Home To Halifax

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Passionate travelers tend to seek out distant landings and exotic outposts; it’s the very foreignness of a place we’re after. Still, there’s also something secretly satisfying about slipping over a border only to discover what is most American about the other side—not in the sense of another McDonald’s or a branch of the Gap but in the way of a kinship to the core that in the case of Halifax, Nova Scotia, harks back to its 1749 founding as the first English settlement in Canada.

From the start New Englanders were determined not to allow this natural trading partner to fall into French hands. To inhabitants of Maine and Massachusetts, New Scotland’s “very shape was that of a cannon pointed at their Boston heart,” writes the historian Thomas Raddall. Today’s Halifax is far from threatening; its persona is that of a vigorous, breezy seaport and business center, fringed by great shady parks and sandy beaches. “Wealth from the Sea” is the city motto, which suggests the forces that have shaped its sturdy character since Col. Edward Cornwallis led an expedition to set up a town and fortress on the rim of an impressive natural harbor. “The choice was not only good, it was miraculous,” Raddall writes, of the way the site proved to accommodate the modern town, which sprawls over the entire Chebucto peninsula.

Explosions, fires, attrition, and the Canadian version of the disastrous urban-renewal programs of the 1960s have taken their predictable toll on the city. What survives from the earliest years are the Old Burying Ground, on Barrington Street, and the handsome St. Paul’s, Canada’s oldest Anglican church, whose timbers were precut in Boston and shipped here in 1749. The church stands at the edge of the town’s first square, the Grand Parade, where for years the local militia and red-coated troops drilled. For a closer look at the early town, the best evidence is at the Public Archives and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

To a surprising degree the artworks corroborate the present city, which, no matter how much change it has seen, retains the bone structure and energy of its youth. An early engraving is virtually a map of the present-day street plan. Then, as now, clustered houses climb in neat blocks to the palisaded fort that, rebuilt three times, still stands on Halifax’s heights, and the 175Os harbor is as crowded with commercial and pleasure craft as it was on the warm, sunny weekend of my visit last August.

In the business district remain signs of the expansive Victorian Halifax, its elaborate stone buildings providing a whiff of London’s Whitehall and Parliament Square as translated to the colonies. The finely detailed facades of Granville Street, a short pedestrian thoroughfare, are all of a piece, thanks to a recent preservation effort.

Overlooking the city center and offering a splendid view of the harbor, the sprawling walled Citadel is said to be Canada’s most visited national historic site, though it never fired a gun in anger. Intended to protect Cornwallis’s forces from the Indians, it was rebuilt and strengthened against the threat of invasion during the Revolution, then added to during the Napoleonic Wars, and finally refortified when the action heated up in 1812 and upstart Americans once more seemed to pose a threat. The Citadel has been refurbished to re-create midnineteenth-century garrison life. Its student guides, many of them in costume, allow a refreshing degree of collegiate humor to break through the antiquarian mask as they lead visitors along the once working parts of this massive survivor.

Whether as purported enemy or as first cousin, America was an undeniable presence here. Even before the Revolution’s outcome encouraged a surge of Loyalist settlers, two-thirds of Nova Scotia’s people were Yankee by parentage or migration, so it isn’t surprising that more than a few Haligonians shared the New Englanders’ disenchantment with British rule. In 1775 some of these would-be rebels requested help from General Washington. His troops and weapons stretched frighteningly thin, Washington regretfully refused: “…our situation as to ammunition absolutely forbids our sending a single ounce of it out of the camp at present.”

Nova Scotia, often called the Fourteenth Colony, stayed with the British in 1775, and it joined them again in 1812. In 1813, after the Americans had won several single-ship engagements, Britain saw a major victory in a short, fierce battle off Boston Harbor. Several days later Haligonians looked on as the defeated USS Chesapeake sailed into port under the escort of HMS Shannon , with Capt. James E. Lawrence lying dead on his ship’s deck. Lawrence was interred with full military honors at the Old Burying Ground; later his body was reburied at New York’s Trinity Church.

In the American Civil War strong sentiment rose on both sides; the province was a final stop on the Underground Railroad, while Southerners worked to break the Union blockade in order to supply Britain. Halifax’s greatest Civil War excitement came in 1864, when with the help of a local harbor pilot, the Confederate privateer Tallahassee eluded Union raiders waiting at the harbor’s mouth.