Tiny stamp tells story of massive blast that wrecked Halifax 100 years ago

Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. Arthur J. LeBlanc, left, and Andy Fillmore, MP for the federal riding of Halifax, unveil the Canada Post Halifax Explosion commemorative stamp in Halifax on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - A new stamp dramatically illustrates the scene in Halifax harbour leading up to the massive explosion that devastated the city 100 years ago next month, killing 2,000 people, injuring 9,000 and leaving 25,000 homeless.

"Everyone in Halifax is familiar with the event because it really shaped our city. But I think that somebody in Saskatchewan or Vancouver or somewhere else in the world may not know about the Halifax Explosion and what an incredible disaster it was," designer Larry Burke said as the Canada Post Halifax Explosion stamp was unveiled Monday.

"Part of the mandate was to somehow tell the story in a tiny stamp in a way that people would understand what happened."

The stamp depicts the moments after the French munitions vessel Mont Blanc collided with the Norwegian flagged Belgian relief ship Imo in Halifax harbour on Dec. 6, 1917.

The image of the ships, with Imo in reverse and Mont Blanc in the distance beginning to send smoke from a gash near its bow, is combined with a newspaper headline from 1917 saying "Halifax Wrecked."

Burke said the challenge for his artistic team was to tell the story in a way that had enough impact so people would understand the "enormity" of the tragedy. Burke said the newspaper headline that ran in the next day's Halifax Herald was key to the concept.

"When I saw the newspaper headline, to me that said everything. It was so impactful we said that's got to be a part of it, that's the concept. And then we thought of how do we combine that with other imagery to help tell the story."

The blast that resulted from the harbour collision is considered the largest human-made explosion in history prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

Burke said he and co-designer Anna Stredulinsky were mindful that the stamp, unveiled by Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov Arthur J. LeBlanc in a ceremony, needed to be "respectful and appropriate to the tone of the disaster."

Burke said illustrator Mike Little was able to take the design vision and bring it to life using ship blueprints and a three dimensional model that examined the image from a number of angles before one was chosen.

Explosion researcher Joel Zemel consulted with Little, who has also illustrated Titanic and Franklin Expedition commemorative stamps. The pair's collaboration occurred over two and a half months last year.

Little said without Zemel's help it would have been impossible to depict the moment in time — about 20 minutes before the explosion — with historical accuracy.

"Because of Joel I had the time of day, the position of the sun, the type of sea," said Little. "So in terms of the information it was very easy to actually get that done."

Nikki Forest, Canada Post's manager of operations for the Atlantic region, said she believes the design team has come up with a "powerful" stamp.

"It certainly depicts the impact of the events that happened on that fateful day," Forest said.


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