One of the stories in The Coldest December is “Harboured in Time” by Lawren Snodgrass. During wartime, Halifax Harbour has always been a bustle of activity. Activity during the First World War resulted in the Halifax Explosion.
With this horrifying tragedy in the minds of survivors, when the Second World War began, bringing an increase in military traffic, they worried a similar event would happen.
On December 22, 1944, smoke rolling from a ship in the harbour no doubt triggered memories of the SS Mont-Blanc on fire. However, the Governor Cornwallis ferry was not laden with explosives, only diesel fuel and passengers. It made it safely to port, where passengers disembarked. The Nova Scotia Archives website has a photograph of the Governor Cornwallis ferry engulfed in flames.
The smaller Halifax Explosion of 1945, involving volatile explosives, caused more damage, lasted longer and shook those who saw the rising smoke. The series of explosions from July 18 to the 19th originated at the ammunition depot in Bedford near the Harbour shoreline.
These two events – the ferry burning and the ammunition depot explosion – were used by Snodgrass in his short story.
Harboured in Time
The warm breeze rustled the leaves on the potato plants as Wilber Coulson pulled weeds with a long-handled hoe. The showers the evening before and the warm July day had made the pesky plants explode overnight. Although Mathilda planned to weed, he insisted she rest instead. In her condition, she needn’t be in the sun working when he could tidy the garden after work. Their son Everett also helped with the chores while she recovered from the most recent bout of bronchitis. Doc Fraser left little doubt her illness would not clear unless she rested and avoided her womanly chores.
Wilber paused for a moment, wiped his brow and leant onto the hoe to stare off at the harbour a few miles away. From his vantage point on Break Heart Hill, he could see the growing cities of Dartmouth and Halifax, their streets divided by the deep body of water. From this distance, he could not make out people, but he knew they were there. Given the hour, most workers had gone home for the night, yet many remained on the docks, loading or unloading and tending to ships either bound for overseas or arriving from there. The war created traffic jams in the harbour he had not seen for more than twenty years.
The ferries between the cities carried all traffic that needed to pass from one shore to the other—trucks, carts pulled by horses or oxen and passengers—to avoid the long trip around the Bedford Basin. He watched the Dartmouth approach the dock on this side of the water, its stack pumping black steam into the almost clear mid-summer sky, and memories from last December drifted into his mind: the smoke, the terror in the passengers’ eyes, the frantic actions of the ferry crew.
He had been waiting to make the crossing when he heard shouts and looked to see thick black smoke pouring from the Governor Cornwallis ferry. It was still quite a distance from the dock, and onlookers speculated about the cause and whether or not help would go out to the ship or the ship would put ashore for assistance. Wilbur’s first concern was Would it explode? He recalled staring at the flames, unable to move or respond to questions. Once again, he was a fifteen-year-old boy shocked by terrible sights, sounds and smells and running for his life. The horrid taste of burnt oil resurfaced and sweat beaded on his forehead.
A sudden thud and cries for help jolted him from his nightmare, and he sprang into action as he had in 1917. The Governor Cornwallis had docked. Passengers scrambled for shelter, and workers directed the trucks off the burning ship. Wilbur helped an elderly couple to safety, then returned to help a mother and her four children, then a wounded soldier on crutches who had returned from overseas only the week beforehand.
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To learn more about this book, including the authors who contributed, visit The Coldest December’s page at Quarter Castle Publishing.