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The roots of Boston’s Christmas tree go back 100 years to a disaster in Halifax

During World War I, Boston’s response to a devastating explosion in Nova Scotia created an ongoing bond between the cities, marked by the annual gift of a holiday tree.

Globe staff photo-illustration

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On a cool autumn day, construction cranes dominate the Halifax skyline. The capital of Nova Scotia is welcoming a building boom as startup companies flock to Canada’s latest high-tech hotspot. But as Halifax looks to the future, the clock on the majestic sandstone City Hall is frozen in time, stopped at a few minutes after 9. That’s when, on the morning of December 6, 1917, a massive shock wave, often called the largest manmade explosion before the atomic bomb, stopped the clock. Halifax never reset it; when the city installed a new one almost 20 years ago, that, too, was fixed at 9:04:35. The gesture was one of many the city has made over the years to honor the nearly 2,000 Haligonians who died in the calamity.

On that clear, unseasonably mild morning in Halifax, children were preparing for school and dockworkers were changing shifts. Offshore in the Narrows, an aptly named passage between the Bedford Basin north of the city and the main body of Halifax Harbour, a steamer cut across the bow of a Norwegian ship called the Imo, which was headed for New York City to pick up a cargo of grain destined for Belgians affected by the ongoing war in Europe. The Imo’s captain was alarmed to realize he was on a collision course with the 320-foot French steamship, the Mont Blanc, and ordered the engines put in full reverse. But the Imo rammed the French ship broadside, its crew watching helplessly as the Mont Blanc caught fire and began drifting toward the Halifax waterfront.

The Mont Blanc was carrying nearly 3,000 tons of explosives, including picric acid, TNT, and guncotton, meant for the Allied war effort in Europe. Its crew members immediately abandoned ship, but their warning cries were lost amid the commotion along the shoreline, where hundreds of curious townspeople had gathered, drawn by the ships’ whistles and the screeching rasp of bending steel.

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About 20 minutes after the collision, the Mont Blanc exploded with a force later estimated at almost 3 kilotons of TNT. (The “Mother of All Bombs” the US military dropped in Afghanistan earlier this year yielded a mere 11 tons of explosive force.) The mammoth blast leveled much of Halifax in a hailstorm of debris and shattered glass. Fires from toppled stoves would consume whole neighborhoods. In a port city claiming 60,000 residents, close to a quarter of the population was left homeless. Half-ton fragments from the ship’s anchor and rudder hinge would be recovered 2 miles from the site of the accident. Memories have faded, though; local historian Joel Zemel says the event should be “as important to us as 9/11 is to you.”

Destruction and ruin near Halifax’s Pier 8.
nova scotia archives
Destruction and ruin near Halifax’s Pier 8.
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A few days after the explosion, 17-year-old Haligonian Walter Hoganson wrote a pen pal, Harold Kennedy of Stoughton, Massachusetts, recounting what he called the “horrible catastrophe.” Hoganson had been at work at a local paper, The Daily Echo. “[T]here was a short rumble and then a big ‘crash’ (a terrific, terrifying roar),” he wrote. “I got as low as I could and the glass and wood flew everywhere, but I didn’t get a scratch. Harold, our big steady building rocked like a little cradle.” Hoganson wasn’t hurt, but a buddy who worked on the waterfront was killed. Like many Halifax residents, Hoganson lost loved ones, including his older sister, her husband, and their 11-year-old son.

Just hours later, a blizzard made conditions in the city even worse. But relief efforts began in earnest the next day. As Hoganson told Kennedy, “thank God the noble state of Massachusetts stood the same as ever ready to help us.”

“BOSTON RUSHES RELIEF SPECIAL,” blared the headline in The Boston Post the day after the explosion. Massachusetts dispatched a trainload of doctors, nurses, and aid workers (and press) almost immediately, upon first word of the tragedy. A relief ship followed soon after. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor Samuel W. McCall and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley were the featured speakers at a hastily convened rally in Faneuil Hall, where a relief fund netted $100,000 in its first hour. (A loaf of bread cost 7 cents at the time.)

Halifax and Greater Boston shared ties long before the explosion. By 1749, when British general Edward Cornwallis established Halifax as a base from which to drive the French Acadians and Native Americans out of the region, New England fishermen were well aware of the area’s natural resources. A railroad linking Portland, Maine, and Halifax was proposed as far back as 1843, a little over a decade after the opening of the first public railway in the United States. When Nova Scotia agreed to Confederation in 1867, joining the newly created Dominion of Canada, some Haligonians who’d supported alignment with the “Boston States” took to wearing black armbands in protest. Many moved between the two places in search of jobs; in 1917, more than 40,000 native Nova Scotians were reportedly living in Massachusetts.

A.C. Ratshesky sits with George Arthur, wounded in the explosion, and Boston nurse Edith Choate.
New England Historic Genealogical Society
A.C. Ratshesky sits with George Arthur, wounded in the explosion, and Boston nurse Edith Choate.
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After the explosion, waves of responders also came from New York, Montreal, Toronto, and elsewhere. But it was Boston’s doctors who took many of the worst cases, performing surgeries and tending to the many blinded by the flying debris in the explosion. Dr. William Ladd, who led a team of doctors on an emergency mission that lasted through the holidays, would go on to serve as surgeon in chief at what was then known as Children’s Hospital Boston. John F. Moors, chairman of the Boston Red Cross civilian relief committee, and Christian Lantz of the Salem YMCA, who coordinated agencies during the Great Salem Fire of 1914, were also honored for their roles in developing clinical solutions to Halifax’s most pressing needs. But in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, one name towered above all.

Abraham Captain “Cap” Ratshesky was well known in Boston. Born to Jewish immigrants, Ratshesky had been elected to the Boston City Council and the state Legislature. He and his brother Israel founded a trust company on Court Street that provided loans for Boston’s immigrant Jewish community. In 1916, he  helped found Beth Israel Hospital and started a foundation to support Boston’s economically disadvantaged. And he had been instrumental in orchestrating aid after both the Great Salem Fire and the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908. If you gave him a job, “it will be done right,” as philanthropist James J. Storrow would later say of him. That made him an obvious choice for the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, formed in early 1917 as an emergency response group when it became clear the US would enter what was then known as the Great War. And when McCall heard about the explosion, he knew who should lead the aid expedition from Boston.

Ratshesky mobilized that first “relief special,” getting the workers out of Boston on the night of December 6. The group was so determined to reach Halifax that its members climbed out of the train in the snowstorm to help shovel the tracks. When they arrived at about 3 a.m. on December 8, Ratshesky wrote in his report to Governor McCall, they were met by a Canadian railway official, who happened to be from West Springfield. “Tears streamed down his cheeks,” Ratshesky wrote, and he said, “Just like the people of good old Massachusetts.” The driver who took them to Halifax City Hall “had lost all the members of his family, consisting of his wife and four children.” It was, Ratshesky wrote, “a gruesome start. Debris had not been removed from the streets” and they arrived at the city center only “after a great deal of difficulty.” There, “[a]n awful sight presented itself — buildings shattered on all sides; chaos apparent; no order existed.”

Ratshesky fell soon after arriving and injured his back. Nonetheless, in one week of work he oversaw the conversion of undamaged buildings to hospitals, sent to Boston for glass and other building materials to replace broken windows and provide shelter from the blizzard’s aftermath, and organized relief stations. Historian David Sutherland, who serves on the Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Advisory Committee, says Ratshesky’s use of ad hoc committees to coordinate aid, logistics, housing, and other facets of the response modernized disaster relief. Young Hoganson called him, simply, “the hero of dear old Halifax.”

A group of American relief workers, probably including Harvard doctors, standing in front of the converted Bellevue Hospital on Spring Garden Road at Queen Street.
nova scotia archives
A group of American relief workers, probably including Harvard doctors, standing in front of the converted Bellevue Hospital on Spring Garden Road at Queen Street.

Though Hoganson predicted that Ratshesky’s name “will always stand sacred in every Canadian’s mind,” he is no longer a household name. Even in Boston, people don’t know his story. When some of his exploits were mentioned at a family funeral a few years ago by his great-grandniece, Laurie Morse Sprague, she says she was overwhelmed by the reaction. “I can’t tell you how many people reached out to me,” Sprague says. “They wanted to know more. Some of our relatives didn’t even know.”

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Later in life, Ratshesky often sent a driver to deliver money whenever he heard a news report about a Boston-area family whose house had burned down. “He was an incredibly philanthropic person,” says Sprague. Ratshesky had no children, but the A.C. Ratshesky Foundation continues its original mission, run by a board descended from family members; Sprague is its president.

What many Bostonians also don’t know, Sprague says, is that the work of Ratshesky and his colleagues inspired the annual gift of the Christmas tree from Nova Scotia. Each year, Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources sends a tree to Boston Common for the city’s annual holiday lighting ceremony (November 30 this year). Halifax first sent the gift in 1918. The practice was revived in 1971 and has been a tradition ever since.

A while back, Sprague was contacted by Suzanne Pasternak, a playwright and composer who was working on a young adult book, published in May as The Story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion and the Boston Tree. (The Ratshesky Foundation plans to donate copies of the book to each branch of the Boston Public Library.) While researching another project, she stumbled upon the government report that Ratshesky submitted to Governor McCall to summarize the relief effort. “It was so dramatic and heartfelt, I thought, Am I reading a Hollywood script?” says Pasternak, a New Jersey native who spent her childhood summers on Cape Cod, and now lives in Ontario. She was moved “to shine a light on the incredible friendship between the US and Canada, whether it’s 9/11 or Katrina or the ice storms,” says Pasternak. “It’s important to remember that humans will give everything they have to help a stranger.”

Dan Nightingale, right, fells a 43 foot (13-meter) tall white spruce, this year's Christmas tree for Boston, donated by John and Ethel Ann MacPherson, in Purlbrook, Nova Scotia, Canada, on Monday, Nov.17, 2014. Since 1971, Nova Scotia has given a tree to the people of Boston in gratitude for their assistance following the Halifax Explosion in 1917. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Andrew Vaughan)
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Workers cut down the 43-foot-tall white spruce Halifax sent to Boston in 2014.

As the 100th anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Halifax has planned a full slate of remembrances, including symphonies, art installations, lectures, and memorial services. In early December, Veith House, a community services organization just up the hill from where the explosion occurred, will honor the two dozen children who perished in the old orphanage there. The staff will plant crocuses by the orphans’ mass gravesite.

Almost 20 years ago, Veith House was the site of another, more private commemoration, when workers planted four sugar maple trees — for Eileen, Freddie, Doris, and Clifford Ross, siblings who lived nearby and were killed in the explosion. Ruth Terrones traveled from Kansas to bring her mother to the ceremony.

Ruth, now 72, grew up in Watertown and Holden, Massachusetts. As a child, she loved visiting her grandparents in Marblehead. Minnie and Stewart Ross were always out on the water, taking Ruthie and her brothers sailing or visiting Stewart’s friends on the ferry. Stewart had worked as the skipper on Guy Lowell’s yacht and had taught the children of the renowned architect, who designed the 1909 Museum of Fine Arts building on Huntington Avenue, to swim and sail.

Outwardly, her grandparents’ life together seemed contented, but young Ruthie sensed that they were hiding a certain darkness. For one thing, her grandmother suffered chronic health problems, and Terrones recalls her regularly applying salve to her legs. “I’m sure she was in constant pain,” Terrones says.

As she grew up, Ruth learned that her grandparents were originally from Halifax. Stewart’s father was the longtime lighthouse keeper on Georges Island in Halifax Harbour. Stewart worked as an engine room mechanic for a ship in the Royal Canadian Navy, while Minnie raised their four children. Stewart was on duty on his ship in the harbor when the Mont Blanc erupted. Stationed below deck, he survived.

When the explosion occurred, Minnie was at home in the family cottage on Duffus Street, helping the two older children get ready for school. She lost consciousness and came to in a hospital, with her legs severely burned and glass fragments lodged in her head. After Stewart found her there, they learned that all four of their children had died in the blast. With little left to their names other than a locket that had belonged to Eileen, the traumatized couple began the long, arduous process of recovery.

About a year and a half after the accident, Minnie gave birth to a daughter, naming her Shirley. With the memories of their lost children lingering around every corner, the Rosses packed up and moved to Lynn, where Minnie’s sister was living. They would go on to have three more children, all born and raised in Massachusetts.

It’s a heartbreaking story, Ruth Terrones says. But she believes it’s also a miracle. Her own mother was that girl named Shirley, who married a minister and lived a full life before dying in Maine in 2009 at age 89.

At the Veith House event, Shirley wept in relief. Her siblings, she told her daughter, “had been lost.” With the tree planting, which coincided with Shirley’s 80th birthday, they finally were found.

Massachusetts Governor Samuel W. McCall (center, in bowler hat) visiting Halifax in November 1918
nova scotia archives
Massachusetts Governor Samuel W. McCall (center, in bowler hat) visiting Halifax in November 1918.

For decades, few in Halifax spoke of the disaster. The city suffered from a collective case of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Halifax historian Zemel. He says it was only in 1989, when Janet Kitz published Shattered City, a study of the explosion and its aftermath, that the friendly folks in this capital city of 400,000 began to come to terms with the calamity.

These days, Haligonians love Boston perhaps more for its professional sports teams than its disaster response. Generations of Haligonians have grown up listening to Red Sox and Bruins broadcasts from across the Gulf of Maine. But for the centennial, the city’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has expanded its permanent exhibition on the explosion. A rash of new books about the disaster have been published. A call for survivors to attend this year’s ceremony brought at least 18 responses, including one from a 105-year-old woman. The city has been renovating the hilltop park crowned by a memorial tower first dedicated in 1985.

At the foot of Fort Needham, the memorial park, lies the Hydrostone, a distinctive neighborhood of row houses and duplexes constructed quickly in the wake of the explosion, and named for the fireproof concrete blocks used to build it. In booming Halifax, the Hydrostone is one of the few remaining physical reminders of the disaster.

Also enduring are the stories, often passed down in families. Earlier this year, a schoolgirl in St. Louis wrote an essay on the relatives she never knew, the four Ross children who died in the explosion. Herself one of four children, she quoted her grandmother, Ruth Terrones: “Miracles do come from tragedies.”

James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.