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Hold Up The Train, Goodbye Boys - Vincent Coleman's Last Message

Everyone familiar with Canada's Heritage Moments Series (consisting of one minute short films depicting a significant event, person or story in Canadian History) has seen the one honouring Halifax's Vincent Coleman. Coleman was a railway dispatcher who worked at the Richmond railway station in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the morning of December 6, 1917, after the Mont Blanc and Imo collided in the harbour, a sailor was sent ashore to warn people of the danger they were in. The french cargo ship, SS Mont Blanc, loaded with explosives, was on fire and would soon explode. Coleman set to find safety with his boss, William Lovett, but returned to the railway station to send his final message. Passenger Train Number 10 with 300 souls onboard, was set to arrive in Halifax at 8:55am directly beside the burning ship and Vince Coleman was going to make sure it did not.

Although there are slight variations of the wording of his final message, it is most widely reported as, "“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

Photo Credit NS Archives

Coleman's station was only 750 feet away from the centre of the blast. It is almost certain he died instantly. His body was recovered a few days later in the wreckage of the railway station.

There is some confusion as to whether or not his heroics stopped Train number 10 that day. Some reports say it was running late so would not have been in danger from the blast anyway. But one report from the Moncton Transcript newspaper on December 7, 1917 states clearly that Coleman saved the lives of all passengers and crew on Train 10 that day. It explains that because of Coleman's message, the train was held by the dispatcher at Rockingham for 15 minutes. Although the train was 4 miles away from the city of Halifax, the its windows were shattered from the explosion. Perhaps this explains the reports of the train being behind schedule, as it was held up on its route, making it late for its Halifax arrival. Seems the confusion as to whether or not Coleman's message saved those on board Train 10 may be from people not understanding why it was running late. That reason seems to be the heroics of Vince Coleman on December 6, 1917.

Vincent Coleman's message did more than just save the lives of those on Train Number 10. Everyone on the Intercolonial Railway would have heard that message, alerting all trains en route to Halifax of the danger. Coleman's message was followed up soon afterwards by a more detailed message of the ensuing catastrophe, from an official of Halifax Intercolonial. As a result of this information, Intercolonial sent six different trains to Halifax full of first responders, medical supplies and wrecking crews. These trains came from Moncton, New Brunswick, Amherst, New Glasgow, Kentville and Truro, providing critical care during the vital first hours, no doubt saving hundreds of lives who would have otherwise succumbed to their injuries. The American relief trains did not arrive until two days later.

On the morning of December 6, 1917, Vincent Coleman's wife, Frances, and toddler daughter, Eileen, were at the family home, which was located 2000 feet from the blast. Both Frances and Eileen (who would turn two on January 7, 1918) were seriously injured in the explosion. Eileen's neck was badly cut by the kitchen sink when it fell down on her. The little blue dress she was wearing that day (made by her mother) is on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The bloodstains from her injury are still visible on the tiny garment.

Frances suffered serious back injuries. Gerald and Eleanor Coleman, who were at school at the time of the explosion, took their mother and little sister to Gottigen Street. From there, soldiers took the two to Camp Hill Hospital where they received treatment. Although Frances and her four children survived, their house collapsed and burned. It would take a year and a half for Frances to recover from her injuries. Her children first lived with their grandmother on Edward Street in Halifax and then with other family members in Pictou. The children were reunited with their mother after she fully recovered. She then raised the four children on her own.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has several artifacts from the Coleman family on display including the telegraph key he used to send his final message, his wallet and pen and the dress Eileen Coleman was wearing that day.

On 14 March, 2018, a few months after the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a dedication ceremony was held in which one of Halifax's ferries was named the Vincent Coleman. A fitting tribute for a man who sacrificed his life saving people he didn't know.

The death register shows him as being 42 years old when he died. Vincent Coleman is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

According to geneological records he was born Patrick Vincent Coleman on 13 March 1874 which would have made him 43 years old when he died in the Halifax Explosion. This corroborates what was inscribed on his gravestone by his wife, Frances.

Frances was born Frances Amelia O'Toole on October 23, 1877. She died on June 11, 1970. Frances and Vincent were married on June 17, 1902 and had four children together: Juanita (Nita) Mary Madeline Frances (born April 4, 1904) Gerald Patrick (born March 29, 1906), Eleanor Ester (born March 12, 1910) and Mary Eileen Frances (born January 7, 1916).


Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Vincent Coleman

He loved the railway and he loved his job: Halifax ferry dedicated to Vincent Coleman - CBC

The ordinary man who died for strangers when 'Mont Blanc" exploded - CBC

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