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Dartmouth lies on the east shore of Halifax Harbour, and Halifax is on the west shore.
Halifax and Dartmouth had thrived during times of war; the harbour was one of the British Royal Navy's most important bases in North America, a centre for wartime trade, and a home to privateers who harried the British Empire's enemies during the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812.
Ships were expected to keep to the starboard (right) side of the channel as they passed oncoming traffic; in other words, vessels were required to pass port to port.
In 1915, management of the harbour fell under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy under the supervision of Captain Superintendent Edward Harrington Martin; by 1917 there was a growing naval fleet in Halifax, including patrol ships, tugboats, and minesweepers. Bedford Basin is top left and the Narrows between Dartmouth and Halifax leads towards the Atlantic off the bottom on the right.
The explosion occurred on the south (Halifax) shore of the Narrows, midway between the present-day A. Macdonald (orange) bridges.s departure was delayed as her coal load did not arrive until late that afternoon.
Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry her cargo of high explosives from New York via Halifax to Bordeaux, France.
At roughly am, she collided at low speed, approximately one knot (1.2 mph or 1.9 km/h), with the unladen Imo, chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of relief supplies in New York.
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Mackey gave a short blast of his ship's signal whistle to indicate that he had the right of way, but was met with two short blasts from Imo, indicating that the approaching vessel would not yield its position.