In Episode 175, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll Boston Common to see this year’s Christmas tree. The tree is an annual gift from the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia – a gift that traces its roots back to a horrible tragedy that took place December 6, 1917, when a French ship carrying munitions exploded, instantly killing hundreds of people, and injuring thousands more. Out of this dark day came a bright light of hope when neighbors reached out to help neighbors.
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[LIGHT CHRISTMAS MUSIC]
RAY: I love Boston at Christmas, Jeff! Maybe it’s the pandemic, but I feel like these holiday lights mean even more right now.
JEFF: It’s almost like they know they need to shine a little brighter because we could use the extra cheer this year. Though there aren’t too many people out here on the Boston Common right now, I love seeing all of the lights and decorations.
RAY: Hey, check out this year’s Christmas tree. It’s a 45-foot-tall white spruce. It’s a beauty! Covered in thousands of lights.
JEFF: The whole ceremony this year looked a lot different compared to previous years.
RAY: Sure, you can’t have thousands of people crowding together in Boston Common, but I feel like the spirit is still here even if we’re not standing shoulder to shoulder. But how I miss the big crowds and getting together. It’s tough to see a tradition have to change this year.
JEFF: Traditions always evolve and change. But one part of this Boston Christmas tree tradition that hasn’t changed, is where the tree came from. This tree, as with all of Boston’s Christmas trees for the last 49 years, is a gift from the people of Nova Scotia. It’s a thank-you gift that traces its roots to a horrible December disaster.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 175 – The Christmas Special – of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, Boston, Massachusetts, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. And because it’s our Christmas special, we’re sipping some Christmas tea courtesy of our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: Nuwati Herbals has been sponsoring our podcast all month long, and we appreciate it! Ray and I have been enjoying their unique teas, bath salts, soaps, and other Native American-inspired products good for the mind, body, and soul. Herbal remedies from Mother Earth. But yeah, their Christmas tea is a special treat this month. It tastes like the holidays.
RAY: Ready to kick up your Nuwati Christmas tea, Jeff?
JEFF: What do you got there? Are those candy canes?
RAY: Oh yeah. Stir up their Christmas tea with a candy cane to give it a little peppermint kick. (SIPS) Mmmmm. NOW it’s Christmas.
JEFF: I love it! These good folks have all kinds of teas and products we think you will also love. AND our legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.
RAY: So Jeff, the Christmas tree on Boston Common traces its roots to a disaster?
JEFF: A horrible disaster, Ray. One of the worst ever. But wherever things go bad, there are also everyday heroes. Fred Rogers… better known as Mr. Rogers to children across America, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” So though this is a story about a deadly disaster, it’s also a story about hope, help, and gratitude. To set this up, we’re going to head north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, all the way back to December of 1917.
RAY: It’s the morning of December 6th, 1917, and the world is at war.
[MACHINE GUNS AND CANNONS]
RAY: Here in the harbor of Halifax, ships are busy helping with the war effort. Supplies, troops, and ammunition area heading over to Europe to support the war effort. A French freight ship called the SS Mont-Blanc is fully loaded with explosives bound for Europe. The Mont-Blanc is a 320 feet long coal-fired steamer weighing in at just over 3100 gross tons. On the deck are barrels loaded with benzol, which is a fuel mixture of coal and tar. The Mont-Blanc is crawling at approximately one knot, or a little over one mile per hour, in a straight connecting the upper Halifax Harbor to the Bedford Basin.
JEFF: At the same time, a Norwegian steamer vessel called the SS Imo, is speeding its way through the straits to make up for the time lost loading coal this morning. The Imo is owned by the White Star Line, the same company that owned Titanic, which of course sank in the icy north Atlantic waters just six years ago. The Imo is 430 feet long and weighs just over 5,000 gross tons. The Imo is heading to New York to pick up relief supplies for the war, so her cargo hold is currently empty, and the ship is travelling too fast—well above the harbor’s speed limit—and weaving its way through traffic. Smaller ships are trying to give way, but the larger vessels can’t exactly turn on a dime. Three-quarters of a mile away, the Imo spots the Mont-Blanc.
[SHIP HORN SHORT BLAST]
RAY: The Mont Blanc gives a short blast of her horn indicating she has the right of way.
[SHIP HORN TWO SHORT BLASTS]
JEFF: But the Imo responds with two shorts blasts indicating she’s not going to yield.
RAY: The Mont-Blanc cuts her engines and angles to the starboard.
[SHIP HORN SHORT BLAST]
[SHIP HORN TWO SHORT BLASTS]
JEFF: More blasts from each ship’s horns, and suddenly it’s clear there is going to be a collision. The Imo cuts her engines, but their momentum is still pushing them forward through the water. (PAUSE) The two ships are almost parallel to each other now, and that’s when the Imo reverses her engines. The Imo is empty, so the sudden reverse of engines sends its prow pushing into the Number 1 hold on Mont-Blanc’s starboard side.
RAY: It’s 8:45 AM when the collision occurs. Though the damage to the Mont-Blanc isn’t too bad, the impact is enough to knock some of those benzol barrels loose on the deck of the Mont-Blanc. And now a few have tumbled over and are spilling onto the deck and into the hold below.
JEFF: As Imo’s engines kick in reverse, the ship starts to pull out of the Mont Blanc.
[METAL SCRAPING SOUND]
RAY: Sparks fly from the metal of the two ships rubbing together, and now that benzol has ignited below deck right at the waterline.
RAY: The fire quickly travels up the side of the Mont Blanc and now we have a serious emergency.
JEFF: The crew of both ships are well aware of the impact, and now the crew of the Mont Blanc can see there’s a fire. Everyone on board knows what they’re carrying in their cargo hold.
JEFF: But as more benzol barrels catch fire, and the heat intensifies, it’s clear, this blaze is quickly getting out of control and spreading through the wooden decks.
RAY: The Captain of the Mont Blanc knows there is no hope. He orders his crew to abandon ship with all possible haste. Meanwhile, the blazing fire is drawing the attention of every nearby boat, and people in buildings on the shore. Everyone is coming out to see the spectacle.
JEFF: As the Mont Blanc lifeboats are frantically rowing to shore, the crew is screaming for people to take cover.
JEFF: The crew know the Mont Blanc may very well explode. But no one on shore can make out what the crew are yelling with all of the noise and confusion.
RAY: With no crew and the engines off, the Mont Blanc slowly drifts and then beaches herself at Pier 6 near Richmond Street. All the while, the fire is growing in intensity.
JEFF: Nearby boats are racing toward the burning ship. A tug with a fire hose starts spraying down the blazing ship hoping to save the pier and the buildings along the water, but it’s obvious the fire is too big for the tug’s lone firehose.
RAY: Another vessel tries to attach a rope to the stern of the Mont Blanc in the hopes of towing it away from the pier. It’s 9:04 AM. About 19 minutes after the initial impact, and getting the Mont Blanc harnessed isn’t going well…. Seconds later… the fire reaches the Mont Blanc cargo hold.
RAY: The Mont Blanc explodes.
JEFF: Blast waves fan out at 3,000 feet per second. The Mont Blanc is instantly vaporized launching molten metal in all directions. The initial shockwave leveled nearby buildings, destroying everyone and everything in its path for about 400 acres. A plume of smoke rises two miles high, and debris from the explosion lands more than three miles away. 1,600 people are killed instantly, and 9,000 more are injured. The shockwaves are so powerful that even the buildings that aren’t instantly destroyed have their stoves knocked over, setting off fires throughout the city.
RAY: In a matter of seconds, the city of Halifax is dealing with the biggest humanitarian crisis in its history.
JEFF: Weary survivors believe they’re under attack, so the military mobilizes to defend the city. It takes hours of confusion and horror for people to realize what happened: an accident led to an explosion, and now people need shelter, food, and medical attention.
RAY: The news goes out in all directions on the wire. Within hours, word hits the desk of Mayor James Curley of Boston, who sends a telegram to Consul General Evan Young in Halifax.
MAYOR CURLEY: The City of Boston extends a heartfelt measure of sympathy to the stricken city of Halifax. Governor McCall of Massachusetts has called a great mass meeting to devise ways and means by which all our citizens may aid in behalf of this international emergency and in which our historic city will join with every means at its command. The City of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822 and will not be found wanting in this instance. James M. Curley, Mayor of Boston.
RAY: Within hours, Massachusetts is mobilizing doctors, nurses, aid workers, and medical supplies and sending them north.
[HAMMER AND SAW]
RAY: In record time volunteers from Massachusetts build temporary apartment buildings to house upwards of 2000 people who were left homeless from the blast.
JEFF: Everyone is pitching in to help their neighbors in Halifax. And it being December, Christmas is still coming. Even though a dark cloud hangs over the holiday considering how many people died, and how many homes were destroyed, a lot of Massachusetts volunteers are staying up here in Halifax for the holidays, and they know a little Christmas can help.
[SOFT CHRISTMAS MUSIC]
JEFF: The volunteers from Massachusetts start decorating the hospitals where they’re working. They’re putting up Christmas trees. And though a Christmas tree isn’t go to fix a burn victim’s skin, or heal a broken limb, it does spread some much-needed cheer during a dark time. In the coming months, Halifax rebuilds, and moves on.
RAY: From here we jump ahead one year to December of 1918. Folks in Nova Scotia haven’t forgotten what their friends in Massachusetts did to help. As a thank you, they send down a big Christmas tree to the City of Boston for helping after the disaster. Boston helped, because that’s what good neighbor do. But the Christmas tree gift was thoughtful.
JEFF: From here we jump ahead to 1971. That’s the year Nova Scotia once again sends a Christmas tree to Boston in honor of the assistance lent 54 years earlier. That tree was put up in the Prudential Center. Since 1971, that tradition has continued every single year. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: In 1973, Nova Scotia still sent a tree, but because the nation was stuck in an energy crisis, the tree was lit for only 30 minutes on the day of the lighting, and then for a few hours on Christmas Eve.
JEFF: In more recent years, the tree is now erected in the Boston Common, which is where we find it today.
RAY: And of course this year the lighting ceremony looked different because of Covid and social distancing.
JEFF: But the tree still arrived as a gift from Nova Scotia, just as it has every year for the last 49 years. And though we don’t have crowds standing here shoulder-to-shoulder, we have pictures, there have been livestreams, and television broadcasts. We make adjustments, because that’s what the times call for.
RAY: That’s what this holiday has always called for. You make adjustments to make it fit the world we’re in at the time, but the traditions go way back.
JEFF: This Christmas tree is here in Boston because a horrible accident took place in Halifax just over a century ago. But in the darkest of times, when all seems just about lost, there’s always people who will stop their lives to help those in need. It seems a fitting holiday to remember that. Merry Christmas, Ray.
RAY: Merry Christmas, Jeff.
RAY: And Merry Christmas to you legendary listeners, no matter what you celebrate, or don’t celebrate, we’re glad you come along with us each week.
JEFF: We love it when you share our stories with your friends on social media. And be sure to subscribe because it’s free, and post a review for us. That goes a long way in helping others find us.
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JEFF: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week, we’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Eliza Dhaka from Bristol, Rhode Island until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.