Ken Cuthbertson grew up hearing the stories.
With roots running deep into Nova Scotia, the veteran journalist spent countless summers as a boy on the coast visiting his mother’s side of the family. He was fascinated by their tales of ‘The Explosion’ that took place on Dec. 6, 1917. Born in 1921, his mother held vivid memories of the people affected by the tragic events that day.
“Living in Halifax, even in the early 1920s, the damage was still evident in the city,” Cuthbertson explained. “Some of her schoolmates had lost brothers or sisters, other family members, even parents. The whole thing about the explosion was integral to her experiences growing up.”
Recounting the events today, he echoes the words his mother often used to conclude her tales of the tragedy: “My god, they had it bad.”
Today, Cuthbertson, MA’75 (Journalism), has returned to the stories of his youth with the most detailed exploration of the event to date in his newest book, The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster.
A century ago this week, the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Norwegian war-relief vessel Imo collided in the harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia. That accident sparked a fire that resulted in an apocalyptic explosion, a shock wave and a tidal wave that killed more than 2,000 people and injured another 9,000. (Because of limited forensic tools and the ever-shifting population of Halifax as a main port for Canada, an accurate death toll will never be known. Some people “simply disappeared,” Cuthbertson said.)
Consider the incredible force of that explosion: Following the blast, the Mont-Blanc’s massive 90-mm gun landed six kilometres to the north and its half-ton anchor fell three kilometres south. It was the largest man-made blast prior to the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Given the magnitude, it is an event, Cuthbertson contends, that has embedded itself into the collective memory of a country.
“When I talk to people, and I mention the Halifax Explosion, most Canadians tend to know something about it,” he said. “It is amazing the number of people who either had a relative who was in Halifax and affected by the explosion, or know somebody who lost a relative, or know someone who was there, even though it was a hundred years ago now. That was a real surprise to me – how many ties we have to it.”
Although it’s far from the first book on the explosion, Cuthbertson’s tome differs from most in where it begins the story. Previous offerings start with ships colliding in the harbor followed almost immediately by the explosion.
The Halifax Explosion backs that timeline up and begins by exploring the backgrounds of the key figures involved, the histories of the ships and the confluence of circumstances that brought these two vessels together to touch off one of the most catastrophic man-made disasters of the 20th Century.
“The previous works all tended to be tales of woe, tales of destruction and the horrors of the explosion,” said Cuthbertson, a Kingston, Ont., native and current resident, with more than 30 years of experience writing for newspapers and magazines in Canada, the United States and United Kingdom. “But I love a good story. I was more intrigued by the back story, how this came to be.”
Cuthbertson’s work is a tale of individuals, from the little-known captains of the respective vessels to the regular people who lost their families and their own lives. For example, the story of Mary Jean Hinch still haunts him. Hinch lost 10 children and her husband in the explosion. Pregnant and alone, she was rescued after being pinned under lumber for 24 hours.
“When you put it in the broader context, the story is endlessly fascinating. One hundred years have passed, but this is the sort of accident that could happen today or tomorrow. Human nature does not change. In the aftermath, the people involved in the explosion pointed fingers and said, ‘I didn’t do it.’ Government officials did their best to cover up their own incompetence and, in some cases, absolute negligence,” he said.
“There are so many stories – of heroism, of suffering, of loss. Yet, these people were able to bounce back, often within days. They were restoring train service, restoring telegram service, people were going back to work. They were going on with their lives. If that happened today, CNN would be talking about it endlessly, the news cycle would play out for months. These people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and got on with life. Incredible.”
To compile his work, Cuthbertson accessed archives from Halifax and Ottawa, to Norway and France. He scoured family collections to unearth rare photographs, including never-before-seen images of the captains, Haakon From of the Imo and Aimé Le Medec of the Mont-Blanc.
He also used detailed coverage of the event and aftermath written by reporters of the era who worked at one of the five major newspapers covering Halifax. The stories were richly detailed, but thick with partisanship.
It occasionally reminded him of what is taking place today in chronicling world events.
“Journalism is moving more and more in that direction again – Trump and his whole notion of ‘fake news,’ ” he said. “When I read the reports of the explosion from those days, each had a definite political slant, almost all of them. I always had to be aware of the source – and often take their reports with a grain of salt.”
Beyond The Halifax Explosion, Cuthbertson is the author of numerous books, including Inside: The Biography of John Gunther, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction, and A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer and the American Century.
Cuthbertson earned a history degree from Queen’s University, and then landed at Western in the earliest days of the university’s Journalism graduate program in 1974. He remembers a tight-knit group of friends who remain connected today.
“The journalism world in those days – and even today, in some ways – depended upon who you knew and that led to the chances you got. My Western connections have paid off in so many ways over the years – I have met so many people who went to Western or knew of Western and that opened so many doors for me,” he explained.
Cuthbertson recounted how a shared Western connection brought him the assistance of both famed Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, LLD’03, who served as a visiting scholar at Western, and 60 Minutes journalist Morley Safer, who attended Western briefly before leaving to become a reporter, when Cuthbertson was working on A Complex Fate.
Today, he remains a storyteller on the lookout for the next tale.
“My kids will watch TV, watch movies, read these books that come in a series – and they just love the stories. Yet, when you start talking about history, their eyes glaze over,” he laughed. “Part of that is, history teachers for generations have droned on about memorizing dates and names of generals and politicians. It was all dry as dust. But if you tell the stories of these people, and the stories of regular people, that is endlessly fascinating. That is the fodder authors use to write movie scripts and books and all the rest of it that everyone else will pay money to read and watch.
“History should always be a story. I am endlessly fascinated by stories.”