The Anatomy Of A Disaster
An Analysis of Two 1917 Halifax Explosion Blast Cloud Photographs
by Joel Zemel
Project research by Joel Zemel and Pierre Richard
ISBN #978-0-9684920-7-9 © 2009 SVP Productions
The McNab's Island Photograph - Every Lead Must Be Followed:
Even though it was a fairly strong argument that the McNab's photo was taken from either York Redoubt or Point Pleasant Park, it did not stop me from looking at other options.
One day, while examining the Ferguson's Cove and "McNab's Island" photographs with a map of the area, I began to compare the states of the blast cloud and the lines of sight in the photos and considered the time frame from the initial blast to the Ferguson's Cove photo. As the base of the cloud was completely intact in the "McNab's Island" photograph, I thought it might have been taken midway between the boat photo and the Ferguson's Cove photo. Point Pleasant Park did not seem far enough to the Northwest to be the midpoint but the area around Dalhousie University appeared to fit the bill nicely.
The McNab's photo appeared to be taken from a raised elevation and the tree line is clearly visible. On the map, it seemed possible to have a viable line of sight running to the blast cloud from one of two buildings that comprised Dalhousie University at the time - the Science Building on Coburg Road or the Forrest Building on University Avenue. I liked the idea of the photo having been taken from The Science Building because I knew the Mainka bifilar horizontal seismograph, the one that registered the Halifax Explosion, was housed in the basement at the time of the explosion. The building itself suffered damage from the blast.
I drove over to the Earth Sciences Building and went up to the sixth floor where I had a discussion about our project with Tom MacCrea, a biology researcher. I explained our overall project and showed him our two photos. We even discussed the railings/vents in the McNab's photo. He said he did not have any pertinent information regarding the seismograph but suggested I look at some historical photographs relating to university buildings that were on the wall of the second floor that might help in some way with the line of sight I was trying to establish.
Before I left, I browsed through the photos and one of the Forrest Building in 1911 happened to stand out. There were actually railings on the roof that appeared similar to the one in the "McNab's Island" photograph. I asked Pierre to snap a digital photograph through the glass display. However, upon close examination of the photograph, the railing design wasn't even close.
Nevertheless, it did not seem too far-fetched that someone in or near the Science Building (above left) or even the Forrest Building several blocks away, could have had the presence of mind to grab a camera and snap a photograph of the blast cloud. I suppose anyone living in the area could have just as easily taken the photograph but for some reason, I thought the photographer might have been a student or someone working at the university.
A few days later, Pierre and I went to NSARM to look through the fire insurance maps of 1889 through to 1914. As it turned out, my whole notion of Dalhousie University as a candidate for a line of sight was just not viable. The "McNab's Island" photo showed a tree line of undeveloped natural foliage. This part of Halifax was much too developed, even in those days, to contain any natural forest growth. I also realized that the line of sight would be too far to the Northwest and Pierre always had concerns about the location having enough elevation from which to take the photo.
Despite having the Ferguson's Cove photo as a reference, the look of the blast cloud in the "McNab's Island" photo had proven to be most deceptive. Although it may have taken on the attributes of a wild goose chase at times, it was still necessary to follow through with the Dalhousie University angle. Even the most miniscule of clues can contribute to the research and I would have regretted not pursuing it. It is entirely possible that an unconscious desire for some connection between the seismograph and the photo may have displaced some of my usual pragmatism. But the idea had run its course and I began my reassessment of the "McNab's Island" photograph in earnest.
I went back to the notion that the photo had been taken from a place where military bunkers and batteries were in use and natural foliage was in abundance. Pierre had always thought that was the way to go and now I was in full agreement but after reviewing the Ferguson's Cove photo and making relative comparisons once more, it was still the same toss-up between York Redoubt and Point Pleasant Park as a location.
The boat is found! (we think!)
For this project, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a photo gallery of as many ships as I could find that were in Halifax Harbour the day of the explosion. I was going through several computer images I had accumulated and brought up one of the Gulnare (Image #1). For about a week at the coffee house, the examination of the prow of the boat in the explosion photo had become the major focal point of discussion and we had run out of options as far as finding vessels moored on the eastern side of Bedford Basin. When I saw the Gulnare photo, the first thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was the highly unusual configuration of the prow. I kept staring at the wheel house, the rigging and the prow - back and forth - and it all started to fit together.
Pierre and I had discussed the Gulnare early on but the idea of it being our mystery boat was dismissed mainly because the information available stated she had been anchored on the Western side of Bedford Basin off Africville at the time of the explosion. We were specifically looking for vessels moored in the Eastern section. This time around though, we looked at the Gulnare with a deeper focus and decided that this was the closest match to the boat in the photo to date. I subsequently located Image #2, an excellent photo of the then 44 year old ship with the bow facing forward - an image which made us feel even more confident that we had finally found our boat. The unique and very conspicuous metal shielding on the prow above the bulwark is strong evidence that the boat in the photo may very well be CGS Gulnare.
Image #1: Date Unknown / Image #2: circa 1937 / Image #3: September 20, 1937
Department of National Defence information:
Name of Ship: GULNARE
Class of Ship: CGS (Canadian Government Ship, Gulnare)
Type of Ship: Fisheries Patrol
Displacement - 262 Tons
Overall Dimensions (Feet) - 137.0 x 24.0 x 12.0
Speed (Knots), Design/Trials - 10.0
Crew - 25
Builder - C. Connel, Glasgow, Scotland
GULNARE completed by the builder in 1893. In naval service circa 1916 - 1924, but commissioning is in doubt. GULNARE was purchased by the Canadian government in 1902 for fisheries protection work. From 1918 to 1919 she served as a contraband control vessel on the East Coast, returning after the war to government duties, which included hydrographic survey. She was sold to Marine Industries Ltd. about 1938, and broken up about ten years later.
Pierre had apparently been correct all along; Gulnare was definitely not a trawler but a service boat. As such, the unknown shadow to the left of the bulwark in our original boat photo could not have been part of a winch.
I also revisited Pierre's suggestion that the area offshore of the BIO site was the possible camera location for our boat photograph. The area appears to have been in the right proximity to the blast for it to have been taken there. As Pierre pointed out, using the powerful Krakatoa eruption as an example: The air resulting from the Halifax Explosion, as powerful as it was, could not have pushed a line of roiled water, like the one we see in the photo, a distance of 4.5 miles to the North end of the Basin in the timeframe of 15 to 20 seconds. As well, the "dark rain" (the falling debris from the cloud) which can be seen cascading all around the boat in the photo, is consistent with the boat being within a mile of the blast. I was now able to adjust and fine tune the line of sight by moving it a few more degrees to the Northwest so it would sync up even closer with that of the photograph.
Records state Gulnare was on the Western side of the Basin off Africville near the Imperial Oil wharf at the time of the fire after the collision. The billowing smoke would have been quite visible from her vantage point. There is no evidence whatsoever to support a belief that the vessel would have remained at her station once the captain became aware of the fire in the Narrows even though Acadia, while waiting for repairs in the Spring, was anchored for the winter to guard the Eastern side of the entrance to Bedford Basin.
Gulnare was on duty to protect Bedford Basin. From the time of the collision and the eruption of the fire (approximately 8:45 AM) to the explosion (9:04:35 AM), there was a time-frame of almost 20 minutes. However, the smoke may not have been immediately visible to the Gulnare. When it did become apparent a fire was in progress, the captain may have assumed the port was under enemy attack and decided to move the vessel just East of the Narrows. He would have then taken a position in front of the small spit of land to await further instructions or to simply assess the situation before deciding on a course of action. Records show Gulnare sustained minimal damage from the explosion - possibly protected by the spit of land.
Click on the image to see our proposed location of the explosion/boat photograph.
The boat's approximate position is indicated by the red dot (+ or -).
The photograph appears to have been taken from aboard a vessel also located close to the one mile radius of the explosion (See Debunking the 13 Mile Myth). A U.S. cargo ship named Clara appears on the Maritime Museum's list of the ships connected with the Halifax Explosion. As previously stated, Pierre felt this was actually the American troop ship, SS Santa Clara. However, the Pickford & Black records at PANS list a U.S. cargo ship named Clara weighing 2541/3932 (net/gross) tons as one of the 13 ships that entered the harbour on December 6, 1917. The SS Santa Clara came in at 6300 gross tons. Author/historian, John Griffith Armstrong, has kindly provided the Lloyd's Registry information that is consistent with the Pickford & Black records of December 6, 1917; indicating that Clara was most likely the "mystery American tramp steamer" that preceded Mont Blanc through the Narrows into Bedford Basin.
In the rough comparison below, SS Santa Clara is shown on the left. The ship on the right is closer in appearance to Mont Blanc and appears to better fit the description of the "mystery American tramp steamer". However, the vessel shown here is not the Clara in question. The Pickford and Black records show that Clara was of U.S. registry and left Halifax on December 11, 1917 as part of a European convoy headed by HMS Templar. I have not located a photograph of the actual Clara as yet.
During the Wreck Commissioner's inquiry that began on December 13, 1917, it was suggested by Charles Burchell, lawyer for Imo, that an unrecorded "mystery American tramp steamer", which preceded Mont Blanc into the Narrows, had "possibly sinister intentions" by passing Imo on the wrong side (starboard) thereby forcing her to change course and head down the harbour on the Dartmouth side - straight into the path of Mont Blanc. While on the witness stand, Pilot Edward Renner, who had been assigned to Clara, could not remember the name of the ship and Burchell exploited this lapse in memory and record-keeping to great advantage.
Additional information on the Halifax Explosion/boat photograph:
The U.S National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) gave me the following information on the 8" x 10" print saying there is no negative. "The Halifax explosion photo came to the National Archives as part of the Records of the War Department General and Special Staff (Record Group 165). It is credited to Underwood and Underwood." (View a limited catalogue of steroscopes)
It was difficult to compare the Halifax Explosion/boat photo with available photos of Gulnare. Angles and lenses were not copacetic. The close up of the Maritime Museum display shows possible distortions and light anomalies on the wheel house that happened during the fraction of a second it took to take the explosion photo. In truth, there were several other vessels in Bedford Basin that could possibly have been the one in the photograph. Although we could not be definitive in this regard, circumstantial evidence and its unique prow made Gulnare our most logical choice.
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