Shortly after 9 o’clock on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, Charlottetown felt, “a severe shock”.
As The Guardian reported the next day: “Houses rocked, doors slammed, pictures swung from their positions and people were dreadfully alarmed.”
In The Guardian offices, the typesetting machines were almost knocked over, and the telephones immediately began ringing with anxious calls for information. An explosion at a New Glasgow armaments plant was initially suspected, but the truth was far worse: the munitions ship Mont-Blanc, after an accidental collision in Halifax Harbour, had caught fire and then erupted in one the largest man-made blasts the world had ever seen, laying waste to large areas of Halifax and Dartmouth.
The early dispatches in The Guardian captured the desperate confusion and concern of the early aftermath: “... at the time of writing word has reached here that Halifax is on fire. ... Details still lacking, impossible to get in touch with Halifax.” Wartime paranoia deepened the confusion: “ ... it is assumed that the collision is no accident.”
The Conservative Guardian had likely planned the Dec. 7 issue as a celebration of the Dec. 6 election campaign visit to P.E.I. by Sir Robert Borden. It quickly became clear, however, that electioneering-as-usual would have to be suspended: when Borden addressed a Dec. 6 evening rally in Charlottetown, he acknowledged, “the great calamity,” in Halifax.
Within a few hours, an emergency midnight sailing of SS Aranmore was carrying the Prime Minister from Charlottetown to Pictou, where a special train for Halifax awaited him. Accompanying Borden was P.E.I.'s first Halifax relief contingent, comprised of a doctor and 14 nurses from the Prince Edward Island Hospital.
By Dec. 12, The Guardian was able to report that the Island had sent some $3,700 worth of food to Halifax, along with three motor trucks and drivers; a second contingent of Island nurses also departed for Halifax that day.
A large benefit concert for the Halifax Relief Fund was held on Dec. 19, and the fund attracted more than $2,000 in pledges by month’s end.
On Boxing Day, the Mayor of Charlottetown personally led a team of 35 workmen – all placed on the city payroll – to assist with repair work in Halifax, and The Guardian of Dec. 28 reported offers to take in more than 220 children in response to its call on behalf of the Halifax Orphan Fund.
Island concern for the fate of Halifax and its residents was understandable. Ties between P.E.I. and Halifax – the Maritimes’ largest population centre and a regional hub of commerce, education, and transport – had always been strong, and the war amplified this connection, as Halifax became the main port of transit for military personnel travelling to and from Europe. Many Islanders were also stationed in Halifax, as fear of German attack saw the city develop into a major fortress, guarding her vital port.
Remarkably, however, Island military casualties in the explosion appear to have been few: the largest P.E.I. contingent in the area, the Heavy Battery on McNab’s Island, sent a terse cable, printed in The Guardian on Dec. 7, reporting “Prince Edward Island detachment all well,” though it was later reported that the battery commander’s wife, visiting Halifax at the time of the blast, had been injured. Reports of Island servicemen miraculously unscathed were soon received from elsewhere around Halifax, even from aboard the HMCS Niobe and from the Wellington Barracks in north-end Halifax, both of which were heavily damaged.
Others were less fortunate: by the end of December, The Guardian had carried reports of at least a dozen current or former P.E.I. residents injured – some very seriously – in the Halifax Explosion and of others who had lost homes or property. Amazingly, however, there appears to have only one P.E.I. fatality confirmed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: Sgt. Ernest Carr of Charlottetown was buried under the wreckage of his Halifax residence after the blast. His wife, also trapped in the rubble, survived, but she was so badly injured that she was unable to accompany her husband’s body back to Charlottetown.
Mercifully, however, such grim stories were outweighed by more numerous reports reassuring P.E.I. families that relatives or friends were “Safe In Halifax”.