Home To Halifax

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In this century the aftermath of two seaborne disasters gave evidence of a more kindly side of the cousinly relationship. At the sinking of RMS Titanic off the Newfoundland coast on April 15, 1912, ships sailed from Halifax to retrieve from the sea hundreds of bodies, many of them American. The tact and care with which this melancholy task was performed remained forever in the memories of the victims’ relatives. During this time Halifax came to be known as the Funeral City, and indeed, large sections of the city’s cemeteries are set aside for the dead of the Titanic . The sinking is also recalled in exhibits at the Public Archives, and at the Maritime Museum, where a deck chair and pieces of carved paneling from the ship’s public rooms are on display.

The second disaster is counted as the worst man-made explosion before Hiroshima, yet it’s not something most Americans have ever heard of. It occurred on December 6, 1917, when two ships collided in the busy wartime harbor, one a Norwegian merchantman, the other a French vessel packed with munitions; the explosion roared into the shape of a huge mushroom cloud and created an inferno that left a quarter of the city flattened, at least seventeen hundred dead, and thousands more injured.

Massachusetts’s governor, Samuel W. McCaIl, arrived the next day on a train loaded with supplies and medical personnel. Temporary housing, started just days later, was financed with Massachusetts’s $750,000 donation and bore McCall’s name. One expression of Nova Scotian thanks continues until this day: the huge evergreen, an annual gift, that in recent Christmases has occupied pride of place in Boston’s Prudential Center.

The disaster is tightly woven into the fabric of present-day Halifax; there are many citizens still alive who were touched by it. But gloom won’t dog the traveler’s footsteps on a walk through the city. It is, in fact, the once moribund harbor that has become the greatest draw for tourists and locals alike. It’s hard to resist strolling the clean, planked piers, where wavelets break against a protective rim of rocks, or exploring the scattering of stone and wooden buildings that are the only surviving representatives of the storehouses, ship lofts, and trading companies that crowded the nineteenthcentury waterfront.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is here too, housed in an agreeable melding of new and old structures filled with treasures of the region’s seafaring past. The museum’s floating icon, HMCS Sackville , is all that remains of Canada’s World War II fleet of 111 Corvettes that left from here to escort convoys across the Atlantic.

Restored to her wartime blue and white paint, the Sackville is open to visitors, who climb all over her decks, while a loudspeaker pipes wistful wartime songs. An excellent film in an adjoining information center tells of the murderous struggle of convoy life. Serene now at her anchorage, the Sackville still manages to cast a powerful spell, bringing to mind a wartime port, like the one Nicholas Monsarrat saw in his fine novel The Cruel Sea , where the men who sailed aboard the corvettes “foregathered in a harbour after the tough convoy, the triumphant attack, the miserable loss and slaughter…very conscious of their calling.”

On the day I visited the Sackville , no such consciousness clouded the joy of a precocious three-year-old who darted with manic child enthusiasm from one part of the Maritime Museum to the next. “We want to see everything , don’t we?” he called to his parents. “We want to see everything at the harbor today.” Indeed, we do.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP