by Linda Aksomitis

When business meetings ended early and I ended up with a free day to explore Halifax last spring, I couldn’t have been happier–so I set out to fit as much of this historic city as I could into twelve very short hours.

The Harbourwalk at Pier 21, with a tall ship docked in the port

The Harbourwalk at Pier 21, with a tall ship docked in the port

Locals told me there were three must-do things in Halifax if my time was limited: the Pier 21 National Historic Site, the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. They were absolutely right.

I was up and on the streets bright and early, my spirits not dampened by the cloud and gloom of the morning as I walked past the harbour to visit Pier 21. Pier 21 was Canada’s gateway for over a million immigrants from the nineteen twenties to the seventies. The inside displays provided great reading while I waited for the 24 minute virtual projection of Oceans of Hope–the fascinating stories of people who had come to Canada.

But that’s just the beginning of a visit to Pier 21, because the top floors store more than a century’s worth of records. Wondering what I might find, I went up to the Resource Centre to search for the history of some of my own ancestors. Kevin, a friendly assistant, soon retrieved information that took us to the fiche machines, to see the original ship entry.

Closing my eyes I could almost imagine my grandparents disembarking right there in that very harbour, carrying all their possessions with them. For the entry gave not only dates and entry names, but information right down to the few possessions they had with them. A hand-written side note indicated Grandma had varicose veins, which must have troubled her the whole journey, not only with pain, but wondering whether she’d be allowed into Canada to rejoin her husband, who was already here.

I must confess my eyes were still a little blurry as I made my way to the harbour walk, as I wondered how many other people had come in search of their ancestors and found so much more than they had expected. But the excitement on the main floor soon drew me in, as a tall sailing ship had docked in the harbour, so the building was full of European tourists.

From there I hurried down the boardwalk to the Halifax Citadel, where I planned to watch the noon firing of the canon. One of the 78th Highlanders guarded the entrance to the Citadel, which has been restored to how it appeared from 1869 to 1871. Breathless after climbing to the top of the walls, I admired the view of the ramparts and fortification spread out below me.

Firing of the noon canon at the Citadel

Firing of the noon canon at the Citadel

I hadn’t arrived any too soon, and the ceremony for lighting the canon started immediately. It was a was a solemn event, which I watched in silence along with hundreds of other fascinated travelers. First the canon was loaded, each step of the procedure marked with the precise movements of the Highlanders.

I waited along with the crowd, almost holding my breath. It was a little like a countdown to a new year, as each second brought us closer to the moment of revelry, this time though, it was the thunder of the canon ball, rather than the whistle of noisemakers, that marked the event.

Since the canon sounded the noon hour, I decided to try lunch in the barracks coffee bar, which turned out to be amazingly tasty! Several of the kilted Highlanders also stepped in to pour a bowl of homemade soup and grab a sandwich.

After lunch I took a tour around the Citadel with one of the Highlanders, Jon, who in his ”other” life was a university student out for summer break. The attention to detail with the historical recreation of the site was incredible, so I had lots to learn.

One of the first things we talked about was the costume Jon wore, which was authentic to 1869. The tartan of the kilt was that of the McKenzie clan, a lovely red plaid design–red I learned, was the least expensive of dyes at the time, thus a popular shade.

Halifax Citadel guards in uniform.

Halifax Citadel guards in uniform.

The guns carried by all the Highlanders were Schneider rifles or carbines. Way back in 1866, Schneider had a patent to convert mussel loading guns to breach loaders that could fire four rounds in nine seconds. The guns, I discovered as I watched one of the Highlanders demonstrate, certainly made bystanders take notice when fired!

Halifax’s Citadel Hill, where the Fort sits, is actually a glacial drumlin approximately 60 metres (197 feet) above sea level. It was easy to see why the British had used it as a vantage point, since from that elevation I could see out into Halifax Harbour as well as the two small islands. While built to defend Halifax from the French to the east, at Fortress Louisbourg, and the Americans to the south, the Fort was never actually attacked.

Getting a good understanding for the geography of the harbour helped when I got to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which took me through centuries of Nova Scotia history. While I’d already heard about the tragedy of the 1917 explosion in the Halifax Harbour, that killed over 1900 people and destroyed many buildings, I found the museum displays took me right back into the horrific happenings of that day.

The chain of events that caused the disaster began at 7.30 a.m. on December 6, 1917, when the French ship Mont-Blanc hoisted her anchor outside the mouth of the harbour. Already nearing the end of WWI, the Mont Blanc was on its way to join a convoy of nearby warshops. She was loaded with 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzol: a highly explosive mixture.

Display in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Display in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

A Norwegian vessel Imo, in ballast, set off at the same time making its way to New York to pick up a cargo of relief supplies for Belgium. However, the Imo made some poor manoeuvres and struck the Mont-Blanc on its bow, while they both tried to navigate the narrows. Fire broke out immediately on the Mont-Blanc, so the captain and crew took refuge on the Dartmouth shore, watching while an enormous crowd gathered to watch her burn.

Teachers had just called the children to class at 9:05, when all the explosives on board the Mont-Blanc exploded. Fragments of the ship rained down around the harbour destroying homes, schools, churches, and killing hundreds of people who had just begun their workday. The rest of the city came to life, mounting rescue efforts, and doing what they could for survivors.

The devastation was monumental. There were 12,000 homes damaged, and 1,630 completely destroyed, as fire raged through the area next to the harbour. In addition to those who lost their lives,  6,000 people were left homeless. Hardly a pane of glass in Halifax and Dartmouth was left intact. While I’d seen vignettes that told the story on television since I was a child, seeing the display after walking along the harbour made it all terrifyingly real.

I also learned how close the Titanic had been to Nova Scotia when it sank, and how much Nova Scotians had contributed to rescue efforts. Artifacts that had been on the Titanic were displayed in the museum, along with their stories. My grandson, a ship lover, was very envious of all I was able to see and learn at the museum.

Indeed, my day passed so quickly it was soon time to head to Halifax’s airport for my return flight. This was one trip where wrapping up the meetings early had been an incredible stroke of luck!

If you visit:

Pier 21 — open year round —

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic — Open year round —

Halifax Citadel —

Copyright August 30, 2006 by Linda Aksomitis. All rights reserved.

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