Throwback Thursday: Boston’s Helping Hand After a Disaster in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia sends a tree for the Common each year to say thanks.

boston halifax explosion

Emergency Relief Hospital in the YMCA after the Halifax Explosion. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When an explosion off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastated much of the city on December 6, 1917, doctors and nurses in Boston were quick to act.

The explosion, due to a collision of two ships in Halifax harbor, killed more than 1,800 people and injured 9,000. Because one of the ships was carrying millions of pounds of explosives, the blast obliterated entire neighborhoods and spurred a 20-foot-high tidal wave. The explosion’s seismic force even shattered windows 50 miles away.

When the news reached Boston, a group of medical professionals hopped on a train headed north. According to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Massachusetts government sent nurses, 13 doctors and surgeons, as well as medical supplies on the train to Halifax. Greeted with snowy conditions and charred remains of homes and businesses, the team sought to relieve exhausted Canadian doctors. They worked at Halifax’s overflowing hospitals and at dozens of pop-up hospitals set up at places like the city’s YMCA and the Halifax Ladies’ College.

The CBC writes that eye injuries were common, “because so many people had been standing at windows, watching the fire…when the shock of the blast sent windowpanes flying in at them.”

The doctors’ emergency medical treatment resembled battlefield triage. They were tasked with life-and-death surgeries, amputations, and eye removals.

A Boston Globe article published the day following the explosion reported that Boston Mayor Joseph Curley and Massachusetts Gov. Samuel McCall founded a Halifax Relief Committee to help with rehabilitating the city for years to come. Overall, the state of Massachusetts donated more than $750,000.

The year after the explosion, Nova Scotia sent Boston a thank you in the form of a Christmas tree. In 1971, the tradition of tree-sending was revived, and it’s still going strong. Citizens from Nova Scotia donate a tall spruce tree each year, then it’s sent on a two-day drive down to the Boston Common.

“It means a lot to all the Nova Scotia people what Boston did for us in our time of need when the explosion happened,” the tree’s truck driver, Dave MacFarlane, told Boston earlier this season.

This year’s tree lighting ceremony on the Common is set to start at 6 p.m. on December 3.