City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

Catching up on 2017 must-reads for Bostonians, I recently enjoyed The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon.

The main story is familiar, but worth retelling.

All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” usually oxygen. How destructive an explosive is depends largely on how quickly those two combine. With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder, it’s necessary to add oxygen to ignite them and keep them burning. If a fire runs out of oxygen, it dies. Another factor is speed. The rate of the chemical reaction, or decomposition, of low explosives is less than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule, making each one a self-contained bomb, with everything it needs to create the explosion. To ignite, a high explosive usually requires only extreme heat or a solid bump. Once started, the dominoes fall very quickly, ripping through the explosive material faster than the speed of sound.

“She had a devil’s brew aboard,” Raddall states of the Mont-Blanc, a perfect combination of catalysts, fuel, and firepower. The ship’s manifest included 62 tons of gun cotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of picric acid, the least understood of the chemicals on board, but the most dangerous.

After the shipwrights had so carefully built the magazines, hermetically sealing each compartment, and the stevedores had packed it all systematically, the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay received a last-minute order from his superiors in France to pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline.” The stevedores followed orders, swinging 494 barrels containing 246 tons of the highly combustible accelerant into a few unused spaces belowdecks, on the foredeck, and at the stern, where they stacked the fuel three and four barrels high and lashed it with canvas straps, a somewhat slapdash approach compared to the thoroughness with which the shipwrights had built the magazines. When the crew walked past the drums on deck, they could smell the unmistakable reek of the benzol. With the final addition of the benzol, Mont Blanc now carried an impressive array of the most dangerous chemicals known to man at that time. While benzol can’t match the pure power of gun cotton, TNT, or picric acid—all high explosives—what the stevedores probably didn’t know when they stacked the barrels of benzol on deck was that the airplane fuel needed only a spark to ignite, while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and TNT does not detonate until it reaches 1,000 degrees. But by making the last-minute decision to store most of the fuel on the deck and the TNT and picric acid below, the crew had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb, with the easy-to-light fuse on top, and the most explosive materials trapped in the hold below.

Canada had a much larger stake in the war than did the U.S.:

Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population. It seemed almost every home had sent a brother, a husband, a father, or a son. The Great War drained the town of its able-bodied young men and left behind women, boys, girls, and men too old or infirm to fight.

One question worth pondering is why more people didn’t chicken out and escape to the U.S. They knew what the trenches were going to be like:

When fresh recruits got to Halifax, they frequently made a beeline for any place that sold alcohol, where they met soldiers who had been recently discharged, were on leave, or were about to head back to the trenches. They told the recruits stories so horrifying that they might have been tempted to think they were exaggerating. The experienced soldiers knew the average infantryman lasted only three months before getting wounded or killed, so they were determined to make the most of their time on the safe side of the Atlantic. Their hard-earned fatalism fostered a devil-may-care disposition and all the elements that came with it, including scores of prostitutes from across Canada and bootleggers so fearless that they set up shop in the downtown YMCA—which was probably not what the YMCA’s benefactor, Titanic victim George Wright, had had in mind when he wrote his will. During the war years, Halifax experienced a spike in venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births. Local orphanages had to expand.

The Mont-Blanc makes it from New York to Halifax without incident, but before the sailors can go to the YMCA for a drink, there is a low-speed collision with another ship. The author describes the impact that resulted in the explosion as entirely the fault of the Imo‘s captain and pilot (see Wikipedia for a quick summary, but I highly recommend this part of the book). More than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The book covers this staggering tragedy, but this post is about the physical destruction and the estimated cost of rebuilding:

The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more, leaving some 25,000, almost half the population of Halifax-Dartmouth, without adequate housing and dangerously exposed to the elements.

After the fires had been extinguished and the wounded tended to, Colonel Robert S. Low assembled an army of carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the city, which had incurred more than $35 million in damages in 1917 U.S. dollars, or $728 million today.

It cost only $728 million to rebuild a whole section of a city. Our town will soon spend $110 million to renovate/rebuild a school that can hold only about 600 students. I talked with a guy recently who is involved in a $1.5 billion project to create 2,700 “affordable” apartments here in the Charlestown section of Boston (story). That’s $555,555 per apartment (less than 1,000 square feet on average) on land provided for free (city already has a housing project on the same footprint). Presumably these will be higher quality than whatever was built in Halifax in 1918.

[Note: poor people who are selected by the housing ministry to move into one of these apartments would actually be rich almost anywhere else in the world if they could only get their hands on the $555,555 capital cost as a direct grant instead of as an in-kind service! If they could also get their hands on the monthly operating cost and combine that with interest on the $555,555 they would be able to enjoy, without working, a middle class or better lifestyle in many of the world’s beach destinations.

How about folks who work at the median wage? That’s about $23/hour in Massachusetts (BLS) or $46,000 per year. NerdWallet says that someone earning this much in MA can afford a $258,500 house if he or she has saved $60,000 for a down payment, has a top credit score, and spends $0/month on food and other non-housing expenses. Zillow says $274,416 on a nationwide basis. So a dual-income couple in which both partners earn the median wage wouldn’t be able to afford one of these units without a taxpayer subsidy, even if land were free and the unit were sold at zero-profit construction cost. The U.S. has apparently become a society in which Americans can’t afford to live like Americans!]

Maybe costs are lower up in Canada? Yes, but only a little:

Instead of drifting back into another long sleepwalk, Halifax has been accelerating, spending $11.5 million in 1955 to build its first bridge across the channel, another $31 million to build the second, right over the Narrows, and another $207 million in 2015 to raise the first bridge a few meters so container ships could get all the way to a dock in Bedford Basin. The city has spent $350 million to build a boardwalk along the bay and $57 million for a shiny new library downtown, an architectural centerpiece CNN judged to be the ninth most beautiful library in the world.

How about some other costs? A survivor of the explosion gets “$100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919”. That’s $1,500 in today’s money, less than 1/30th of current tuition. He marries an American (same word “marriage” used, but really a different activity in those days before no-fault divorce):

Shortly after that invitation, Barss asked Helen to marry him. She said yes, but asked him to keep it between them until February, “so that if either of us wanted to get out of the deal, no one would be hurt.” Further, if Barss’s professors found out he was getting married, which med school students were forbidden to do, he could be expelled. “My father liked Joe & asked if he were a Republican or a Democrat,” Helen wrote. “He said he was a Canadian and voted for the man—Father said ‘If you ever live here and have anything or hope to have anything, you’ll be a Republican in self defense.’

Maybe it is good that this guy died before Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed their latest tax plans!

I found the numbers in the book sobering. If we wear down the infrastructure that we have or if perhaps it is destroyed for some reason, it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

More: Read The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism


10 thoughts on “City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

  1. The people of Boston provided a huge amount of relief in terms of clothing, food and fuel to get the survivors of the explosion through their first winter.
    Halifax owes them an ongoing debt of gratitude, symbolized each year by a gift to the city of a huge Christmas tree, erected on Boston Common.

  2. pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline”

    I think the author is wrong about this. Benzol (sometimes spelled Benzole) is a coal-tar product consisting mainly of benzene and toluene. In very early days of the internal combustion engine it was sometimes used as a motor fuel but the reason it was on board the Mont-Blanc is because it is a precursor chemical to picric acid.

  3. What a read! I want to buy that book. I first learned (a little, and mostly wrong, yarnball stuff) about the Halifax explosion when I was a kid at a family gathering in Massachusetts. You know, Uncle Al has a few highballs and starts talking about that big explosion in Halifax that spooked the horses in Worcester and suchlike. Then I read about it in detail a few years ago while I was looking up the South Amboy, NJ munition explosion of 1950. That was a massive blast in its own right, but a pipsqueak compared to the apocalypse in Halifax:

    In 1950, the United States was manufacturing antitank and antipersonnel mines in Ohio and selling and shipping them to Pakistan.

    “The events that transpired before the explosion proved particularly significant. The Kilgore Manufacturing Company of Newark, Ohio, produced 9,000 boxes of antipersonnel and anti-tank mines destined for the government of Pakistan, while a separate shipment containing 1,800 cases of gelatin dynamite produced by the Hercules Powder Co. was being sent to Afghanistan for commercial sale. The total combined weight of the explosives was 300,000 pounds.” The explosion blasted the holy living daylights out of Perth Amboy and they declared martial law in the immediate aftermath.

    We’ve sold a lot of arms to Pakistan under various Presidents since 1950, but there’s been a big downshift since Trump took office, with China being the major beneficiary:

    I digress. Back to the spirit of your post, the Chrysler Building only cost about $20 million to build in 1930 dollars or almost $300 million in today’s money. We might think: instead of the school, your town could build about 1/3rd of the Chrysler Building (wouldn’t that be grand!) assuming it could get everything else it needed at an even exchange rate, which they can’t (i.e, 1930s immigrant construction labor wages converted straight into 2019 dollars, all the exotic materials, including the rare African marble, how did they get the artisans to do all that work for so little money, etc.). So I guess you’re stuck with the rather bland but very expensive new school, and you’re right: it’s probably completely prohibitive to rebuild the Chrysler Building today. If Manhattan drifts out to sea and sinks or there’s some other existential calamity any time soon, we’re not getting it back. Well, that’s a given anyway since it’s 90% owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, and I don’t think they have enough money to replace it, either.

    Side note: isn’t it great when proper names and places have an eerie connection to the story?

    “…the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay…”
    “…The Kilgore Manufacturing Company of Newark, Ohio, produced 9,000 boxes of antipersonnel and anti-tank mines…”

    Whew. Pretty heavy stuff these past few days. It’s a pretty heavy time in general. You’re wearing me out a little, Philip. It’s fun though, I’m enjoying it. Let’s put it this way: I’d rather be reading your blog posts and book reviews than thinking about all the other crap too much. I learn a lot more here.

  4. Clarification: I misstated something above and I don’t want the impression to stand the way I wrote it. The Trump Administration did indeed continue selling fewer US arms to Pakistan in recent years, but the biggest and most recent shifts for both the US and China in terms of *sales* to Pakistan occurred during the Obama Administration. Our sales plummeted circa 2011 and have continued to drop while China’s almost doubled, then dropped a little. Then – in 2018 – the Trump Administration suspended an additional $2 billion in military *aid* to Pakistan. The article is from April of 2018, a little over 1 year ago.

    There’s a lot more at that article and you should read it if you’re interested, it’s a complex issue, but the biggest and easiest takeaway is that whenever and where ever the United States loses influence, China is ready, willing and able to step in and they will continue to do so. We live in a dangerous and difficult world, and there aren’t a lot of easy answers, or even answers we would like to have.

    “Twenty years ago, China did not have the technology to be able to compete with the west, but now there is not much difference,” says Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at Sipri. “Many countries also see Chinese supplies as more secure, as Beijing does not tend to cut them off over awkward issues such as democracy or human rights.” I wonder if AOC realizes that? I wonder if Bernie Sanders realizes that? I have to believe they do.

  5. > If we wear down the infrastructure … it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

    Canada built its national infrastructure (trans-continent railway, St Lawrence Seaway, etc) for free using using a clever tactic: the govt owned Bank of Canada created money then loaned it interest-free to itself to pay for the govt owned projects. The loans were repaid from profits and increased revenues. Capitalists might scoff at this socialist enterprise, but it worked. In fact, Canada had no external national debt until 1970s. That’s when the BIS came along and said a govt owned bank was evil. The BIS convinced politicians to instead borrow (with interest) money from privately owned BIS-member banks, despite laws preventing it. There is still an ongoing suit to force the govt to follow its own laws:

  6. “Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population”

    I’m sure the author means 6 million. Is this author not able to distinguish thousands and millions?

    “With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder,”

    Propane and gasoline are not explosives at all. You can get a flash fire out of them that dumb people might misidentify as an explosion, I guess.

    “All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” ” In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule”

    Well, this is a cargo-cult level understanding and not correct. Really there is no oxidation that takes place in most high explosives, just very fast and energetic decomposition, usually along the nitrogen bonds. Home high explosives produce CO or CO2 during this decomposition, but it is not really an oxidation reaction.

    • He didn’t mean 6 million. Halifax’s total population in 1917 was around 60-65,000 and I doubt they had any good way to assess it more accurately than that, given the constant churn.

      The explosives description is a little sketchy, there are some quibbles as you point out, but the author did a pretty good job of conveying the idea of how the explosion was triggered. He could have improved it by making explicit the distinction between “burning” and “detonating.” I think what he was going for was conveying the idea that the highly volatile benzol, provisioned hastily and stored in a rather slapdash way on the deck and belowdecks, was spilled, sparked and ignited by the collison and then fueled the fire that acted as the “fuse” to set off the explosives about 20 minutes later. He does a pretty good job at that part. There’s more at the wikipedia link:

      “The collision occurred at 8:45 am.[49] The damage to Mont Blanc was not severe, but barrels of deck cargo toppled and broke open. This flooded the deck with benzol that quickly flowed into the hold. As Imo’s engines kicked in, she disengaged, which created sparks inside Mont-Blanc’s hull. These ignited the vapours from the benzol. A fire started at the water line and travelled quickly up the side of the ship. Surrounded by thick black smoke, and fearing she would explode almost immediately, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.[50][49] A growing number of Halifax citizens gathered on the street or stood at the windows of their homes or businesses to watch the spectacular fire.[51]”

      So people were outside in the streets or looking out their windows (!), watching this hapless ship burning in the harbor, not expecting an explosion, when suddenly:

      At 9:04:35 am the out-of-control fire on board Mont-Blanc set off her highly explosive cargo.[57] The ship was completely blown apart and a powerful blast wave radiated away from the explosion at more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) per second. Temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,000 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion.[58][25]

      Here’s another description of explosives, low and high, from “Science Evangelist Gordon McDonough” of the Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos National Laboratory:

      For the purposes of the book, the author’s description isn’t terrible. Anyone who really wants to learn more will consult an explosives textbook.

    • Propane and gasoline are not explosives at all. You can get a flash fire out of them that dumb people might misidentify as an explosion, I guess.

      All the people killed with thermobaric weapons will be pleased to learn that such explosions are not really possible and that they are not really dead.

  7. I don’t know about Massachusetts, but here in California, they are doing everything they can to destroy the road network, they call it traffic calming and road diets, but what they do is put planters or bike lanes on any road with more than one lane whenever they get the chance. I think they know they will never be able to replace the capacity, but that’s the idea. (They also try to close any airport they can) I suspect the power grid is next.

  8. $555,000 per rent-controlled apartment seems too much comparing to the rest of USA. In some other countries overly expensive public projects mostly assume some kind of illicit kick-backs or connected officials luxury spending. I have seen some Boston area rent-control apartments and they tend to be much smaller than 1,000 square feet, maybe closer to 500 – 600 square feet maximum, not sure about this particular development. Unless cost of real estate is taken into account and rent-free apartments are being built on prime real estate, as often the case on the East Coast.

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