Eight days after two ships collided in Nova Scotia, killing about 2,000 people and injuring about 9,000 in December 1917, the superintendent of a Canadian school for the blind recounted the horror in a letter.
The explosion, he said, “caused a blizzard of splintered glass and this accompanied by flying shrapnel probably accounts for many deaths as well as for the loss of eyesight,” wrote Sir Charles Frederick Fraser, who led the Halifax School for the Blind.
Fraser’s plea for help made its way to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and is among nearly 700 pages of letters, reports, and telegrams that tell the story of an urgent effort to assist those who suffered serious eye injuries in the disaster, which is best known in Boston for the gesture of gratitude it spawned. The efforts introduced new ways to help adults who lose some or all of their sight.
For decades, Nova Scotia has sent a Christmas tree to Boston to thank the city for dispatching medical personnel and supplies to the region after the explosion on Dec. 6, 1917. This year’s tree, a 53-foot white spruce from Cape Breton, is scheduled to be lit Thursday evening on Boston Common.
“I think a lot of people hear the story about the Massachusetts relief efforts, which were amazing and heroic,” said Susanna Coit, the archives and research library assistant at Perkins. Perkins’ role in assisting those with eye injuries “was an almost shadow relief effort organized by the American Red Cross,” she said.
The director of Perkins at the time, Edward E. Allen, led the group known as the American Red Cross Committee on Eye Victims of the Halifax Disaster. A month after the tragedy, Fraser sent a telegram begging Allen to visit.
“Wish you could come to Halifax soon,” Fraser, a Perkins School graduate, wrote on Jan. 9, 1918.
The missive is part of Perkins’ recently published online archive. Allen left for Nova Scotia the next day and spent two weeks there, Coit said.
“I just think that expresses how lonely it was up there,” she said.
Many were injured when explosives aboard one of the ships, the SS Mont Blanc, caught fire and detonated, tearing the vessel apart and scattering glass and debris. Before the explosion, many victims gathered around windows to watch the spectacular fire, unaware of the vessel’s explosive cargo.
“There wasn’t a pane of glass that wasn’t shattered in Halifax,” said Paul Maxner, senior archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives, who is in Boston for the tree lighting. “When Boston come to the aid, they called Halifax the ‘shattered city.’ ”
According to CNIB, a Canadian organization that helps people with vision loss, about 850 explosion survivors were blinded or partially blinded.
Allen’s committee established an eye clinic and worked with Fraser to establish training programs for adults who suffered vision loss. Lotta S. Rand, a social worker with Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, tracked activity at the clinic, writing to Allen almost daily with updates that have been preserved by Perkins School.
All of the documents, which are now available online, were previously stored in the school’s archives and are accessible to people with visual impairments.
Dave Power, president and chief executive of Perkins School, said the explosion marked a transformative moment for educators working with the blind and visually impaired.
Until then, Power said, education for people with vision impairments was largely devoted to children who were born with sight problems or who developed them at a young age. The Halifax disaster, however, left hundreds of adults unable to live and work as they had before.
“There’s a whole field of adult vision services that were nascent at that time,” Power said. “What are these people going to do? How are they going to reengage in their lives, in their communities, in their vocations?”
In a report prepared in 1918 about the relief efforts in Halifax, Allen emphasized restoring normalcy for those who have lost some or all of their vision.
“Rehabilitating the blinded is of paramount necessity,” he wrote. “For enforced idleness under blindness is harder to bear than blindness itself, and makes of the condition a tragedy it need not be.”Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.