Halifax and How it Remembers

Photography by the authors

Le Boreal is docked in Halifax, one of the largest harbors in the world and a port that surely interests us. First, because it is so intimately connected with the worst passenger ship disaster in marine history — the Titanic sinking 99-and-a-half years ago — and second because, in our little “mega-yacht,” we are about to be enveloped in French Canada — and Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, will be our only British, or rather Scottish, contact with this great neighbor we have to our North.

Everything about Halifax smacks of the sea, and though we know we are in Canada we can feel the touch of Scotland, too. We have several options to explore the area even though we know we must leave time to check out the city’s marvelous Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. It has the largest collection of wooden artifacts from the SS Titanic including a deck chair from the ship that used to sit in the museum lobby until Security found a local lout trying to carve his initials on it.

But first, what is worth seeing around this area?

f you’ve got transportation and time get down to Peggy’s Cove, a delightful fishing village of about 50 souls located 30 miles southwest of Halifax. Its lighthouse possibly the most photographed subject in Nova Scotia — with a close second in the cove being  the 100-foot-long granite outcrop carved by Finnish sculptor William deGarthe. The carving shows some of the 32 fishermen and their families sheltering under St Elmo, the patron saint of sailors.

More convenient, downtown, are the Public Gardens. Only two acres in size but seeming bigger, they were established in 1867, the year Canada became a confederation, and designated a national historic site in 1984. The gardens are formal Victorian and open only May through October. The solid gates labeled E Merces Mari (Wealth from the Sea) look as if they certainly could keep out any people wandering by in winter.

You could bet the gates would be closed then in the off season because Halifax has gone from a onetime relatively small town to what is now the impersonal “Halifax Regional Municipality.” This covers 2,353 square miles and runs 102 miles wide at its borders!

The city had economic problems until it was appointed the regional health center with all the income that brings in. It now has five new hospitals and six universities, which means, says our guide, Barbara Beaulieu, “More pubs and cafes per head than any city in North America!”

The government infrastructure has made the city stable during this economic slump. The port can handle five cruise ships at any one time. But for the moment our exploration is on foot, first by climbing the hill where the Citadel stands. Below us stands the Old Town Clock with its green dome in its entire 1803 splendor, a gift from Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent to the Halifax garrison.

We are now heading for the fun part of any Halifax tour — into Historic Properties that once housed the wealth of the city, namely pirate’s treasures.

The buildings were put up as storage units for bounty harvested from the sea, or more accurately from ships captured by pirates — in other words, stolen property. The issue that bothered the government about this profitable activity was not that it was illegal but that there was no way the nation could tax it. The inspiration that came was to authorize British pirate ships to attack all enemy ships, especially French ones and declare the rewards for tax purposes.

“Authorized pirates were called privateers. and if a sailor’s wife was asked what her husband did, she would sniff and say, ‘He is about the King’s business,’” says Beaulieu. “And that closed the subject.”

A plaque on the wall pays tribute to the most famous of those rich privateers. Enos Collins made so much money at sea he started Collins Bank, now part of the CIBC, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He also endowed Dalhousie University, which now supports 36,000 students a year (not bad for a man who never went to school).You can learn a lot without going to school if you have access to a museum. The people of Halifax have a superb marine one, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. When the Titanic hit the iceberg the night of April 11, 1912, Halifax was not the closest port. It was in fact 750 nautical miles away, but White Star, the parent company, had huge resources in Halifax and connections all over North America.

Halifax sent three ships to the scene of the disaster. In the end, the survivors were brought to New York City and the dead were sent to Halifax to be identified and yes, processed. Initially the bodies were just numbered but when it was all over, 150 Titanic victims were still unidentified. When they were buried their headstones were left space for a name if it was ever determined.

The people of Halifax agonized over their responsibilities during this awful time, none more so than when the bodies were those of children. One unidentified child of about 18 months became a cause célèbre. The city asked White Star, the cruise line, to step aside and let it bury its own special child. Finally years later, records were discovered suggesting the child’s family had been drowned, too, but lost at sea.

Distant relatives were found and notified that their DNA had identified the exhumed infant as one Sydney Goodwin. Did the family wish his name placed on the specially crafted tombstone? The relatives said No; he belonged to the city of Halifax, which had taken him to their hearts and now they could all rest at last.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.