Destination: Halifax June 16, 2015 · 18 min. read
With graduation around the corner and vacation only a few short weeks away, many people are looking for some place to kick back, relax and enjoy the summer heat. Some might head down to the lake, some might go up to the mountains, and others might just hang out in their backyard. It was of one of these summers that my mom and I decided instead of going camping, we would go someplace we have never been: the Canadian Maritimes.
Our first destination was Halifax, a city I have only read about in history class. My knowledge of the city, its beauty and its incredible legacy was unknown to me. It was only years later, while looking through old pictures and reliving past memories, that I realized just how incredible that trip was.
In honor of the anniversary of my trip to the Maritimes, I bring you: Destination: Halifax, and a short list of things to do in this incredible city.
1. Peggy's Cove
Located thirty minutes from Downtown Halifax is the picturesque Peggy's Cove. While the origin of the cove's name is unknown, it is believed to be based on a story about a young girl who was the lone survivor of a horrible shipwreck. The family that inevitably adopted the orphaned girl named her Peggy. Thus the name Peggy’s Cove.
At almost 250 years old, Peggy's Cove has become one of Canada's favorite tourist destinations. Its landscape has become iconic due to its jagged white cliffs and boulders, massive fissures and pristine lighthouse. With the endless blue ocean to one side and the rolling green hills of Nova Scotia to the other, the white stone is a stark, violent contrast between land and sea.
The town surrounding the cove hasn't grown much in its lifetime, and is still very dependent on fishing and farming. Having a population of less than 700 people, the town is still very underdeveloped and retains its original rustic appearance, giving any visitor the feeling that they have stepped back in time.
On September 2nd, 1998, the skies about Peggy's Cove witnessed tragedy as Swissair Flight 111 caught on fire and plummeted into the ocean below, killing all 229 people on board. It is believed electrical failure in the airplane's attic was responsible, but in 2011, CBC's The Fifth Estate reported claims by a former RCMP officer that there were high levels of magnesium on the wires that caught fire, leading to a belief the plane was taken down by an incendiary device. Many of the passengers on the plane were atomic and ionic scientists. One passenger was a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Director of Operations, and another was the head of the World Health Organization's AIDS program.
A memorial to the crash is set up a kilometer away from Peggy's Cove, while a second one is set up across the bay in Bayswater, on the Aspotogan Peninsula. These two monuments and the actual crash site are at the vertices of a roughly equilateral triangle across the bay.
2. Citadel Hill
While Citadel Hill is one of Halifax's most iconic buildings, it's built so that nobody can see it.
The current citadel is the fourth of its kind, and is officially titled Fort George. While the previous citadels were created to protect the city from invading Acadians, Aboriginals or French, this one was built to protect Halifax from the United States. It was built in the center of several ditches that create a Star of David like pattern, with several branches not connecting to the main section of the fort. This design was made to confuse and disorientate invading forces.
While the three previous citadels saw raids and battles, this one never did. That isn't to say it never saw action, however, as it did take part of the Chesapeake Affair and the escape of Confederate John Taylor Wood. With the invention of the airplane and wartime air flight, the fort's usefulness declined, and became more of a barrack than a military fort.
During World War I, the Canadian government was concerned about the flux of European immigrants arriving from overseas and detained these "enemy aliens" in 24 camps across the country. In total, there were 8,579 people imprisoned in Canada, with this fort being one of those locations.
With the economic strain of the Great Depression and the wartime efforts of World War II, the fort began to decay. In the late 1940s the city of Halifax were beginning plans to level the citadel, but recognition of the fort's historical significance and tourism potential instead led to its restoration.
Today the fort is open to the public and is an interactive museum, complete with actors dressed in period clothing.
3. Pier 21
Built in 1928, Pier 21 was Canada's primary immigration and ocean liner terminal. Over the course of its 50 year lifespan, it saw over one million immigrants come through its port.
Informally known as “The Gateway to Canada", Pier 21 originally saw waves of Dutch and English immigrants arriving during the 1930s. Once the Great Depression began, immigration slowed. During the 1940s, the role of the pier reversed and instead of bringing Europeans to Canada, it was used to send Canadians to Europe. Almost a half million soldiers went through this pier on their way to Europe, including my grandfather.
As World War II progressed, many children were sent from Britain to Canada for safety and came through Pier 21. Gold bullion from Europe was also sent through the pier for safe keeping, and the Royal Dutch family arrived seeking refuge through the same pier. Winston Churchill also used the pier on his many trips to Canada during the war.
After the war, the pier was full again, this time with soldiers, war brides and their babies. Many of these brides and babies would go from the pier to the train station and take the train across North America. The pier also saw thousands of Holocaust survivors from Britain, Italy, Netherlands and Germany, looking to start a new life.
A decade later, the pier was full of Hungarian refugees, fleeing the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. At this time, however, air travel had become more popular so many refugees arrived in the airports instead. The 1970s saw the last big wave of immigrants, this time from Cuba.
Pier 21 ceased immigration operations in 1971. Frequently it is visited by cruise liners, but only for recreational purposes. In 1999 it became an interpretive center that showcases Canada's long and colorful immigration history, and in 2010 was renamed the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
4. Fairview Cemetery
Cemeteries aren't often included on my lists as locations of interest, as I plan to avoid the as much as I can, but Fairview Cemetery is worth visiting as it has the unique distinction as being the final resting place of over 120 victims of the RMS Titanic.
Although the massive passenger liner sank over a century ago, nearly 80 bodies in the cemetery remain unknown, with their identities lost to history. One of these belongs to The Unknown Child, a grave dedicated to a boy that died in the shipwreck. With no one claiming the body, a monument was erected funded from one of the ships who discovered his corpse in the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic. In 2002, the boy was identified as Eino Viljami Panula of Finland, whose mother and all four brothers died on the ship. However, in 2007 the body was re-identified as that of a British boy, Sidney Leslie Goodwin. A century later, his true identity is unknown.
Another noteworthy grave in the Fairview Cemetery has somewhat of a tie to Hollywood thanks to the 1997 film, Titanic. The name of the grave reads "J. Dawson", and for all who have seen the movie, they know this is the name of the heroic character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Director of the film James Cameron has said the character’s name was not inspired by the grave, and a later investigation revealed that "J. Dawson" was actually a "Joseph Dawson", a coal trimmer, not the handsome artist depicted in the film.
Fairview Cemetery also holds the bodies of the devastating Halifax Explosion.
5. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Museums are my favorite places to visit in any city, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax is by far one of the greatest museums I have ever visited.
While the museum focuses on events like Canada's history with piracy, the famed Sable Island, and the sinking of the Titanic, its primary exhibit (or at least the one I spent the most time in) was the one regarding the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons.
In 1917, the world was engaged in World War I, and Halifax was no exception. With an influx of immigrants fleeing the war and weapons and fuel being desperately needed in Europe, the ports of Halifax were incredibly busy. While safety was always a concern, there had been no collisions in the port. This changed on December 6th, 1917 when the SS Mont-Blanc, carrying explosives, collided with the SS Imo, carrying fuel. While the ships were traveling slow, the collision started an uncontrollable fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, and within 20 minutes, it exploded.
A pressure wave was released from the explosion, moving at almost 1,000 meters per second, carrying white hot iron. Blasting in every direction, it snapped trees, bent iron rails, and demolished buildings. With the shrapnel came weapons and anchors, with Mont-Blanc's forward 90 mm gun landing 5 kilometers away, the its anchor landing 3 kilometers away. The sound of the blast could be heard as far away as Prince Edward Island and Cape Briton.
The fireball was so extreme that it vaporized the water in the harbor, leaving the harbor exposed. Immediately afterwards, water rushed in and formed a tsunami that rose over 60 feet above Halifax's high-water mark. The water collected the Imo and threw it into the city of Dartmouth across the bay from Halifax, crashing into the city.
The fireball also ignited fires throughout the city as well, setting complete blocks of houses ablaze. Firefighter Billy Wells described the devastation survivors faced: "The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires."
2,000 people died in the explosion, and an additional 9,000 were injured. The number would have been much higher had it not been for the actions of Patrick Vincent Coleman, an Intercolonial Railway dispatcher for the rail yard. Once he saw the fire aboard the Mont-Blanc he sent out the following radio message to all incoming trains: "Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys." Although Coleman died, he has been credited for saving the lives of thousands of individuals. He was inducted into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in 2004.
After the blast, confusion erupted throughout the city, with people believing they had been bombed by a German aircraft. The military, including those at Citadel Hill, believed this as well and readied their weapons. It didn't take long to realize what had happened, and a rescue operation was put into place. Ships outside the bay that felt the wave of the blast or saw the large cloud of black smoke emitting from the harbor sent doctors and orderlies into the city. The railway also sent in volunteers, as Coleman's message reached them and stopped the trains in time. Passengers were let off in adjacent towns and the trains were brought into Halifax and Dartmouth to transport bodies. By nightfall almost a dozen trains from across Canada and the United States arrived in Halifax, full of volunteers.
The next day Halifax was hit by a blizzard, dumping 16 inches of heavy, wet snow onto the city. Trains that had not left were stranded, and telephone cables were snapped. Nobody could leave or enter the city. Halifax was, for the moment, isolated from the world.
The museum had many more incredible exhibits as well, such as the "Travelling Exhibit MS St. Louis: Ship of Fate", a ship carrying 1,000 Jews that fled Europe with the dream of immigrating to Cuba. I had no idea when I was at this exhibit that within a few years I would visit the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg and see a similar exhibit, one about Florida's involvement and ultimate refusal to help these Jewish refugees.
With a whole exhibit on the Titanic and another about piracy, the Kraken, and the dangers navigating the ocean, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is one of the greatest museums I have even been to, and I recommend it to anybody visiting the city.
Halifax has much more than just these wonderful locations to visit, such as Halifax Public Gardens, Point Pleasant Park, Neptune Theatre and Theodore Too (built after the fictional television tugboat, Theodore Tugboat). Along with an incredible artistic scene, an electric nightlife, a great shopping center and a welcoming, small-town vibe, you might just want to add Halifax to your next summer destination.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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