Object of the Month

News of the Halifax Explosion Reaches Boston

Henry Adams diary, two pages with entries for 6-7 December 1917 Manuscript

Henry Adams diary, two pages with entries for 6-7 December 1917


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    The 1917 Halifax Explosion is commemorated each year in Boston by the display of a towering public Christmas tree, the gift of the citizens of Nova Scotia in gratitude for an outpouring of aid from Massachusetts during the Christmas season one hundred years ago. In his diary entry for 6 December 1917, the day of the explosion, Boston trustee and family archivist Henry Adams briefly described news from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a ship loaded with explosives had caught fire and blown up, leaving thousands dead or terribly injured and destroying much of the city. As he received more information, Adams added more details in his diary, writing on 11 December, "Halifax horror grows."

    The Halifax Explosion

    While Henry Adams, who worked in the financial heart of Boston, had access to more current and accurate information than many people who recorded their reaction to the tragedy, his diary description is not entirely accurate. Two ships, the Imo and the Mt. Blanc, had collided in Halifax Harbor, as he describes it, but only the Mt. Blanc was laden with explosives. Her main cargo was not TNT, as he thought, but thousands of tons of picric acid, an even more powerful and unstable explosive. The destruction of the Mt. Blanc—the ship dissolved into molten fragments some of which fell miles from the site of the explosion—was accompanied by a blinding light, a tremendous shock wave, and a mushroom cloud—man-made destruction of unparalleled violence until the onset of the nuclear age.

    Massachusetts to the Rescue

    The Halifax Explosion took place a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. on 6 December 1917. News arrived in Boston by telegraph an hour later, and was in the hands of Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall by 11:00 a.m. Even though the information McCall received was only fragmentary, he wired in reply, "Massachusetts stands ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of," and immediately called a meeting of the state Committee of Public Safety. In some respects Massachusetts was well prepared for an emergency: the United States had been at war since April 1917, and there had been broad local support for military and civilian preparedness even before the declaration of war. On the other hand, state national guard units and many staff members from Boston-area hospitals, the state's best-trained emergency personnel, were on their way to, or already had arrived in France. Nevertheless, by 10:00 p.m. on 6 December—the same evening—the first relief train loaded with medical personnel and supplies left Boston for Halifax.

    The relief train's trip itself became an epic. Although the train was stopped by a blizzard, as news along the line from Halifax became more clear—and dire—the Massachusetts relief party wired for additional supplies even before reaching the disaster site. The Halifax Explosion took place at the beginning of a harsh winter and emergency housing turned out to be of vital importance. A large number of people had been injured or blinded by glass fragments and it appeared to the rescuers that every pane of glass in the city needed to be replaced. While generous assistance came from across Canada and elsewhere in New England and the United States, the rapid, ongoing, and—most crucially--practical assistance of Boston-based government and voluntary organizations fixed the association of Massachusetts with the rescue effort in the minds of Haligonians (inhabitants of Halifax).


    Diary entries can be frustratingly incomplete or uninformative about matters of interest to present-day researchers. Henry Adams begins his entry for 6 December 1917 not with an account of the Halifax Explosion but of an ear examination and hearing test. Adams's diary entry runs the gamut of his concerns—from weather to his own health to current events and the ongoing European War. Although he was more than forty, Adams had been an active participant in war preparedness training—the Plattsburgh preparedness movement—and was very anxious for military service. If his hearing did not improve, he would not be eligible for active duty. His matter-of-fact statement that the news of the Halifax Explosion "had a depressing effect on stocks" reflects not cold-heartedness but his work as the family financial manager.

    Other diary accounts of the explosion in the Massachusetts Historical Society's collection contain the same mix of horrified reaction to the news and more mundane concerns. Marian Lawrence Peabody called it a "horrible calamity," but public sympathy for the survivors would undermine her fundraising on behalf of the YWCA. Government reformer George R. Nutter was so deeply involved in the heated Boston mayoral race that he had no time or space in his diary for more than passing comment on this news from afar. Framingham high school teacher Robert W. Streeter noted mass meetings for the support of the disaster victims as opportunities to escape to the city on weekends. And there was much other national and especially international news to digest: an armistice in Russia; a German-Austrian offensive in Italy; the tank-led British offensive at Cambrai on the Western Front; and the capture of Jerusalem by forces of the British Empire all competed for people's notice and comment.

    Who Was Henry Adams?

    Henry Adams (or "Henry Adams, 2nd," as he was known to distinguish him from his famous uncle, the historian Henry Brooks Adams) was born in 1875 in Quincy, Massachusetts, within sight of the residence of his great-great grandfather, President John Adams.  Henry and his twin brother John were sons of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and Mary Ogden Adams. Both brothers attended Harvard College and then were sent by their father to oversee the family's extensive landholdings and real estate speculations in the Pacific Northwest. Henry's brother John soon moved on to Kansas City, but Henry divided his time between the Northwest and Boston. After his father's death in 1915, Henry returned to take charge of family finances in Massachusetts. He worked in Boston and lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where his family had moved in 1893.

    In spite of his impaired hearing, in the summer of 1918 Adams travelled to France as a Red Cross volunteer working near Verdun where troops from Massachusetts served—and continuing to record his observations and reflections in his diary. After the Armistice, he embarked on a more exotic adventure, again serving with the Red Cross for more than a year in southern Russia and the Crimea during the Russian Civil War. He returned to the United States by way of a meandering, round-the-world voyage, arriving back in Boston after an absence of almost three years and long after victory celebrations had ended. He recalled dusting off his desk and returning to his work as if he "had not been away."

    For much of the following thirty years, Adams was a trustee of the Adams Manuscript Trust, the family archive on deposit at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he oversaw extremely restricted use of the family papers. Henry Adams died in 1951, not long before the Adams Family Papers were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Further Reading

    Adams, Henry. Diaries, 1890-1951. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Adams's diaries begin when he was a teenager and continue until shortly before his death. There are photocopies for many of the gaps before 1910; the diaries are continuous thereafter. 

    Bacon, John U. The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. New York: William Morrow, 2017.

    A timely retelling of the story of this extraordinary event.

    Bemis, Samuel Flagg. "Henry Adams, 2nd," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 70 (October 1950-May 1953), 279-281.

    "Halifax Relief Expedition." In: Commission on Massachusetts' Part in the World War. Report of the Commission on Massachusetts' Part in the World War. Compiled and edited by Eben Putnam. Boston: Published by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1931. Vol. 1, 53-54.

    A concise account of the Massachusetts relief effort.

    Homans, Abigail Adams. Education by Uncles. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

    The "Hitty" Homans (his cousin) that Henry refers to in his diary entries.

    Kitz, Janet F. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus Publishing, 1989.