Historical municipal sources on the Halifax Explosion

For the 100th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion in 2017, the Halifax Municipal Archives presented this summary of Explosion-related sources in its holdings. This rich and detailed documentation of Halifax and Dartmouth's response to the Explosion is provided through links to digitized copies of the original historical records. Follow the searchable links to have a direct connection to the events, decisions, and people who were affected by the catastrophe and involved in the relief and reconstruction efforts that followed.

The Nova Scotia Archives and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic are the local centres for research on the Halifax Explosion. The municipal sources provided here are an important complement to the records and artifacts held elsewhere.

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City of Halifax Council Minutes and Submissions

Black and white portrait of Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell, January 1917

Deputy Mayor Henry Colwell, Jan. 1917. (Gauvin & Gentzel Photographers). HMA CR13.16.3

By 11:30 a.m. on December 6, Deputy Mayor Colwell, five aldermen, and twelve citizens, including Lt. Gov. Macallum Grant and Justice Harris, assembled in the City Collector's Office, the only room in City Hall still serviceable after the damage. Incredibly, minutes were taken at these meetings, as they were at regular Council meetings. As the rescue and relief efforts got organized, those minutes document the City's immediate response, and as Council continued to deal with the aftermath, Explosion compensation and eventually commemoration, the Council minutes’ document Halifax's reaction to the Explosion. Included in the summaries are any relevant discussions and also any submissions to Council.

The submissions (102-1B) often include reports, letters, and supplementary information, and have also been digitized in order to be accessible to researchers.

View a summary of City Council discussions with links to the original minutes and submissions.

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City of Halifax Board of Control Minutes

The Halifax Board of Control (102-2) was established in the 1913 City Charter as the executive committee of the City Council. It was composed of the Mayor and four controllers, who were members of Council elected by the City for two year terms. Their minutes detail discussions and decisions made by the Board relating to the Halifax Explosion. The Board often submitted reports and other documents to the City Council, so it is helpful to review both minutes from the Board as well as the Council for a full picture. Submissions to the Board of Control are very limited and submissions from this time period are not known to exist.

The months following the Explosion were tumultuous and saw upheaval in municipal governance. Council no longer had quorum following the resignation of ten (of twelve) aldermen from the City Council between August 31 and September 3, 1918, leaving the Board of Control as the city's governing body. Until June 1919, Mayor Hawkins and the Board of Control ran the City. A plebiscite was held April 30, 1919, during which eligible voters voted to get rid of the Board of Control and revert to a city council made up of 18 aldermen, which had been in place up until the Board of Control was instated in 1913 (Roper, 63). Eighteen aldermen were elected in the municipal elections of May 28, 1919, and City Council was reinstated on June 3, 1919 (Roper, 63).

For more information on the Halifax Board of Control see: Roper, Henry (1985). "The Halifax Board of Control: The Failure of Municipal Reform, 1906-1919." Acadiensis, 14(2), 46-65.

View a summary of Board of Control discussions.

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Halifax Thanks Boston for Explosion Relief, 1918

Black and white photo of rows of canvas tents in the snow, with caption “Amid the Blinding Blizzard of Friday many found shelter in rows of canvas tents”

“Amid the Blinding Blizzard of Friday many found shelter in rows of canvas tents”. HMA 971.622.H17

Samuel W. McCall, Governor, Commonwealth of Massachusetts visited Halifax on November 7, 1918, to inspect the reconstruction of the areas devastated by the Halifax Explosion. Haligonians took the opportunity to shower the Governor with thanks for the immediate and on-going relief provided through the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee. Two hours after the Mont Blanc exploded, Boston received the plea for help sent out by telegraph operators. Governor McCall immediately sent a telegram to the Mayor of Halifax offering unlimited assistance. The first American medical relief train sped through snow to get to Halifax on December 8, 1917. Aid continued to flow from our American neighbours as the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee was set up in the days following the explosion.

Governor McCall's visit was initially planned for September 1918, but was postponed because of an outbreak of influenza in Boston. In their neighbour's time of need, Halifax eagerly sent doctors and nurses to help with the epidemic. When Governor McCall was able to visit in November, Mayor Arthur C. Hawkins and Lt. Gov. Grant received their honoured guest at City Hall along with an honour guard and a band playing The Star-Spangled Banner. City Clerk Fred Monaghan read an eloquent "civic address" (City of Halifax Board of Control minutes: 102-2A-1918-11-08).

The original address was "illuminated [decorated] in old English text, and was enclosed in a purple plush case." Efforts to locate the gift in Massachusetts' state repositories have so far been unsuccessful. The Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee records are held at the State Library's Special Collections.

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City of Halifax Civic Reports

The City of Halifax Reports (102-1I), also known as the Civic Reports, were prepared annually by the City Clerk of the reports from various City officials, departments, and committees. The summary below contains details relating to the Halifax Explosion by the City Auditor, the City Prison, the City Home, the Citizens’ Free Library, the Chief of Police, and the Fire Department.

View a summary of Annual Reports with links to the original 1917-1919 reports.

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City of Halifax Advisory Board to the Halifax Relief Commission - Special Committee minute books

Black and white photo of letterhead of The Halifax Relief Commission 139 Young Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Halifax Relief Commission letterhead

The City of Halifax formed special committees (102-1G) to deal with specific issues. Among these was the Relief Advisory Committee, formed following the Halifax Explosion in order to aid the Halifax Relief Commission, which was in charge of reconstruction efforts. The Advisory Committee was initially to be comprised of Mayor Hawkins, Controller Finlay, and Aldermen Godwin and Parker who were elected to the Committee by Council on May 6, 1918. The first meeting was held on May 14, 1918, and the Committee met regularly thereafter to discuss the multifaceted effects of the Explosion. The Committee often met with T. Sherman Rogers, Chairman of the Halifax Relief Commission, and the summaries of meetings below show the interactions between the two jurisdictions as they debated the best way to aid Halifax and its residents affected by the Explosion, especially in determining how the various costs would be divided up, and who would be in control of town planning in the redeveloped areas.

View a summary of meeting topics (102-1G v.3) with links to digitized copies of the minutes.

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Special Committee Investigating Liquor Theft at City Hall

Black and white photo of City Hall Layout

"The Great “Burglary Mystery” at City Hall. Evening Mail, January 10, 1918.

In January 1918, newspapers accused City officials of stealing confiscated liquor from provincial Liquor Inspector Tracey’s office in City Hall following the Explosion. The front page of the Herald showed a sketch of City Hall and the following caption:

"The Great 'Burglary Mystery' at City Hall: The above sketch shows the interior of the City Hall and Inspector Tracey’s office, which has been “burglarized” several times within the past few weeks, and quantities of 'booze' taken away. The daring 'burglars' got in their work notwithstanding the fact that police officers were on GUARD in different sections of the building and were stationed within sight and smell of Inspector Tracey’s office--which is located on the Council Chamber floor, between the Council Chamber and the Public Library. Will the Forty Detectives and Sleuth Hounds be able to Unravel this great 'Mystery?' The star, shown in the sketch, indicates the entrance door to the inspector’s office." 

View a larger version of the newspaper article.

A special committee was formed to investigate the accusations. The minutes of their meetings and transcripts of the investigation interviews are included in the Special Committee Minute Books (102-1G v.3). Some of the interviews detail individual’s responses following the Explosion, the damage done to City Hall, and some immediate relief efforts which took place following the Explosion, which have been noted in summary below.

View a summary of the investigation with links to digitized copies of the Committee's minutes.

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Dartmouth’s Response to the Explosion

The Dartmouth Heritage Museum presents an exhibit:  Explosion! Dartmouth’s Ordeal of the 1917 Disaster

Town of Dartmouth Council Minutes

The Dartmouth Town Council Minutes (101-1A) consists of minutes of regular and special council meetings, which were taken by the Town/City Clerk. Minutes from meetings after the Halifax Explosion, beginning on December 24, 1917, show how the Council dealt with the many issues that arose after the disaster.

Unfortunately, the original submissions (including letters and reports to Town Council) are not known to have survived from this time period. Letters were read into the Council minutes, however, and this content is available through the digitized content linked to each meeting. 

View the Dartmouth Council meeting topics, with links to digitized copies of the minutes.

Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports

The Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports (101-1M) contain reports from town officials, departments, and committees This summary for the 1917-1919 Annual Reports include reports from the Mayor, the Fire Committee,  the Finance Committee, the Streets and Public Property Committee, the Auditor, the Committee on Charities, the Water and Sewerage Committee, the Health Officer, the Board of School Commissioners, the School Medical Inspector, the Ferry Commission, and the Parks Commission, which provide details on how each was specifically affected by the Explosion and the responses to the disaster.

Read the Town of Dartmouth Annual Reports related to the Explosion.

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City Clerk's Office subject and historical reference files

The City of Halifax Clerk’s Office subject files and historical reference files (102-5-1) provide a rich source of information for many events and topics, including some related to the Halifax Explosion.

View the summary of files with links to digitized copies.

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Committee on Public Parks, Gardens, and Commons records

Sepia photo of Public Gardens letterhead under City of Halifax crest.

Public Gardens letterhead

The effects of the Explosion weren't limited to the north end; southern areas of Halifax were damaged as well, including the Public Gardens. View a summary of the minutes of the Board of Commissioners of Halifax Common, and reports of the Superintendent (102-7) reviewing the damage sustained by the Public Gardens and the Halifax Common from the Explosion.

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City of Halifax, Mayor’s Office Correspondence: Halifax Relief Commission

The Municipal Archives does not have Mayor’s Office records earlier than 1922; the expected richness of communications the Mayor of Halifax would have received after the Explosion has been lost.

One later file (102-3B-34A) includes correspondence between Mayor Albert Audley Thompson and the Halifax Relief Commission in 1933-1934. A letter from an Explosion survivor is forwarded from a Boston lawyer to the Mayor. The Mayor forwards the request for assistance for injuries sustained to the Relief Commission, who then takes over correspondence with the survivor. Personal information has been removed from the digitized copy of the letter.

In 1993, Mayor Moira Ducharme kept a file for the 75th anniversary commemorations (102-3-5-009).

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Halifax Police Department duty book, Dec. 6, 1917

Police duty books (102-16C) record the officers on duty on each day/night watch. The entry for December 6, 1917 is marked “9:05 a.m. Explosion.” While attendance of policemen reporting for duty was typically consistent, the entries after Dec. 6 show many policemen went from listed as "Duty" to "Sick" (4 policemen) or "Leave" (7 policemen).

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Halifax Fire Department records

A Tribute to the Halifax Fire Department on the 85th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion

Front cover of McCarron’s docu-comic, 2002. HMA VFE-158-E

Halifax's firefighters were among the first to respond to the fire on the Mont Blanc. As they rushed to Pier 6, the Explosion hit, killing 8 firefighters with its blast. Unfortunately, few Explosion-era Fire Department records have survived; the Board of Firewards minutes are missing from 1913-1928, and the "Record of Fire" ledgers that record each incident the department responded to have a gap between Nov. 20, 1917 and 1919. The only surviving records are the mournful "Accidents and Deaths" section of the Chief's 1917-1918 Annual Report, with the Chief describing it as "the saddest year our Department has had in its history."

In 2002 Owen McCarron created an historical docu-comic entitled "A Tribute to the Halifax Fire Department on the 85th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion" (HMA VFE-158-E). The award-winning cartoonist was an avid historian, and was working on a publication for the 100th Anniversary of the Explosion when he died in 2005.

We gratefully acknowledge the permission granted by Mr. McCarron's family to post this digitized copy of his docu-comic.

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Property Damage reports

Two files in the City Engineer's records document details of the damage sustained by and repairs needed to City-owned buildings:

  • Explosion Damage inspection reports, 1917-1919 (102-39C-2) File consists of inspection reports of damage from the Halifax Explosion and repair-work undertaken to buildings such as Richmond School, Common School on Richmond Street, houses on West Young Street, John Street, City Hall, City Home, City workshops, Central Engine House, Bloomfield High School, Chebucto Road School, Tower Road School, St. Joseph's Girls School, Alexander McKay School, Joseph Howe School, Alexandra School. One Feb. 18 document reports on the estimated dollar value of damage done to each city-owned building, including fire stations and schools.
  • Explosion Damage estimates, 1918 (102-39C-3) File consists of documents relating to damages caused by the Halifax Explosion, primarily to City-owned buildings such as City Hall, fire engine houses, City Yard, City Market Building, City Home, Rock Head Prison, the Infectious Disease Hospital, the Small Pox Hospital, and schools, but also to private dwellings and businesses, such as Calder and Fraser Corn Mill. Includes estimates of repair costs for masonry, and architects' damage assessments.

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Property Assessment and Building  Permit records

Repair to house damaged by Explosion

Request for permits to repair buildings skyrocketed in the months following the Explosion. These application cards can give a sense of the damage done and the cost of repairs. See two samples from Agricola St.: (102-39I)

Property assessment rolls are available at the Municipal Archives for both Halifax and Dartmouth. A comparison of property assessments in the devastated areas both before and after the Halifax Explosion could be a fruitful research project.

Halifax Property Assessments: (102-19A)

Dartmouth Property Assessments: (101-19A).

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City Home registers

The City Home, formerly known as the Halifax Poor Asylum, housed not only the City’s poor but also senior citizens, orphaned children, people with mental and physical health conditions, and essentially anyone unable to care for themselves. The City Home registers show an increase in admissions of both children and adults on December 6, 1917, immediately following the Halifax Explosion. The records may provide information to genealogical researchers, as they include name, age, religion, birth place, and dates of admission, discharge, or death. The registers are available on microfilm at the Municipal Archives (102-33A, vols. A.30 and A.31) .

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Town Planning Board records

The Town Planning Board (102-40) was established in 1916 and consisted of seven members including councillors, residents, and the City Engineer. The Board met sporadically until regular meetings were established around 1940. The summaries below highlight meetings with content relating to the Explosion. The nascent Town Planning Board played a minor role post-Explosion, as the Halifax Relief Commission asserted control over town planning and reconstruction within the devastated area. At least one meeting was held jointly between the two boards.

Read the summary of Town Planning Board minutes, with links to digitized content.

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Halifax Board of School Commissioner's records

The minutes of the Halifax Board of School Commissioners (102-53-2) document the effect of the Explosion on local schools.

Read the summary of Board minutes.

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City Engineer's Office maps and plans

As the City worked with the Halifax Relief Commission to plan and redevelop the devastated areas, many maps, architectural plans, and technical drawings were created by the Engineering and Works Department (102-39P).

See the list of City Engineer's plans relating to the rebuilding of the City's north end. Plans can be viewed at the Municipal Archives. Digital copies and more details about the plans will be added in the future.

Nova Scotia Archives also holds many plans of the Halifax Relief Commission.

Halifax Planning Department Fort Needham Memorial Park reference file, 1982-1987

This Halifax Planning Department reference file (102-105-3-14) contains news clippings, council minutes, correspondence from survivors, and reports on the controversial location and development of Fort Needham as a memorial park and site of the Halifax Explosion Memorial. The digitized copy of the reference file has had some personal information redacted.

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Lou Collins' Halifax Explosion reference files

Local historian Louis Collins was active in organizing the commemorations of the anniversaries of the Halifax Explosion. Collins was the City's Civic Historian at the time Fort Needham was being developed as a site for the Explosion Memorial Bells. His reference files contain details on commemorative initiatives, as well as some Explosion-era material he collected. See the summaries and links below. Follow the links below to view digital copies of these files.

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Halifax Explosion Funeral Service Program, 1917

Colour image of cover of funeral program

Program from funeral service for unidentified victims, December 17, 1917. HMA CR30B.32

“Funeral Service held at Halifax, Nova Scotia on Monday, December 17th, 1917 of the Unidentified Dead who lost their lives in the Great Catastrophe, Thursday, December 6th, 1917.” View the full program.

This file also contains December 6, 1917, a poem by gr. gaines [sic].

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Deeds, Documents Halifax Explosion, United Memorial Church, [196?]

This reference file contains a deed and indenture between the Grove Presbyterian Church and the Halifax Relief Commission, and a map (p. 22) of Halifax showing the area devastated by the Explosion, and an alphabetical list of those who were killed during the blast (CR30B.48).

Halifax Explosion Memorial Evening, 1977

This reference file contains a poster for the Concerts in Historic Settings, Series 5: A Halifax Explosion Memorial Evening: An Evening of Words and Music event, organized by the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia to commemorate the 60th anniversary, and held on Saturday, December 3, 1977 (CR30A.131).

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Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee, 1981-84

Black and white photo of logo

Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee letterhead

This reference file (CR30D.58) contains:

  • Letter dated January 5, 1981 from Ron Wallace, Mayor of Halifax, to Otis C. O’Hara discussing the rehousing of the bells as a memorial to the victims of the Explosion

  • Invitation from Judge Robert E. Inglis, Q.C., and the Honourable Edmund Morris, M.L.A., to the Sod Turning Ceremony for the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower at Fort Needham on Friday, June 1, 1984

  • Letter from M.H. Frank Harrington from the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee to Keith L. Graham re: excavation techniques for the Needham Memorial Bell Tower and potential archaeological material at the site

 

Halifax Explosion Bells Monument Ground breaking, [1984]

Black and white photo of Lou Collins digging with a shovel beneath an excavator, with City officials looking on.

Lou Collins inspects for archaeological remains of Fort Needham. HMA CR30A.120.1

Lou Collins was a participant at the ground breaking ceremony for the Memorial Bells Monument, and included a subject file about it in his research (CR30A.120). The file contains a letter from Alexandra “Sandra” E. Carter to Lou Collins which accompanied this photograph of Lou Collins inspecting soil for archaeological remains of Fort Needham during construction of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (HMA CR30A.120.1). Collins encouraged close monitoring of all the excavation work to ensure preservation of any artifacts. Also pictured are Frank Harrington, Memorial Bells Committee; Bill Sutherland, Jacques Whitford and Associates; and John Dow, Whitman Benn and Associates. 

Photograph taken by Wamboldt-Waterfield Photography, and appeared in a local newspaper April 21, 1984. Published with permission.

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Halifax Explosion – Geomarine Associates Project, 1985

“Study of the December 6, 1917 Halifax Explosion using the recollections of senior citizens in Atlantic Canada: Review of the Study to Date, Future Plans, Schedule and Proposed Budget” (CR30B.122).

Alan Ruffman Research Project Re: Halifax Explosion, 1985-1990

Documentation relating to Alan Ruffman’s project, including a letter of appraisal from Lou Collins to The Canada Council (CR30B.123).

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Halifax Explosion Commemoration Committee, 1991

This Committee organized the 75th Anniversary ceremonies. Their file from 1991 (CR30D.83) contains:

  • Agenda for the April 8, 1991 Halifax Explosion Commemoration Committee meeting discussing the 75th Anniversary ceremony

  • Handwritten notes from Lou Collins (May 8, 1991) re: 75th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion ceremony (December 6, 1992)

  • Newspaper article “Dartmouth of Yesterday” (Dartmouth This Week, September 15, 1983, p.10) discussing the Mi’kmaq village at Tufts Cove that was destroyed by the Explosion

  • Notes on the 1917 Explosion Commemoration Committee

  • Letter from Janet Kitz, Chair of the Committee, to Lou Collins

  • List of the members of the Committee

  • Committee meeting minutes, May 8, 1991

The Committee’s file from 1992 (CR30D.84) contains:

  • Minutes from the eighth meeting of the Commemoration Committee held on June 15, 1992

  • Messenger of Hell by Wilbert Forrest Davidson

  • Copy of the special report “The Unsung Seamen” from McLean’s Magazine, July 6, 1992

  • Copy of the article “Halifax Blown Up” from Doctor’s Review, June 1992

  • The 1917 Explosion 75th Anniversary Events Planned (as of September 3, 1992) including details of each event, date, and organizer

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1917 Explosion Conference, 1992

In 1992 an academic conference was planned for the 75th Anniversary of the Explosion. Collins’ reference file (CR30A.43) on the conference contains:

  • Minutes from the April 15, 1992 meeting for the 1917 Explosion Conference Program Committee, which include the following attachments:

    • Agenda

    • Chair’s February 24 – April 7, 1992 report

    • Copy of flyer and the ‘Call for Papers’ with June 20, 1992 deadline

    • List of abstracts and titles [and authors] received to date

    • March 30, 1992 list of other Explosion-related events and their status as compiled by the Halifax 1917 Explosion Commemoration Committee

    • List of the Explosion Conference’s Committees

    • Abstracts received (May 12, 1992)

  •  Memo to Program Committee – Notice of Meeting – Monday, September 21, 1992

The Conference Program Committee file (CR30A.154) contains correspondence between, from and to members of the Program Committee for the 1917 Explosion Conference, including conference schedules, abstracts for proposed papers, agendas for meetings, and letters from presenters.

Halifax Explosion 75th Anniversary, 1992-1993

Collins’ general file on the 75th Anniversary (CR30A.121) contains:

  • 1 medal, compliments of Mayor Moira Ducharme on the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1992

  • Also included is Lou Collins’ name tag from the 1917 Explosion: Collision in Halifax Harbour and its Consequences conference

Draft: untitled essay on Halifax Explosion

One-page draft of an untitled, undated essay by Lou Collins (CR30I.92)

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Postcards of the Halifax Explosion

Series of 12 black and white postcards published by Underwood & Underwood, NY. (CR30E-1-1)

Views of the Halifax Catastrophe

Views of the Halifax catastrophe: showing effects of explosion December sixth, 1917. (1917). Halifax, NS: Royal Print & Litho Limited (971.622 .H17). This publication came out shortly after the Explosion and includes "Forty Views--showing extent of damage in Canada’s historic city as the result of terrific explosion on Thursday, December 6th, 1917, which killed 1500 men, women and children; injured 3000 and rendered 6000 homeless; causing property damage of nearly $50,000,000.” 

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Other Primary and Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources

Primary Sources about the Halifax Explosion at other Repositories

Student work for this guide was funded through the Department of Canadian Heritage's Young Canada Works in Heritage Organizations.

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