosher, age 19, of West Dublin
  • Eli Corkum, son of Sam Corkum, West Dublin
  • Spencer Remby, West Dublin
  • Howard Conrad
  • Benjamin Wagner
  • Four men from Vogler’s Cove (whose names were not given)
  • Pernette, captain’s brother-in-law; and
  • Wentzell of LaHave, about 50 years, leaving a family of 9.

Needless to say the people of LaHave, West Dublin, and neighbouring towns were devastated at the news of the loss of Cashier and her entire crew. Once again a Nova Scotian town that sent a fleet of ships down to the sea had paid a heavy price for the riches of the ocean.

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Lashed to the Masts off Georgetown

On November 21st, 1944 the schooner Shag left St. John’s, Newfoundland, for Prince Edward Island on what turned out to be her last voyage. With Captain Gordon Harris at the helm she sailed for Georgetown, PEI, located on the island’s eastern side. In the fishing season the forty-five ton banking schooner carried ten men to the rich grounds off the southern Avalon Peninsula. Little  vessels like Shag performed a dual role: transporting food and  supplies to the towns in which they served. They went on the coastal run in the fall and winter, the off-season for fishing.

In November of 1944 her owner assigned Shag, under Captain Harris, to PEI. The long voyage, part of which included the rough and treacherous Gulf of St. Lawrence, proved to be quite a task for a small vessel over thirty years old.

Captain Gordon Harris kept a logbook and this, coupled with his memoirs, document the final days of the little vessel, a tragic end with her crew struggling for survival lashed to the mastheads for six hours and one man dying of exposure.

Shag was built in Placentia Bay in 1913 and was probably named for the seabird Atlantic Common Cormorant, often called Shag in Newfoundland.

She had a ten horsepower Acadia engine, plus her sails — foresail, mainsail, jib and jumbo — which were used when wind conditions were favorable; thus, she was an auxiliary/sail schooner.

On the coastal run vessels like Shag, with their hard working, experienced captains and crews, did yeomen work often under trying conditions. Voyages around the coast and across the treacherous Gulf of St. Lawrence to obtain potatoes and other produce were made in the off-season when fall storms and unforgiving seas were prevalent.

As required on any vessel, large or small, the captain kept a logbook, recording sailing information of wind, weather, position, and general conditions aboard ship. Captain Harris also recorded, perhaps years after the event, an account of his experiences on his voyages around the coast. Of the fall of 1944, he wrote:

“Arrived in St. John’s on the eighteenth, discharged, and sailed on November 21st for Georgetown, PEI.”

Harris had three crew with him: Michael Keating and William Lake of St. Joseph’s and Dominic Emberley. An experienced captain, Harris had taken his first command — the forty ton Ethie L owned by  Warham’s business of Harbor Buffett, Placentia Bay — in 1939.

“We Sailed for PEI”The trip from St. John’s to Prince Edward Island was a sea voyage of approximately four hundred miles, about two weeks sailing in fair winds. For the first three or four days they made good progress. Shag and her crew passed the mouth of Placentia Bay and perhaps they looked longingly in that direction wishing they could be home with their families but knowing they had work to do first.

All went well until fifteen miles southwest of St. Pierre when they were accosted by a northwesterly storm. The little ten Acadia engine was useless in the gale and even the sails had to be reefed. For six hoursShag jogged in the heavy winds. One vicious gust ripped the foresail away.

With his crew on alert, Captain Harris ran his schooner under the jumbo sail before a seventy-mile gale! In the next several hours they drifted south and east into the Atlantic. All day October 26 Harris felt, as he wrote in his journal, they were “between life and death”.

On the evening of the twenty-seventh a destroyer came by and spoke through a trumpet or megaphone to the beleaguered crew. In 1944, to guard against the threat of German submarines, American and Canadian destroyers patrolled the ocean off America’s eastern   seaboard. The destroyer’s captain saw the poor shape Shag was in, which by this time was wallowing in heavy seas, sails shredded and making very little headway. The captain asked them to abandon ship.

But these sailors were of a tough physical and mental fiber; Harris and his crew were not inclined to give up easily. As Captain Harris wrote:

“As the glass (barometer) showed that the storm was over and indicated a change of wind was to take place, I decided to stick with my schooner. I showed the signal for the destroyer to proceed on. I sounded and fixed my position as one hundred twenty miles southwest of Cape Race.
“On the following morning the wind had shifted its direction to the southwest and we shaped our course for Cape Pine (at the southwestern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula and the entrance to Trepassey Bay).  On the morning of November first we sighted Cape Pine and harbored at River Head, St. Mary’s Bay.
“November third we had our sails repaired, took water and gas and sailed on 7th for Prince Edward Island again.”

For two days and nights as Shag passed Newfoundland’s south coast, there was no wind to fill her sails. With the engine running, Harris steamed along at three and a half miles an hour until he passed St.  Paul’s Island located off Cape North, Cape Breton Island.

At this stage, the fickle wind was too light requiring extended use of the engine. When Shag was well out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, gas had been exhausted and Harris ran up the foresail to finish the leg into Prince Edward Island. He observed:

“The wind veering from the southeast and snow. At 2 am we put a double reef mainsail and jumbo on to keep off the land. At 6 p.m. we lost the mainsail and jib.
“At 9 p.m. she struck Boughton Island Shoal two miles from the mainland of PEI. When she hit, the stern part from the cabin aft separated and (that section) went to the bottom.
“Taking the fall of the mainsail halyard, we tied the end on the dory. Myself and the cook went on the mainmast head (top) and the mate and the sailor went on the foremast head. There we spent six hours tied to the “spreaders”.

The dory was tied on and secure, but they knew they could not attempt to row to an unknown shore in darkness. Waiting for daylight and holding on to the rigging on the mast heads for six hours Captain Harris and his crew survived the cold November night. No help was in sight; no flare or signal had been raised to alert shore-men. Captain Harris describes what happened next:

“We owed our lives to the fact that the masts were made of Newfoundland spruce. With every wave that rolled over the vessel and her masts, they would bend over almost horizontal. As soon as the wave slackened the masts would snap upright again. Any hardwood would have broken off, but the spruce was tough and resilient.
“After Shag beat in solid on the shoal and became steady, we got the dory in to the mast and bailed the water. I cannot describe how, but  we got ashore on PEI.
“That area, like much of PEI’s coast, is sand bars. In the heavy wave action, the little dory stranded time and again as the waves rolled back. We had to jump out and rush to hold or haul the boat to deeper water before the next wave swamped us.
“Hungry, wet and cold we set out to walk knowing that we had to find help soon. After walking 2 miles we saw lights. After that we came into the town of Boughton River, and the hospitality of these people is hard to describe. We found them as our own parents. With good food and a good night’s rest, three of us were okay, but our cook was in bad shape.”

Here Harris ends the account: his schooner wrecked, three of four crew in relatively good health. Tragically, the cook (whose name has not been recorded) lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. Captain Harris and his two remaining crew were on Prince Edward Island for eleven days and went back to Placentia Bay on the motor vessel Gerald Ann. They arrived home on November 25.

Those who aided Harris and his crew as they stumbled into Broughton River have not been identified. The shipwrecked seamen saw the warmth and glow of kitchen lights in a home, knocked on the door and received the valued help they required.

Unfortunately names of the friendly family and the residents of Broughton River who assisted the shipwrecked mariners have not been recorded. However this story in “Mysteries of Canada” may bring them to light. Their story of rescue will help perpetuate the memory of the schooner Shag and an unforgettable voyage of four shipwrecked sailors in the fall of 1944.

This story is from Robert C. Parsons’ new book, “Committed to the Deep: Stories and Memoirs”  Check out Robert’s personal web site for more information and stories at

The Halifax Explosion of 1945

I am sure that all of you have heard of the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  If not, then hang your head in shame and read our article on The Halifax Explosion of 1917! While the Halifax Explosion of 1917 was a calamity, it was not the only major wartime explosion suffered by the locals. Most people believe that World War II ended with V day on 8th May 1945, but the reality was that, after the resolution in Europe, war continued in the Pacific.  While most Canadians returned home following VE day, people and material moved to the Pacific theatre.

Explosion In Halifax 1945

Halifax Explosion of 1945

Atlantic vessels were refit for their new duties in the Pacific.  As part of the refit process, all ammunition was removed from ships in port.  The  ammunition was stored in the Canadian Naval Ammunition Storage Depot at Bedford Basin, just inland from the main port of Halifax.

July 18, 1945 was a fairly peaceful night in Halifax.  However at about 6:30 PM, the calm was broken by a tremendous and earth moving flash and explosion.  What was once the Depot was now a mushroom cloud billowing up to the heavens.

Ammunition and small explosives “pickled off” throughout the night and by midnight the “show” seemed to be over.  A final bright and loud explosion almost precisely at midnight announced the end of the display.

The last report on the explosion stated that a fire, of unknown origin, which started on the  dock, had spread to the ammunition depot.  Although there was only one casualty (a workman who was on the jetty at the time of the first explosion) and very few injured, the explosion brought back dark memories for the local population.  Up to 15,000 people in Halifax and another 10,000 in Dartmouth spent the night in parks, well away from the effects of the explosions.

But it could have been worse as some 50,000 depth charges were reportedly saved from the fire.

A number of eyewitness reports tell of the calamity caused by the explosion:

Janet Gorden was a very scared seven-year old kid living one block south of Quinpool.  She recalls: “None of the storage buildings, which were full, caught fire, nor did they explode – the munitions stored outside is what went up as a result of a brush fire generated by the first explosion on the jetty – as the fire reached each dump and the firefighters retreated to safety, that dump went up; these explosions continued until close to 4 AM at which time there was a very large blast, but the fire was brought under control at about that time, avoiding the explosion of a very large dump of depth charges.”Russell McManus was a seven-year old: “I was sitting on a radiator next to an open window when the first boom went off and it blew me off the radiator unto the floor.  My Father, a Master Gunner, was at the ammo dump a few days earlier inspecting the storage of artillery shells and he said that if the dumps had not been designed to blow up instead of sideways there would have been a lot more damage.  Anyway we spent several hours on the Halifax commons and spent the night in the Halifax Armory.”

In 1995, some 50 years after “Halifax Explosion II”, the military began to remove some of the ammunition that fell into the harbor.  They used the subtle method of blowing it all up (click the thumbnail image on left).  Could that be called Halifax Explosion III? 

Thanks to Lisa Stone and Derek Baker for helping correct some errors in the original story.

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The Halifax Explosion of 1917

In many ways December 6th, 1917 was a typical early winter day in Halifax .  The sun was bright in a clear sky and the ground was clear of snow. A light haze hung over the harbor, but visibility was generally very good. But what started out as a typical day did not end that way.  That day became the most notorious day in the history of Halifax. That’s the day of the Halifax Explosion.

The Halifax Harbor is considered one of the finest and safest harbors in the world. It reaches far inland from the Atlantic Ocean.  The harbor is protected from the fierce ocean.  In times of war (in 1917 the First World War was still raging in Europe), it protected merchant ships from the marauding German U-boats. Because the war effort included shipping large amounts of material to Europe, and because of  its strategic location in North America, Halifax became the staging point for many trans-Atlantic convoys.

One ship which arrived to the Halifax Harbor was the Mont Blanc.  She arrived from the New York Harbor too late on December 5 to enter the harbor that day. In the early evening the harbour-master raised a large chain across the mouth of the harbor to keep out U-boats.  At 07:30 on the 6th she raised anchor to sail inland.

At the same time as the Mont Blanc sailed in, a second ship – the Imo  prepared to leave port and head to the open ocean.

The Mont Blanc, a French steamer, was 330 feet long and 40 feet wide. Her cargo of explosives was bound for the fighting in Europe by way of Bordeaux, France. And what a cargo it was.  The manifest of the Mont Blanc reads like a chemistry experiment:

  • 2300 tons of wet and dry picric acid.
  • 200 tons of TNT.
  • 35 tons of benzol (stored on the open decks).
  • 10 tons of gun cotton.

You better believe that there were more than a few no-smoking signs on that ship!

The Imo, 430 feet long and 44 feet wide, was heading for New York after its trip from Holland. She traveled as a neutral vessel and had no explosive material or guns on board.

(You can read more about the details of why these two ships collided on that fateful day in December. Our role at Mysteries of Canada is to highlight the story not the details.)

Through a series of mixed signals, the Imo appeared to be sailing in the right-of-way of the Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc gave a short blast of its signal whistle to let the Imo know that it had the right-of-way. The Imo, to the surprise of the Mont Blanc, signaled its intention to turn to port, putting it further into the path of the Mont Blanc. A flurry of more signals ensued and eventually the collision to place mid-stream right next to one of the busiest wharves in Halifax.

The collision ruptured the benzol barrels on deck and caused a leak into the hold containing the picric acid. A fire began, spewing thick black smoke into the clear sky.

Knowing the fate of the Mont Blanc, the captain and crew abandoned ship and rowed to the Dartmouth shore. The Imo was only slightly damaged and, not knowing the cargo on the Mont Blanc, its crew remained with the ship.

At 09:05 the Mont Blanc exploded with the power of a volcano. 3000 tons of steel shattered and a mini-tidal wave fanned out from the spot. The explosion was so violent that a one of the Mont Blanc‘s guns flew over 3.5 miles before coming to rest in Dartmouth. An anchor, weighing 1140 pounds landed some 2 miles away at Armdale.

The toll of the Halifax Explosion was enormous with over 1600 men, women and children killed. An additional 9000 people were injured and  25,000 buildings spread over 325 acres were destroyed.

Communications links with the outside world were destroyed by the explosion which made the relief effort even more difficult.

Many books have been written on the subject of the Halifax Explosion. There are miraculous stories of people whose lives were spared by strange circumstance and stories of individual and collective heroism in the face of the disaster.

We urge you to read about this great Mystery of Canada.

Especially read Black Snow by contributor, Jon Tattrie.

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St Paul Church – Face in the Window

There is not too much information to be found on the phenomenon of the profile in the window of St. Paul’s Church in Halifax.   Indeed, even the official history of the church does not mention it.


St. Paul’s Anglican Church has stood in the center of downtown Halifax for almost 250 years . (The original structure was built in 1750.)

The story has it that, as a result of the intense light and heat generated by the Halifax Explosion in 1917, the profile of one of the church’s deacons was etched into one of the windows on the second story. The location of the window suggests that the Deacon was standing in the upper loft of the structure. We can only surmise the fate of the Deacon.

Is the profile actually of a church deacon or is it an act of nature? Another Mystery of Canada!

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Oak Island Money Pit Treasure

If I told you that there was a buried treasure on Oak Island. An Island just off the coast of Nova Scotia. In a spot called The Money Pit, would you believe me?

After all this area of North America was a favorite stomping ground for pirates in the 18th century. The treasure might be buried in a deep pit, nicknamed The Money Pit. That was to make sure no one but the pirates found it.

But what if I told you that the Oak Island Money Pit was:

  • Almost 200 feet deep.
  • Protected by an elaborate set of booby traps and underground channels to an ocean beach, over 500 feet away.
  • It has been the subject of countless excavations since 1795, costing millions of dollars.
  • Six Money Pit Treasure Hunters have died looking for it.
  • And all they have found so far is remnants of earlier searches.

If you answer: “That’s the Oak Island Money Pit Treasure”,  you are correct!  If you are wondering where is Oak Island, read our article Where is Oak Island.

The story of the Oak Island Money Pit Treasure is fascinating and complex.

The History Channel now has a TV Series called The Curse of Oak Island Treasure.  It is a story of mystery, greed, controversy and a little humor. The Oak Island Money Pit has been sought by many people and corporations for over 200 years.  It has attracted all types of explorers.  There were the three teenagers who first discovered the site. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former US President, whose company Old Gold Salvage group searched in 1909. To the swash-buckling actor Errol Flynn, who wanted to search Oak Island in 1940.  He was discouraged when he found the search rights belonged to a company owned by fellow actor John Wayne.

The story of the Oak Island Money Pit Treasure has been written about in many books.  To date the treasure has not been found, but tantalizing glimpses of the treasure have been reported. The following are some of the theories on who buried the treasure on Oak Island:

  • The most popular theory is the early 18th century pirate Captain Kidd, who often visited the Oak Island region for rest and relaxation, and to repair his ships. He seemed to have a habit of burying part of the treasure he plundered far and wide.
  • The most bizarre theory is the treasure is the original works of William Shakespeare, that Sir Francis Bacon buried on the site in the late 16th century.  This theory is based on evidence from a piece of parchment paper brought up from the pit by one of the treasure hunters.
  • Equally strange is the theory of the crown jewels of France, which went missing in 1791.  The jewels were smuggled to Louisburg, (north of Oak Island in Cape Breton).  Since Louisburg was often attacked by the British when the French owned it, the jewels were unsafe and transported to Oak Island.

The theories go on but no one knows for sure the origin of the Oak Island Money Pit.

Excavation of The Money Pit has never been successful because of the booby traps that protect it. In the 1860’s, while excavating at the 90 feet level, the treasure hunters encountered soggy ground. This was not too surprising because the Pit was only 500 feet from the coast line, and high tide of the ocean was about at the 32 foot level. At 93 feet the water was more pronounced. At 98 feet they struck an extra hard surface. They took the rest of day off and the next morning found that the shaft of the Pit filled with sea water to the 32 foot level. We now know that the miners had inadvertently opened a series of channels to the beach, which were a booby trap to protect the treasure.

Many attempts have been made over the years to discover how the booby trap works. Coffer dams were built on the nearby beach, thought to be the source of the water flow, but to no avail.

In over 200 years that adventurers have searched for the Treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit, they have met oak log platforms every ten feet, to the thirty foot level. From there, a drill probe used in 1849, encountered multiple layers of charcoal, putty, and coconut fiber.  At 98 feet a spruce platform guarding two oak chests containing loose metal pieces (pieces of eight?) was discovered.

But the discoveries do not stop there.  Continued drilling, in 1897, found there were, layers of wood and iron. Then a 30 foot layer of blue clay (a hand-worked watertight mixture of clay, sand and water).  Then a seven-foot deep cement vault at 153 feet, and an iron barrier at 171 feet.

Early in the hunt for the Oak Island Money Pit Treasure, an inscribed stone was found face-down in the Pit.  There have been various interpretations made of the inscription.  Below is a drawing of the inscription:


The most commonly accepted translation is:

Today, The Oak Island Money Pit Parcel is owned by two individuals who still search for the Treasure of Oak Island.

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Mary Celeste Ghost Ship Mystery

One of the great maritime mysteries is The Mary Celeste Ghost Ship.

(some debate over the name as Marie Celeste)

Over 125 years ago, the ship was found floating, with no crew, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  She was in perfect condition. The fate of the crew and passengers has never been explained.  The ship was launched in 1861, from the shipyard at Spencer’s Island at Bay of Fundy.  The original name of the vessel was the Amazon. Following an accidental grounding at Cow Bay in Cape Breton in 1868, she was repaired, and renamed the Mary Celeste. She operated under an American Flag out of New York.

On November 7, 1872, the Ship sailed under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs bound for Europe with a cargo of wines and liquors. He was accompanied by his wife, young daughter, and a crew of seven.

On December 4, 1872, the vessel was found floating 600 miles off Gibraltar. The official reports stated that everything was in good order.  Only the ship’s paper and chronometer were missing. The last entry into the captain’s logs, on November 24, gave no sign of anything unusual.

This is where the story gets a little murky and the mystery deepens.

The condition of the ship, at the time of her discovery at sea, vary according to the reporter. One report suggested that there were bloodied weapons on board and blood on some of the sail. If this is true it suggests a pirate attack. Something that was common in that area around that time.  If it was a pirate, why was the money box and the ship’s cargo of wine and liquor not taken?  Surely Pirates would not have left these items behind.

Another area of conflict is whether or not the only lifeboat was still strapped to the ship.

Some other theories over the years have included:

  • The entire crew may have been swept overboard by a large wave.  Assuming one of them must have carried the chronometer and ship’s papers at the time.
  • The Mary Celeste came to the aid of a burning cargo ship filled with coal and explosives. The ship got a little too close to the burning ship.  The crew abandoned ship into a small lifeboat, which also picked up the crew of the cargo ship. The lifeboat then capsized and all hands were lost. Unfortunately, there isn’t any record of a cargo ship being lost during that period.  Some have reported that the lifeboat was still on board the ship.
  • The captain of the Dei Gratia, the ship which found, and applied for salvage rights to the Mary Celeste, hatched a plot to takeover the ship.  He placed three of his cut throats on the Mary Celeste as crewmen. Once at sea, the crewmen overtook the vessel and killed the captain and crew. The Dei Gratia then “discovered” the “abandoned” vessel and claimed salvage rights to the ship and the cargo.

What is the real story of the Mary Celeste? What was the fate of Captain Briggs and his family, and the crew of the Mary Celeste?

Mary Celeste Ghost Ship Update #1

The final resting place of the Mary Celeste has been found by Clive Cussler.  The ship kicked around for many years after its “ghostly” episode.  It was scuttled on the Rochelois Reef in Haiti in about 1884. 

Mary Celeste Ghost Ship Update #2

A recent communication with the webmaster of the Arthur Conan Doyle site at: reminded us that there has always been confusion over the spelling of the Mary Celeste.  Some say that she was called the Marie Celeste.  In 1883, Doyle’s first literary success was “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement“.  In this book he told the story of a black passenger.  The passenger and his fellow conspirators commandeered the ship.  Then sailed it to Africa and murdered the passengers and crew.  The remarkable thing about this story, to Doyle, was that anyone believed it.  Apparently many people thought the detailed description of the action was too good to be made up.  Even U.S. consulate Horatio J. Sprague demanded that the publishers, Cornhill Magazine, investigate the origin of the article.

Conan Doyle was pleased that his story was so well done that it could be mistaken as true. He was also delighted that hundreds of readers, who did understand the work was fictional, thought it was written by a man known for his tales of adventure. They suspected that the anonymous author was none other than Robert Louis Stevenson.”

By Anna Derks

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