Dec. 6, 1917 may have been the day that eventually brought Joseph Ernest Barss to Riverside. It was perhaps the most catastrophic day in a young life that already had witnessed apocalypse.
It was life-changing for the 25-year-old Barss, who would use an event that killed about 2,000 people, injured thousands more and devastated a city as motivation to dedicate his life to healing.
Joseph E. Barss was born in 1892 in India to John H. Barss, a Baptist minister who was in that country as a missionary, and his wife, Libby.
John Barss had met his wife through Dr. Ernest Dewitt Burton, one of his professors at the Baptist seminary in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.
Mrs. Burton’s sister, Libby, was living with the couple to help care for their children. John Barss fell in love with Libby and the two married.
Burton would go on to become president of the University of Chicago, and Joseph E. Barss would be a frequent guest at his aunt and uncle’s Hyde Park home during holidays in the early 1920s, according to Barss’ grandson, Joe Barss.
The missionary family didn’t stay in India very long. Libby suffered complications delivering her son and the family traveled back home to Nova Scotia to nurse Libby back to health.
Back home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, John and Libby called their only child by his middle name, Ernest.
It wasn’t a casual decision. Their son was named after his great-grandfather, Joseph Barss Jr., who was something like a Canadian national hero.
Joseph Barss Jr. won fame as a privateer for the British during the War of 1812, seizing about 100 United States ships in less than a year before he was captured and imprisoned. Though he was later paroled and retired to a Nova Scotia farm, the Barss family, and Canada generally, remained wary of the country to their south.
And as war raged in Europe in the years after 1914 and Canadian soldiers were being killed in France, Ernest fumed about the United States’ hesitation to join the fight.
“You know we have always been a trifle contemptuous of the U.S. … on account of their prolonged delay in entering the war,” Ernest wrote to his Uncle Andrew shortly after the day that would be the most momentous in his life.
Ernest attended Acadia University in his hometown of Wolfville and was working in Montreal for the Imperial Oil Company in 1914 when war broke out in Europe. After Canada suffered dreadful casualties during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, Ernest enlisted in the Canadian Army and, according to his grandson, Joe, became a machine gunner in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry regiment.
By June 1916, Ernest’s unit was still near Ypres, Belgium, near a place called Mont Sorrel when he was severely wounded by a trench mortar shell, knocking him unconscious for hours, said his grandson.
“He was rescued and spent months in England recovering from a severe contusion of the spine and ‘shell shock,'” Joe Barss said. “He dragged a left foot for years and had a tremor of his hands.”
Ernest’s experience in the trenches resulted in some “quirks,” his great-grandson said. It took him years and years to open up about his experiences to his wife. And, decades later, Ernest still was sensitive to loud noises and would “hit the ground” if he heard a loud whistling noise. He’d also be brought to tears at the sound of bagpipes, which had played his regiment’s troops in and out of battle on the Western Front.
Sent back to Nova Scotia in early 1917 to recover from his battle wounds, Ernest assisted on the home front as a military representative to help raise funds for the war effort and to boost recruitment. He was discharged from the army in October 1917 and had no idea where his future led.
At about 8:45 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, a steamer called the Mont Blanc began to pull out of the dock into the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia – about 65 miles away from the Barss family home in Wolfville – to begin its voyage to Bordeaux, France.
The ship was loaded from top to bottom with high explosives.
According to John U. Bacon, author of the definitive book “The Great Halifax Explosion,” the Mont Blanc carried “one of the largest caches of high explosives ever loaded onto a ship: 62 tons of gun cotton, similar to dynamite; 246 tons of a new and particularly combustible airplane fuel called benzol, packed in 494 thin steel drums and stacked three and four barrels high; 250 tons of TNT; and 2,366 tons of picric acid, a notoriously unstable and poisonous chemical more powerful than its cousin, TNT, which was used to make shells, the Great War’s principle weapon.”
Bacon wrote that the cargo alone weighed about 3,000 tons.
As the Mont Blanc steamed through the harbor, it collided with another ship. What followed, according to Bacon, was the most powerful man-made explosion until Hiroshima.
The blast, Bacon wrote, “blew out windows 50 miles away, rendered 25,000 people homeless in an instant, wounded 9,000 more, often horrifically, and killed 2,000, most of them in a flash.”
Word of the explosion reached the Barss home at about 11 a.m. and Ernest initially thought the description of what had happened “greatly exaggerated.”
Within 30 minutes, however, Wolfville was buzzing. An “urgent call for doctors and nurses” was followed by a call on the Barss’ telephone.
“Dr. Elliott, one of our physicians here, knowing the experience I had had at the front in first aid, called me up and asked me to come along,” Ernest wrote to his Uncle Andrew a week after the explosion.
By 2:30 p.m., Ernest and a train full of doctors and nurses was on the outskirts of Halifax. The scene before them was “a blazing mass of ruins.”
“I saw some terrible scenes of desolation and ruin at the front,” Ernest wrote, “but never, even in that old hard-hammered city of Ypres did I ever see anything so absolutely complete. In that entire area of over three square miles in the immediate vicinity of the explosion there was not one stick or stone standing on another.”
Compounding the devastation had been a tidal wave, triggered by the explosion, “about 30 feet high by all accounts which had swept over everything,” Ernest wrote.
Ernst wrote in detail to his Uncle Andrew about what he experienced during the next 48 hours, of the hundreds of dead, men, women and, in particular, “the most pitiful part of it all, little children.”
Ernest helped dress wounds and set fractures, working until 4 a.m. that first day amid conditions in which seasoned nurses “keeled over at the sights.” He woke up for another round of duty on Dec. 7 at 8:30 a.m. and worked until 3:30 the next morning, “when we were so tired we were just running about in circles.”
He and other first responders were relieved by noon on Dec. 8.
“I thought nothing would ever ‘phase’ me again,” Ernest wrote to his Uncle Andrew. “But I can’t get over the horrors down there.”
The experience did one other thing to Ernest – it changed his view of the United States.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a relief train that included doctors and nurses, along with medical and hospital supplies left the city of Boston and made the more than 650-mile journey to Halifax within 36 hours despite a blizzard that followed the explosion.
“I tell you we’ll never be able to say enough about the wonderful help the States have sent,” Ernest wrote. “The response was so spontaneous and everything done even before it was asked for. It brought tears to all our eyes when they came and told us a little of what had been done by the U.S. on Friday night [Dec. 7].”
Though he’d been “a trifle contemptuous” of the U.S. in the past, his mind had been forever changed on that score.
“They can have anything I’ve got,” he wrote to his uncle. “And I don’t think I feel any differently from anyone down here either.”
“That was a life-changing moment for him,” Joe Barss said of his grandfather’s experience in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion.
By 1919, at the age of 27, Ernest had enrolled at the medical college of the University of Michigan. While at the school, he started and became the first head coach of the University of Michigan men’s ice hockey team, a post he’d hold until 1927.
An award named after him is still given annually to a member of the University of Michigan men’s hockey team “who best exemplifies the true team player.”
While at the university, he met Helen Kolb of Battle Creek, Michigan. The two married and had two children, whom they named Joseph and Libby, named after Ernest’s beloved aunt in Chicago, Libby Burton, by then a widow. Soon, the family would be moving closer to her.
In February 1929, Dr. Joseph E. Barss – in the U.S. he went by his first name, since no one there knew anything about his buccaneering great-grandfather – his wife and kids moved into their new home at 272 Bartram Road in Riverside.
Just a few doors down lived Joseph Rein, a fellow World War I veteran who later would be commander of the Riverside’s American Legion post.
Dr. Barss, according to his grandson, worked at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn before taking a post treating his adopted compatriots, U.S. veterans of the Great War, at Hines V.A. Hospital. He eventually established a private practice in Oak Park.
He joined the Riverside Golf Club, said Joe Barss, and was a 2-handcap. Joe Barss’ father, also named Joseph – the legendary privateer remained a powerful naming influence in the family – told his son that he relished sneaking out of his home on summer nights, going to the golf club and climbing the fence to go swimming in the pool.
Dr. and Helen Barss lived in the Bartram Road home until 1959, when Dr. Barss retired and they moved to Florida. Joe Barss was just 6 years old when his grandparents made the move, but he still carries with him memories of Thanksgiving dinners on Bartram Road, with his grandfather carving the turkey.
Many of Dr. Barss’ personal records, including letters to his family during the war, were later donated by his son to the University of Michigan, which later donated the collection to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
“He died in 1971,” said Joe Barss, adding that his grandfather never really talked about his experiences as a younger man. “I wish I’d known that stuff back then.”