Hello From Nova Scotia – A Halifax City Tour, Learning About the Titanic and the 1917 Explosion

Well, in the few hours that I had spent so far in this city, Halifax had already shown itself from its best side. After my fairly late arrival yesterday I had a chance for a brief walk along the waterfront before I saw an amazing performance of DRUM! – an inspiring and heart-pumping musical kaleidoscope of Nova Scotia’s four principal cultures: Black, Acadian, Aboriginal and Celtic. An awesome introduction to this city….

This morning I got up early since I wanted to discover the waterfront in the daylight before joining a city tour that would give me a good overview of what Halifax has to offer. I realized that the batteries of my digital camera were very low and wanted to buy a couple of replacement AA batteries, so I criss-crossed the city from one location to another to find batteries, but to no avail. Stores that I was directed to were either still closed or they had just run out of batteries. Well, that meant that by 9 am I had already spent a solid 40 minutes zig-zagging across the downtown core and getting a bit of an overview of the central area of the city.

At 9 am I joined a group of tourists to go on a city tour provided by “the Company with the Kilts”. What makes this city tour unique is that the historically inspired trolleys are accompanied by knowledgeable, humorous guides that are dressed up – you guessed it – in a kilt. On this sunny October day, our guide was Allen Mackenzie, whose extensive historic knowledge and witty comments kept the entire vehicle entertained.

We started along the waterfront where Allen pointed out the historic warehouses that are part of the “Historic Properties” complex. These warehouses used to store the loot of the privateers, pirates that were licensed by the British Crown to raid enemy ships. Today these former warehouses have been transformed into a series of retail and restaurant locations while retaining their historical appeal.

Close by is Halifax’ Casino, which Allen quite aptly referred to as the city’s “Centre of Voluntary Taxation”. We made our way to Grand Parade, originally a parade ground and today a large public square which is anchored on the south side by St. Paul’s Church, Halifax’ first and oldest church dating back to 1749 – the year the city was founded. On the north side we saw Halifax City Hall, whose construction was started in 1887. In the centre of the Grand Parade is the Cenotaph, a war memorial erected in 1929 that commemorates three major conflicts: the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War. To the west is Citadel Hill and the Old Town Clock. One of the city’s major landmarks, the Old Town Clock was given to the city by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and future father of Queen Victoria, in 1803 to ensure that all Haligonians would have a chance to be aware of the time of day and not have an excuse for being late for work. This treasured time piece has kept people on schedule ever since.

Our trolley bus snaked its way through town while Allen told us enlightening and often humorous stories of the historic characters that called this city home. We then drove through an area called Spring Garden Road that has a lot of established retail shopping opportunities before we arrived at another major Halifax attraction: the Halifax Public Gardens. This is where we were ushered out of the bus in order to connect with our bagpiper who would take us on a walk through the gardens while Allen would pick us up on the other side.

Well, as fate would have it, the bagpiper never showed up, but Allen with his good humour took us halfway into the beautiful public garden and asked us to all meet up on the north-west side of the gardens where he would meet us in a few minutes with the trolley. He also explained that the Halifax Public Gardens are the second most renowned Victorian gardens in Canada after Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C.

Our guide went on to explain that in order to qualify for a formal Victorian garden, a green space would have to meet the following requirements:

– it would have to be more than 10 acres in size

– bridges would need to be wide enough to accommodate two women in hoop skirts, a high Victorian fashion

– the facility would need to have a bandstand, and

– two mated swans in a pond would be required to make it a true Victorian Garden.

He pointed out that Hurricane Juan devastated the Halifax area; many of the old established trees in different parts of the city including the Public Gardens were destroyed. This public garden is a very historic place: its origins date back all the way to 1836 when the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society set out to create a public garden that would be “accessible to all classes”. The bandstand was erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee while the Jubilee (Nymph) Fountain was erected in 1897 to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The pond in the heart of the gardens is called Griffin’s Pond and was named after a young Irishman who was actually hanged for murder on the east side of the pond in the 1830s. Allen pointed out a miniature model of the Titanic ocean liner that was floating on the pond which years ago was actually remote-controlled and could be directed all over this waterway. Halifax has a huge connection to the Titanic, as you will hear shortly.

After our 20 minute stopover at the Public Gardens we headed towards our next stop, another place of great historical significance: the Halifax Citadel. Again we had about 20 or 30 minutes to get out of the bus and explore the Citadel on foot. The admission price was included in the city tour. The Halifax Citadel is Canada’s is one of Canada’s most visited historic sites. Due to the strategic location of this hill overlooking the harbour, Citadel Hill was singled out very early on as a location for a fortress. The first fortification was built in 1761 while the current version was completed in 1856, after 30 years of construction.

The Citadel is a phenomenal vantage point for overlooking the city. The entire harbour area comes into view, and you can see all the way across the bay to Dartmouth. Allen pointed out that the Halifax Citadel was considered the “most terrible fortification” in British North America, and indeed no attempts to attack it were ever made.

Our group arrived just in time for the rifle presentation. Several “soldiers” (in reality they are Halifax university students) were dressed up in full historic military costumes, carrying rifles, and our group would get an actual demonstration of a real rifle shooting during our brief stopover. One of the young soldiers explained that the rifles weigh 8 to 9 pounds, and with the bayonette attached the weight goes up to about 13 pounds. He allowed me to lift the rifle which made me realize that this was definitely not light-weight combat. Then he proceeded to shoot the rifle several times against the citadel’s wall, creating several loud bangs that reverberated throughout the entire walled-in fortress.

After this quick stop we proceeded westwards through town where Allen pointed out Dalhousie University, one of the 5 major universities in town. We passed through a west-end neighbourhood where houses cost somewhere between C$800,000 and C$1,500,000 according to Allen. Our next and final stop during the tour was the Fairview Cemetery where Halifax’ connection to the Titanic disaster became most evident.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic, a brand-new and supposedly “unsinkable” ship, was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The ship, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of the day, was carrying about 2200 passengers and crew when the ship collided about 11:30 pm with an iceberg. The Titanic carried enough lifeboats for just about half the number of people which surprisingly was in compliance with legislation in force at that time. Many of the lifeboats were lowered into the ice-cold Atlantic only half full, and at about 2 am in the morning of April 15, 1912, the unfathomable happened: the ship’s stern rose up and the world’s first unsinkable ocean liner went down into the cold depths of the North Atlantic.

Of a total of 2,223 people, only 706 survived while 1517 perished. Some of the famous victims included John Jacob Astor IV and most of the ship’s crew, including the entire orchestra who had played tunes on deck until the ship’s sinking. First class passengers had a much higher rate of survival than second and especially third class passengers. Some of the exits from the lower decks for the third class passengers were even locked, preventing many of those passengers from accessing the lifeboats.

In the aftermath of the disaster, at about 4:10 am, the RMS Carpathia picked up the first lifeboat and continued to rescue survivors. The survivors were eventually taken to New York City while a total of 328 bodies were eventually recovered. Many of those were taken to Halifax where they were meticulously registered with all descriptive features and personal possessions stored in a canvas bag. Halifax therefore became a key location in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. 121 of these victims were buried at the Fairview Cemetery while 29 other victims were buried at the Roman Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery and the Jewish Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.

Our final stop on this city tour was the Fairview Cemetery which is the largest burial ground of Titanic victims in the world. Allen took us to a corner of the cemetery where there were three lines of white gravestones, all arranged in lines of different curvatures that symbolic reflect the shape of an ocean liner on the top deck, the waterline and under water. Allen explained that the gravestones were erected by the White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic.

The gravestones are very small and simple, and Allen added if people wanted a larger gravestone they would have had to pay extra for a larger version. He pointed out the grave of the “Unknown Child”, the youngest victim recovered who remained unidentified. The headstone reads “Erected to the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster of the “Titanic” April 15th 1912″. Allen recounted various speculations that surfaced over the years of who this unknown child might have been. In 2002 finally it was determined through DNA evidence that the unknown child was actually Eino Viljami Panula of Finland whose mother and four brothers had also died in this disaster.

Allen also mentioned that the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 by an American-French expedition. The wreck had broken into two pieces on the ocean floor, with the stern section lying about 600 m from the bow section and facing in the opposite direction. What was really significant was that when scientists compared the geographical orientation of one of the wrecks with the orientation of the graves at the Fairview Cemetery, they were positioned with almost the same geographical orientation. Hearing this sent shivers up my spine, when I realized that the wreck of the world’s most famous shipping disaster could coincide so accurately with the positioning of the cemetery holding its greatest number of victims. Things like these are almost too much of a coincidence.

On our way back from the cemetery, Allen enlightened us about another Halifax disaster: the 1917 Halifax Explosion – the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in human history which occurred on December 6, 1917. During the First World War many ships used Halifax as a strategic port for their ocean voyages to Europe to partake in the War. On this fateful day many ships were lined up in the Bedford Basin to leave the harbour to start the voyage while other ships were entering the harbour from the other direction.

The Mont-Blanc, a French freighter arrived at the Halifax harbour, waiting to be let into the port. Fatefully, it was carrying thousands of tons of explosives including benzol, nitrocellulose and TNT. A Norwegian ship, the Imo, was trying to depart through the right harbour channel, but another ship was blocking its way, so the Imo veered to the left, directly into the path of the Mont Blanc. Both ships refused to yield, leading to a collision at about 8:45 am that ignited the benzene that was stored on deck of the Mont Blanc. With the fire out of control and knowing their cargo, the ship’s crew immediately abandoned the ship while hundreds of people were drawn to the harbour to watch the fire. At about 9:04 am the Mont Blanc finally exploded, instantly vapourizing the ship in a fireball that rose over one mile into the air. The force of the explosion triggered a tsunami that reached up to 18 meters above the high water mark. The explosion could be heard as far away as Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, about 175 kilometers away. Not a pane of glass was left intact in the city and 6,000 people became homeless.

The pressure wave from the blast could be felt as far away as Cape Breton Island, about 205 km east of Halifax. A large portion of Richmond, Halifax and Dartmouth were leveled to the ground, and the death toll reached 1900 people. Thousands more were injured, many seriously, and countless people were blinded due to the glass shrapnel that was propelled through the air.

Allen also mentioned the story of a local hero: Vince Coleman, a dispatcher for the Intercolonial Railway. Minutes before the explosion he telegraphed two trains that were bound for Halifax, and told them to stop at a safe distance from this area. Vince himself was killed in the blast, but were it not for him, several hundreds more could have died in the explosion.

The reaction in the aftermath was swift. Communities from all over North America pitched in and sent aid, especially tents, blankets and supplies to Halifax. Boston, in particular, was extremely generous and sent an entire train of supplies and medical personnel to help the victims of this enormous explosion. As a result, every year at Christmas, Nova Scotia donates a large Christmas tree to the City of Boston to thank and remember Boston’s help in this major time of need.

My trolley tour provided by the Company with the Kilts had come to an end. But as we arrived right in front of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, I decided to make a quick stop in this museum since among many other things, it features two major exhibits: one about the Titanic Disaster and another one about the Halifax Explosion. I decided to educate myself more about these two significant historic events. The exhibit about the Halifax Explosion features historical photographs, newspaper clippings and explanations about this enormous disaster.

The Titanic Exhibit upstairs actually features dozens of photographs and 20 authentic artifacts from the Titanic, first and foremost the only known intact Titanic deck chair in the world. This chair had actually been given to the minister who had performed so many of the burials at sea and was donated by one of his grandchildren to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Another exhibit features the Shoes of Titanic’s Unknown Child which feature the pencil inscription: “SS Titanic victim boots worn by only baby drowned”. One poignant display illustrates that fact that passenger class made a huge difference in the survival rate of passengers. For example less than 4{5f1badeb208636689578ee7055aafc453681e97b6c712d78b4a854b97df0885d} of first class female passengers perished, while around 12{5f1badeb208636689578ee7055aafc453681e97b6c712d78b4a854b97df0885d} of second class female passengers died and more than 54{5f1badeb208636689578ee7055aafc453681e97b6c712d78b4a854b97df0885d} of third class female passenger did not survive.

I did not have time to explore the rest of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic which features a whole host of additional interesting exhibits such as the Days of Sail, Shipwreck Treasures and Age of Steam Gallery, to mention just a few. Now it was time for a quick lunch and then my next stop at Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum and a National Historic Site, and the entry point form more than a million New Canadians between 1928 and 1971.