A History of Disaster: The Worst Storms, Accidents, and Conflagrations in Atlantic Canada.


208 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-55109-651-3
DDC 971.5






Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.


At a time when our media informs us in endless detail of tragedies like helicopter crashes into the ocean, bus/truck collisions in Argentina, and the ongoing saga of the world’s financial meltdown, we might wonder how many would want to read about past accidents, whether of the Halifax Explosion or the Ocean Ranger disaster. Yet these stories continue to hold a grim fascination, and this collection by Ken Smith, a retired mining lab technician turned author, is a graphic reminder of how danger and disasters have always been with us, an inevitable part of the human experience, especially for those of us living in Atlantic Canada.


In Part 1, covering the pre-1900 period, he outlines in crisp prose with supporting photos how massive fires destroyed the communities of Miramichi, Saint John, and Fredericton, New Brunswick, and St. John’s, Newfoundland (on two separate occasions). In each case human carelessness seemed to be the cause. Atlantic storms sank two British sailing ships in 1758 with the loss of hundreds of Acadians being forcibly transported after being expelled from their homeland, while the captain’s poor judgment was to blame for the sinking of an early British passenger steamer off Halifax in 1873. The famed Saxby Gale of 1869 merits a section, as do repeated deadly explosions in Nova Scotia coal mines and the tragic loss of life of Newfoundland sealers in 1892 and again six years later.


Part 2, covering the first half of the 20th century, begins with the Titanic sinking in 1912 and concludes with the mysterious crash of an American passenger plane which ploughed into a hill near the Gander airport in 1946. Part 3, from 1950 to 2003, depicts tragedies made familiar by the modern media, which is fond of running memorial programs as reminders, particularly the more recent ones like the Ocean Ranger drilling rig collapse and the 1998 Swiss Air crash off Peggy’s Cove. The final entry describes the destruction to parts of Nova Scotia from the 2003 Hurricane Juan.


The collection is greatly enhanced by vivid photographs, most of which the author found from provincial archives but also a few from private sources. Despite the sad tales, I found myself as fascinated as I continue to be with the current media’s daily diet of ongoing disasters.


Smith, Ken., “A History of Disaster: The Worst Storms, Accidents, and Conflagrations in Atlantic Canada.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/29022.