Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era

Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era

by Jacob A.C. Remes

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252039836
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/30/2015
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jacob A. C. Remes is an assistant professor of public affairs and history at the Metropolitan Center of SUNY Empire State College. He is a winner of the Herbert G. Gutman prize from the Labor and Working-Class History Association and the Eugene A. Forsey Prize from the Canadian Committee on Labour History.

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Disaster Citizenship

Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era

By Jacob A. C. Remes


Copyright © 2016 Jacob A. C. Remes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-08137-8




The morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917, started like any other in Halifax Harbor. It was a clear, sunny day, and the harbor was busy with wartime traffic. The Imo, a Norwegian-owned steamer bound for New York to collect supplies for Belgium, had intended to depart the previous evening but had been delayed, so it was rushing out of the harbor. The French-owned Mont Blanc, bound for Bordeaux laden with explosives for the front, had arrived late the night before and missed the deadline for entering the harbor, so it too was in a hurry. A bit after nine o'clock in the morning, under circumstances that remain controversial, the two ships collided in the narrows of Halifax Harbor. The munitions on the Mont Blanc caught fire and soon exploded in what has been called the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb. Two thousand people died.

The Halifax explosion came suddenly, especially in Richmond, a working-class neighborhood in the city's North End, where longshoremen, building tradesmen, railway workers, and their families lived. Some people had been watching the Mont Blanc burn, but most Haligonians had not known that there was a ship fire, so they were going about their normal lives: starting school, beginning their workday, cleaning up from breakfast. Suddenly there was a loud noise. For those south of the devastated area, there followed a few moments of confusion, maybe even an hour or so, as people first imagined the damage to be local and relatively minor. Soon, though, they learned just how bad things were, either by traveling north themselves, or by meeting people coming from the North End. For those who started in the North End, it was clear from the beginning that something major had happened. The explosion knocked down houses and sent shards of glass flying like daggers, and as survivors started to escape the wreckage and regain their bearings, they had to contend with a rapidly spreading fire, sparked by the flying munitions and upended coal stoves. In Richmond, on the steep hill overlooking the narrows, what had not been destroyed outright by the shock of the explosion burned down. Even in the South End, a district filled with the gracious mansions of the city's elite and the more modest houses of its middle class, doors came off their hinges, plaster crashed down from walls and ceilings, and windows shattered.

At that moment — whatever moment a person learned that something extraordinary had happened — normality was suspended. Small children mustered uncommon bravery to rescue their parents from burning and collapsed houses. Workingmen abandoned their posts to check on their families. Patients long consigned to the Old Ladies' Home wandered outside for the first time in months or years. Untrained women once squeamish at the sight of blood volunteered for hours of nursing duty at hospitals deluged with the wounded. With the mayor traveling and the city council scattered around town, the city's deputy mayor and province's lieutenant governor essentially ceded political authority to a self-constituted group of local worthies. Nearly a quarter century later, writing the novel that remains the foremost cultural depiction of the explosion, Hugh MacLennan summed it up: "It was all queer; it was a revolution in the nature of things."

The nature of that revolution depended on the perspective of the observer. This chapter examines the perspectives of three different kinds of actors and interrogates their perceptions of order and disorder. First are those I call relief workers, mostly middle-class men and women who left their workplaces and homes to help people at the overwhelmed hospitals, rescue the wounded, and clear the dead in the devastated area. Many relief workers extended the roles they played in ordinary times. Volunteer nurses nursed more and in different places. Soldiers worked in the devastated area on their own accord, with little or no oversight. Civilian men and women volunteered their inexpert and unusual labor. What they found, both in the devastated area and in hospitals, surprised some of them. Florence J. Murray, a Dalhousie University medical student, spent the day working at Camp Hill Hospital. She was struck by the "organization without any organization," as scores of people worked alongside each other — trained and untrained, civilian and military — all without direction and on their own authority. This voluntary work was not without hierarchy. Because it was based on people's preexisting social networks or occupational roles, it recapitulated the hierarchy and inequity of ordinary lives. But because their activities threw together strangers, relief workers also negotiated new connections, structures, and hierarchies as they labored.

In contrast stood relief managers, rich and middle-class Haligonians whose first instinct was to go to City Hall, where Red Cross leader May Sexton found "total disorganization." For this second group, the city appeared chaotic and dangerous, and they valiantly wielded telephones, typewriters, and pencils in an exhausting battle against disorder and confusion. The chaos they envisioned was a product of their centralized knowledge being insufficient to the task. To these managers, order was by definition created by central committees and the logic of central commands. To some extent, this was a result of a municipal political culture that revolved around the military and its centralized power structure. But it is also the product of any state-based power. The organic, informal logic that volunteers like Murray created was illegible to people like Sexton. It was for relief managers that the events of December 6 were most literally revolutionary, in that they effectively took over government. Yet if the ordinary organs and activities of democratic governance — the city council, the mayor, the upcoming parliamentary election — were absent or suspended, there was little change because by taking over the municipal state, the relief managers also took over the vantage point and organizational logic of City Hall.

Finally, there were the objects of these relief efforts, those who survived the explosion. In addition to the roughly 2,000 people who died that day or in the immediate aftermath, there were 9,000 who were injured and around 25,000 who were made homeless. Survivors' ideas and experiences of order and disorder were more complex. They enacted a local, informal order by relying on their everyday networks and practices of solidarity. By going to locations and people that played a central role in community life in ordinary times, they maintained the regular order of their normal lives. In the understanding of civic, political, and military leaders — that is, to relief managers who took control of formal relief efforts — this local order was illegible. To crowd at a doctor's home or to go to the local convent was disorderly and dangerous because it ignored a more regimented, from-the-top relief system. Similarly, helping oneself to medical supplies from a drugstore could be viewed from one perspective as disorderly looting but from another as orderly rescue. Thus North End survivors created an order that masqueraded as disorder.

Survivors were also exposed to the opposite, to disorder masquerading as order. Soldiers canvassed Richmond after the explosion, warning that the fire would soon spread to a munitions depot and forcing survivors to evacuate to open fields. The promised second explosion never came, and the embodiments of the state and its order only spread disorder by delaying rescue efforts and exposing the wounded to prolonged winter weather. One sees in these warnings all the ways in which the state is at best an imperfect relief organization because it is made up of fallible individuals who cannot be omniscient. It is also imperfect because it can only understand things from a centralized vantage point.

Order and disorder are relative concepts, understood only in relation to the subject's position. May Sexton, the relief manager who witnessed "total disorganization" in City Hall, was, from her own perspective, correct. People at City Hall indeed had little idea what was going on in the rest of Halifax. Conditions at headquarters were chaotic — rain and snow came in the windows, city officials wandered around drunk, and key elected leaders remained absent. But what Sexton could not see thanks to her literally central vantage point at City Hall was the informal order created on the ground: Florence Murray's "organization without any organization." This chapter explores and analyzes these differing ideas about and experiences of order and disorder.

* * *

Novelist Hugh MacLennan famously called Halifax a place that "periodically sleeps between great wars." Once a major center of Canadian trade and finance, by the early twentieth century Halifax had lost these functions to Montreal and Toronto. Immigrants to urban Canada preferred the cities in the central and western parts of the country, which became the industrial, financial, and political seats of power. Yet MacLennan's comment was unfair, since it suggested that Halifax's awakening came only at the start of World War I and the influx of new people and money. Rather, Haligonians had long been self-conscious participants in the continental progressive movement.

Two middle-class organizations were the most visible purveyors of progressive reform: the Civic Improvement League and the Halifax Local Council of Women. In 1906 prosperous professionals and businessmen founded the former, initially as a committee of the Board of Trade designed to encourage civic uplift and urban beautification. Frustrated by the failure of the elected city council to resolve what the league perceived as the city's most serious problems, its members shifted their focus to reforming municipal government. They succeeded in creating a hybrid system with both a Board of Control and a city council in 1913. While Halifax was late to reorganize government — by the time the Nova Scotia legislature approved the change, Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Saint John all had boards of control or commissions — the league encouraged Halifax and Nova Scotia to move more quickly than other Canadian cities and provinces to establish the first city-planning ordinances and laws. The league fell into inactivity in the middle of 1916, and it was formally folded into the Commercial Club in 1917. While it lasted, the Civic Improvement League fit neatly into a Progressive-Era model: an organization of middle-class and professional men interested in municipal government reform, land use, and city beautification.

The men who ran the Civic Improvement League discouraged women from joining, but their female counterparts had their own organization. The Halifax Local Council of Women organized around questions of health, housing, clean milk, the cost of living, and education. It ran the Women's Department at the provincial exhibition hall, and it helped to found the Children's Hospital, the Anti-Tuberculosis League, and the Halifax Welfare Bureau. It also brought the playground movement to Halifax, creating supervised play spaces in the North End. As leaders in interlocking organizations of women, Halifax's progressive women controlled a large network of middle-class and elite women who knew the city, its people, and its geography. Although their volunteer work meant their knowledge of the city was often detailed and action-oriented, there does not seem to be any instance of their working with poorer women, rather than for them. Their knowledge of Halifax's working-class communities was that of outsiders.

Halifax's progressives, especially women, had particularly close connections to their counterparts in the United States. In some instances these connections were biographical; of the leading progressive women in the city, Eliza Ritchie had studied at Cornell and taught at Wellesley, May Sexton had grown up in Boston and studied at MIT, and Edith Archibald had grown up in New York. But Haligonians continued to build connections even while at home. The Council of Women, for instance, hosted a lecture by Alice Stebbins, the first policewoman in the United States. In 1915, the Civic Improvement League hosted John Sewall, who had led a civic uplift program in Boston, in order for him to spread his ideas to Halifax. Halifax's progressives also existed in a national context, and the Council of Women was the local branch of an organization based in Ontario. Prime Minister Robert Borden, whose government oversaw a number of progressive reforms, represented Halifax in parliament.

Following the progressive impulse to document and find solutions, Halifax's elite hired Archibald MacMechan — an English professor and librarian at Dalhousie, a noted man of letters and Carlyle scholar, and, most important, the neighbor and close friend of the chairman of the rehabilitation subcommittee — to open the Halifax Disaster Record Office. Like Philadelphia's Byron Deacon and Salem's Montayne Perry, MacMechan intended to write a history of the explosion that could serve as both a definitive record and a manual for future disasters. But crippled by depression and faced with waning interest from the relief authorities, MacMechan never finished his manuscript, and it was only published in 1978. Nonetheless, he and his assistant, Dalhousie undergraduate John Hanlon Mitchell, compiled a remarkable archive of letters, reports, and, most important, oral histories. It is this archive that serves as the primary documentary base of this chapter.

After the explosion, middle-class and elite progressives, working on the basis of their predisaster organizations and habits of thought and action, set up a system that valued managerial order: committees and subcommittees, reports and detailed paperwork. In contrast, others, including middle-class relief workers and the survivors themselves, created a spontaneous order based on their preexisting networks and solidarities. The different ways that Haligonians created and understood order and disorder in their ruined city were often in conflict.

* * *

When the explosion came, most people's first thoughts were of their families. "Workmen employed in the centre of the City whose homes were in the North End hurried from the shops to find out what had happened to their wives and children," MacMechan wrote. Soldiers, sailors, and officers all ran to check on their families, many stopping to ask permission, but not all. Those who were still at home, too, thought first of their families. When M. J. Burris, a Dartmouth physician, first heard the collision, he ran to gather up his wife, daughter, and maid and brought them into the basement, so they were downstairs and away from shattered windows when the explosion came. It is telling that although he told MacMechan about bringing his maid into the cellar, she disappeared from the rest of his story; only his family mattered at the height of the crisis. Parents rushed to find their children. The principal of Bloomfield High School recalled parents running to the school to get their children. Arthur Frye, the foreman at the Nova Print Company, hurried home to his flat on Garrish Street to find his wife "screeching," frantically trying to rescue their baby from the wood and plaster that had fallen onto the bed. Happily, they found the baby under the bed unharmed and their other child blown safely into the backyard.

Not all stories ended as happily as the Fryes' did. Eric Grant was an army lieutenant and the son of the province's lieutenant governor. Home from France on leave that morning, he helped in the devastated area, but there were times he could do nothing. He wrote of meeting a wailing sailor "walking up and down in a dazed and distracted way." "'This is my trouble, Sir,' he said, between great sobs, and taking me around to the other side of the tumbled down house he knelt down beside three prone and lifeless bodies. They were those of his mother, wife and daughter." Throughout the city, men and women faced the same emotional devastation. Worse than their material losses, that was their trouble.

For those who were not injured, who did not have a close family member who needed attention, and who were not distracted by their own overwhelming grief, thoughts could turn elsewhere. Relief workers lent their bodies and their labor to help those in need. Often without direction or even suggestion, they went to the devastated area or to hospitals to help the rescue effort. That others who had not been there later derided their work as disorderly and inefficient suggests the way on-the-ground, ad hoc volunteer efforts remained illegible to those in authority. They created order and efficiency without direction. But upon closer examination it becomes clear that even the middle-class volunteers who appear to have had little or no connection with those they were helping were not being randomly altruistic. Rather, they were reenacting their own everyday forms of solidarity in extraordinary times.


Excerpted from Disaster Citizenship by Jacob A. C. Remes. Copyright © 2016 Jacob A. C. Remes. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 "Organization without Any Organization": Order and Disorder in Exploded Halifax 21

2 "A Great Power Had Swept Over It": Politics and Power after the Salem Fire 54

3 "It Is Easy Enough to Establish Camps": Geographies of Community and Resistance in Burned Salem 78

4 "The Relief Would Have Had to Pay Someone": Halifax Families and the Work of Relief 105

5 "A Desirable Measure of Responsibility": Halifax's Churches and Unions Respond to the Progressive State 132

6 "The Sufferings of This Time Are Not Worthy to Be Compared with the Glory That Is to Come": Salem Workers Build Power in the Church and Factory 165

Conclusion: Cities of Comrades 189

Notes 201

Bibliography 245

Index 277

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