John U. Bacon is many things: a journalist, a public speaker, a sports writer, radio commentator and an University of Michigan educator. He is also, he says, “an average hockey player, a mediocre Spanish speaker, and a poor piano player.” But above all, Bacon is a storyteller of enormous talent.
Bacon will take the City Opera House stage on Nov. 29 to speak about his book The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, soon to come out in paperback.
The story tells of a World War I munitions ship blowing up in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, instantly leveling the village, killing 2,000, and wounding and blinding an estimated 9,000 people. The event will appeal to history buffs, as well as those in need of an inspiring story; within hours of hearing about the explosion, the city leaders of Boston marshaled ships and trains to deliver medical supplies, food, blankets, doctors and nurses.
John Bacon’s event wraps up the National Writers Series’ fall season. The year of 2018 will be National Writers Series’ most successful, with an estimated 8,000 attendees, up 2,000 from last year! That means 33 percent more folks came into downtown Traverse City in 2018 to attend an NWS event.
We caught up with Bacon to talk about his newest book.
Q: Why did you want to tell this story?
A: When I was a child my grandfather told me this story. He was 12 years old in New Brunswick in 1917 when it happened. Years later I was writing a different book and found out about Joseph Barss who was the University of Michigan Hockey Founder. He was one of the first people to make it to the scene to help the people of Halifax. I knew I’d heard the story of the Explosion and I knew I had to tell about how Joseph Barss was involved.
Q: Can you give us a summary of your book?
A: On the morning December 6 1917, the French Ship, Mont Blanc approached Halifax, Nova Scotia. On board were 6 million pounds of TNT, picric acid, and airplane fuel. Just a small spark could detonate this gigantic floating bomb-- and that’s just what happened. At 9:04 the ship explodes, destroying half of the city, and leaving 11,000 people dead or hurt. That’s where the people of Boston come in, leaving their city to help the injured people purely out of kindness.
Q: Can you explain the Canada- America hostility and how Boston helped ease it?
A: Most Americans would be surprised that Canada and The United States were ever enemies. We’ve only been allies for 101 years. Since the Halifax explosion. We went to war with Canada twice and Nova Scotia supplied the South during the Civil-War. But when Boston sent help after the Halifax explosion, barriers melted. Now Canada is our biggest trading partner. They’re as big as Germany, Japan, and China combined.
Q: Why did Boston decide to help the people of Halifax?
A: Mainly out of good-will. The shipping channels give Boston and Halifax a lot in common, and a lot of people in Boston have family in Halifax. The guy who built Fenway Park is actually from Halifax. There was no self interest involved. That’s what makes it so great.
Q: Tell us about the main character, Joseph Barrs. Why did you choose to write about him?
A: The real reason is because he’s like Forrest Gump. He was everywhere. He was born in Nova Scotia, and he went to Montreal to learn business. After that he went to war in 1915. In the war he was blown up and told he was never going to be able to walk without a cane again, but he was determined to. He was in Nova Scotia when the ship exploded so he went to Halifax he helped sew people up without anesthetic, which inspired him to go to medical school at The University of Michigan. He was originally from Canada, and hated Americans, but after seeing the people of Boston help the people of Halifax, he changed his mind about them, and actually became an American himself.
Q: Why didn’t the Imo move out of the way for the Mont Blanc?
A: I tell about this in the Dangerous Dance section of the book. When the Mont Blanc was travelling on the right side of the channel, the ship it eventually crashed into, the Imo, was moving on the wrong side and refused to go to the correct side. It was like they were playing a game of chicken. Finally, the Mont Blanc decided to turn to the other side, but so did the Imo and they ended up crashing.
Q: Why didn’t the crew of the Mont Blanc warn the townspeople that the ship would blow up?
A: That’s a good question. And no one really knows, besides them. The most sympathetic way of looking at it is that the crew might’ve thought that the ship would explode immediately. They thought that they wouldn’t even survive fleeing the ship. The more pessimistic way of looking at it is that they were only concerned about their own lives and were trying to get off of the ship and out of that area as fast as possible regardless of what might happen to anyone else.
John Bacon is a public speaker, sports fanatic, sports writer, business writer, and historian. He has written ten books, the last six of which were New York Times Best sellers.
National Writers Series Event Information:
Doors open at 6 pm with live music, Morsels and a cash bar. The event starts at 7 pm, followed by a book signing at 8:30 pm.
For tickets, call City Opera House at 231-941-8082, ext. 201, buy them at the Box Office, or online. Tickets are $5 for students, $15 for reserved seats and $25 for premium reserved seats.