Ninety-four-year-old Bill Owen said his life began with a bang and he has been having a blast ever since.
The Dartmouth resident says he just may be the last survivor of the Halifax Explosion.
“I am not entirely sure, because I am not the kind of guy to look for accolades or any of that kind of stuff,” he said. “But at my age, there can’t be too many of us left.”
Owen was born at home on Prince Street in Dartmouth, the youngest of three children. He was seven months old when the Imo and the Mount Blanc collided in the harbour.
“My mother had placed a canopy over my crib where I was sleeping and if it weren’t for that, I probably would not be here today, or I would have been cut up pretty bad by the windows exploding,” he said. “My mother told me there was glass all over the blankets covering me.”
His sister was lucky too.
“There has been debate about the time it happened,” said Owen. “But my Mom told me she yelled to my sister to get a move on or she would be late for school, so it had to be before 9 o’clock when the explosion happened. My sister was on the stairs getting ready and she got blown right down the stairs. She was okay, though.”
His father was a blacksmith and ended up working night and day after the explosion.
“I was told that everyone helped everyone else where they could,” he said. “Dartmouth was that kind of place then.”
Growing up during the depression was tough for young Billy, but he said family and friends rallied round the best they could.
“There was one minister, one priest, one doctor and three police officers in Dartmouth when I was growing up,” he said. “Everyone knew you and they all acted as your friend, psychiatrist, you name it, they were there for you.”
Forget about trying to hide when you got into trouble, though, he said.
“I remember when I was 14, it must have been Grade 8, 1931. I laughed at my teacher Mr. Cohoon. Well he picked me up by the arm and I couldn’t use that arm for a week,” he said. “But you didn’t dare tell your parents.”
Owen’s first job was at T. Eaton’s in 1933 and he made $7 a week for his 63 hours a week on the job.
“I worked in the meat department,” he said. “The T. Eaton Company was kind of like the first Superstore. They sold everything and were called groceterias.”
To get to work in Halifax he caught the ferry. But there were strict rules onboard those ferry boats.
“There was a side for boys and a side for girls,” he said. “ You wouldn’t dare go into the girl’s side unless you had a girlfriend or a wife. And you shared space on the ferry with horses, cars and trollies. It was a happy time.”
As a teenager he played goalie for the Halifax Herald Hockey team and was quite impressed to receive a bit of press back then.
“They mentioned me having a shut out in a small column, and that was great,” he said.
Owen said he was always outspoken and a little daring, too.
“I had my time of fun, that is for sure,” he said. “I used to go to the dances at the Blue Room at the Lord Nelson Hotel and sneak in my pint of 150 proof rum. I paid $2.50 for that bottle and that was good for a few of us. They didn’t serve you alcohol then but they served you pop. I kept pouring from my bottle and had a great night.”
A 27-year-old Billy joined the reserves in 1934 and was well trained when the war began in 1939. He served as a seaman gunner on the Frontenac 335 for many years and returned to Dartmouth in 1945.
Many of his neighbours did not return.
“I knew at least nine or 10 guys just from my own neighbourhood in Dartmouth who did not come home, and of course knew many more from my Navy days that didn’t come back either,” he said.
Owen may be the longest serving member of the Micmac Aquatic Club. He joined back in the 1940s, when rowing was the big thing.
When he first joined Owen said you had to have four sponsors to vouch for you to be a member of MicMac and then you would have to complete a criminal records check before they would even consider you for membership.
“Banook was the elite of Dartmouth and there was great rivalry,” he said. “If you swam over to their dock they would smack your hands, but it was all in good fun.”
Owen lived with is parents until he met the love of his love, Glady.
“ I was 39 years old and was then working at Atlantic Packers,” he said. “I walked in and saw her working there at the office. I told her immediately I was going to marry her, and I did. That is how I did things.”
Atlantic Packers were one of the first businesses in Dartmouth in the freezer business. Before then it was all blocks of ice to keep your food cold, said Owen.
“But I knew I wanted to be my own boss,” said Owen. “So, one day I came home and told my wife I had quit my job, went to the bank and borrowed $1,500 and opened the Dahlia Market. I operated that business from 1971 until I retired 16 years later.”
Owen said he had a wonderful wife to have supported him through his many pursuits. Glady died in 2001. He has three children, five or six grandchildren, he said and still keeps in touch with is wife’s sisters Myrt and Trixie in Halifax.
He still drives during the day, bowls three times a week, hosts horseshoe tournaments in his backyard once a week and has even done background acting in many movies.
“I played a survivor in the movie 'Shattered City' about the explosion,” he said. “That was a lot of fun.”
As far as advice goes, Owen says his motto is simple.
“Always be friendly and nice, don’t let others walk all over you and be willing to take chances,” he said. “ Sometimes it's worth it.”