Richmond with land to spare knew no overcrowding and was spared the greater city’s problems. She could not boast of wealth nor complain of poverty. Here dwelt the artisan, the railroad man, the independent man of moderate means, the homemaker, the man of enterprise building the city’s newer part. –From “A Common Sorrow and A Common Concern,” written by Rev. C. S. Crowdis, minister of the destroyed Grove Presbyterian Church in Richmond, following the Halifax Explosion.
Prior to incorporation into the City of Halifax in 1841 and for decades after, Richmond was a well-established North End community. Period maps of Halifax identify Richmond as a well-defined area within Halifax, the only community so prominently identified on maps.
Richmond maintained its singular identity until the Halifax Explosion. In the aftermath, Richmond’s name and identity vanished. If asked about Richmond today, most locals are unaware of the once vibrant North End community.
In 1917, Richmond was a thriving community with several churches, schools, businesses, and industries. Nearly half of Halifax’s population resided in Richmond, which encompassed Russell Street north to Africville and Barrington Street west to Longard Road (Robie Street).
On December 6, 1917, a collision in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour culminated in the burning, abandoned munitions ship, Mont-Blanc, exploding as it drifted into Pier 6 in Richmond, Halifax.
In an instant the community of Richmond was obliterated from the face of the earth. The number of dead and injured and the devastation wrought upon Richmond was complete. A soldier recently returned from the trenches in Europe declared that the death and destruction in Richmond far exceeded that which he had witnessed on the battlefields.
Of the nearly 1,800, who were killed or who died later as a result, and the 9,000 injured, the majority of these victims resided in Richmond.
Initially for those who were eager to resettle in Richmond, it was difficult and for many impossible. Richmond was their community and they wanted to rebuild. However, they had no say in reconstruction. It was no longer “their” Richmond.
The Halifax Relief Commission, which strictly controlled the rebuilding and resettlement of the devastated area, expropriated their properties. As such, the Richmond slope north of Fort Needham and east of Gottingen Street lay like a scarred battlefield for several decades with the scorched and crumbled ruins of foundations dotting the landscape.
Richmond’s tragic destruction is among the most significant events in Halifax’s history, yet we’ve overlooked Richmond’s historic value since the disaster. Most notably, while the community of Richmond was eventually rebuilt, it ceased to be called Richmond.
The Halifax Relief Commission had an aggressive plan for urban development and so began construction of the Hydrostone neighbourhood, a housing estate constructed for residents displaced by the Halifax Explosion.
Workers built these homes on the former Merkelsfield, west of Fort Needham between Young and Duffus streets and Isleville and Gottingen streets.
Originally the development was to be called Richmond Heights but for reasons unknown the development became known as the Hydrostone, named for cement building blocks rather than for any historical significance.
By the time construction began on the northern slope of Fort Needham decades later, the neighbourhood was no longer referred to as Richmond. The name had faded into obscurity and the once proud and vibrant community lost its identity.
The Halifax Relief Commission and its focus on town planning and urban renewal, which left the Richmond slope abandoned and barren for so long, played a significant role in the name Richmond becoming extinct.
The City of Halifax also played a role. In the decades following the Halifax Explosion, city officials didn’t hold a commemorative service for the victims, nor did Halifax erect a monument to honour its dead.
It was not until 1967 that Halifax held its first commemorative service, 50 years after the disaster. Eighteen years passed until the next service.
In 1985 the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower was erected in Fort Needham Memorial Park, thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens and private donors. These citizens, including historian and author Janet Kitz, and Edmund Morris, former Mayor of Halifax, believed that Halifax should have an annual commemorative service and a monument to honour those who died in the Halifax Explosion.
The City of Halifax did not contribute any funds to the construction of this monument. It did take over the upkeep of the monument from the Memorial Bells Committee, and Halifax now hosts the commemorative service there each year on Dec. 6.
Richmond’s name should be restored, and the community recognized for its abundant historical significance, most importantly that it was ground zero for the worst disaster in Canadian history.
Within the former Richmond community lies the aforementioned Hydrostone neighbourhood, which has been recognized nationally and locally for its historical significance.
Equally important is Fort Needham Memorial Park. Fort Needham was originally a British defence redoubt constructed in the late 1770s to defend Halifax.
The Memorial Park was developed by the Halifax Relief Commission in the 1950s as a public park forever in memory of the victims of the Halifax Explosion. In 1959, the park was handed over to the City of Halifax. While Halifax was responsible for maintaining the park, over the years the park fell into a state of disrepair.
In 2014, Halifax undertook the Legacy Project to revitalize Fort Needham Memorial Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. The transformation to the park is truly remarkable.
The Richmond Terminals, originally the Richmond Yards, are located along the waterfront at the base of Duffus Street. It was here that the first railway was established in Halifax with the Richmond Depot serving all of Halifax.
The neighbourhood contains several historic buildings. The Richmond School, designed by renowned Halifax Architect, Andrew Cobb, is now the Nova Scotia Supreme Court Family Division. United Memorial Church, built in memory of those who died in the Halifax Explosion, was also designed by Andrew Cobb. Recently it was named by the National Trust for Canada as one of this year’s most endangered places.
Halifax Regional Council recently voted against a request to grant the church building a heritage designation, even though the Heritage Advisory Committee recommended that council approve the request. The building lies empty, awaiting the wrecking ball. Currently St. Mark’s Anglican Church is the only post-Explosion church that still remains open in the former Richmond community.
Generations of my family and my husband’s family have lived in Richmond since the 1800s. Twelve Elliotts perished on December 6, 1917. What remained of their homes and their lands was expropriated by the Halifax Relief Commission.
My father, Eric Davidson, was blinded when the Mont-Blanc exploded. The J. Eric Davidson sports field in Fort Needham Memorial Park honours his memory.
I grew up in the former Richmond community and lived on Kane Street in a house built in 1921 by the Halifax Relief Commission. My husband and I live here with our children and grandchildren who are the seventh generation of Richmond families.
Richmond has always been our home but we are not unique. There are hundreds of people living in the former Richmond area today who can trace their ancestry back several generations in this community.
In addition, over the past century this community has been enriched with people from a variety of cultures and from all walks of life who are proud to call this community home.
Halifax plans to designate several places throughout the municipality as Heritage Conservation districts within the coming years. Hydrostone/Richmond is one such area. Although it has the singularly distinctive historical significance as the location of the worst disaster in Canadian history, there are several other areas that have been deemed to be a higher priority than Richmond. As such, it could be 10 or more years before Richmond receives any designation.
Formally recognizing Richmond’s historic significance would be a fitting tribute to the many hundreds of Richmond citizens who died as a result of the Halifax Explosion and to the thousands who survived and rebuilt this community. Richmond deserves recognition sooner than later.