Tracy Jo Barnwell
The snow begins to fall. An hour ago
a thousand curious eyes peered
from the Halifax shore. Two collided
ships split and sparked. Now shattered hulls
Creating the Centena.
When I began this project, I knew I wanted to choose an individual attached to the Halifax Explosion of 1917. My family has had connections in Nova Scotia as far back as the 1700s where our wobbly genealogical trail reaches a dead end. My father is the current owner of a small house in Jordan Falls, which has been in the family for 200 years as of this June. Despite growing up hearing stories of the house from my grandmother and my great-grandmother—how my uncle had been born there and someone had hopped the train into Shelburne to fetch the doctor, how my aunts and my father as children and teenagers had spent long summers on the South Shore, how my great-grandmother had left a complete set of Bobbsey Twins books for me in the house’s parlor bookcase, how my father had searched for pirate treasure with a great-grandfather I had never met, how that same great-grandfather had died in the house and how his axes still hung in the back kitchen—despite all of these things, I didn’t actually start visiting Nova Scotia until my twenties when the house passed from an ill-tempered great uncle to my parents.
The first summer I spent there, I visited the Halifax Maritime Museum. It was there I found out about the Halifax explosion—the largest man-made explosion until atomic weaponry—caused when a munitions vessel collided with a supply ship in the harbor. Thousands were killed instantly on the unseasonably warm December day. More died that night, which brought one of the worst blizzards of the year. It’s hard to describe how I felt looking through those displays, the photos of the flooded hospital, the demolished orphanage, and the train cars scattered like children’s toys. The impact was doubled by the fact that I had never even heard of the Halifax explosion before then, and as a result the event was seared in my mind.
When researching this project, I stumbled on an article about Frank Baker’s newly discovered journal describing the unfathomable events of that day, witnessed as a member of the Royal Navy on one of the boats in the harbor. The challenge I ran into, however, was this—how do you write about an individual’s connection to an event that they themselves have already written about?
I was struck by a line from Frank’s journal: “Here the scene was utterly indescribable.” While I included a few of Frank’s own words in my piece (indicated by italics), I didn’t want to simply write an abridged version of his account because his journal is already in the world for everyone to read. Instead I wondered what it must have been like to try to write about an event like this as a witness, to describe something horrifyingly “indescribable.” The focus of what I wrote, then, became the struggle of a writer who knows that the true horror of something cannot be described and yet it must be.
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about the Halifax Explosion here at Lives of the First World War.