September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
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.
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.