Halifax Explosion

One of many tragic outcomes of the Halifax Explosion of 1917 was its impact on eyesight: the explosion left 37 people completely blind. The calamity occurred when the French ship Mont-Blanc, loaded with high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel Imo at the entrance to the Narrows in Halifax Harbour on December 6.  Fire immediately broke out on the Mont-Blanc, and just after 9:00 a.m. the ship blew up, destroying homes, schools, and factories, and killing almost 2,000 people, many of whom had stopped to watch the burning ship, which had drifted for 20 minutes before exploding.

Doctors had to remove more than 250 eyes because of injuries sustained when Haligonians rushed to their windows in the wake of the blast, and were struck with shards of glass.  Compounding the tragedy, those who otherwise would have helped retrain blind victims were injured themselves. The Halifax School for the Blind became a hospital, treating many explosion casualties.

In a country already struggling with wartime demands, the scale of response required for the Halifax Explosion was staggering. A fundraising campaign for “blind relief work” took in contributions from as far away as China and New Zealand.

All the assistance this Library can give
— Sherman Swift
Letter - 22 January 1918 (1:29)
Sherman Swift to Sir Frederick Fraser
(Read transcription of narrated text)
Sir Frederick Fraser to Sherman Swift thanking him for a donation and describing the Halifax Explosion casualties

From Toronto, the Canadian Free Library for the Blind (by this time renamed the Canadian National Library for the Blind) sent $100.00, and assurances of “all the assistance this Library can give.” The young organization provided volunteers to help the survivors adjust to their new situation.  This included helping with learning braille and basic life skills, and organizing social gatherings. 

Letter - 30 January 1918 (2:39)
Sir Frederick Fraser to Sherman Swift
(Read transcription of narrated text)