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Ghosts Linger in Halifax

Ghosts Linger in Halifax

August 29, 2013

In April 1912, the Titanic went down after colliding with an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City.

But it was Halifax, on Canada’s eastern coast, which dealt with the ghastly aftermath of the calamity that killed about 1500 people.

Local mariners of four Halifax recovery ships plucked hundreds of bodies from the frigid water and took them back to their home port.

Walking around the bustling town, signs of its seafaring past are still strongly evoked – as are the chilling stories that surround the tragedies that occurred here.

Staff at The Five Fishermen Restaurant and Grill on Argyle Street, the town’s entertainment hub, regularly report seeing odd levitating and disappearing figures dressed in turn-of-the-century garb.

“I saw a tall man wearing a black trench coat and hat standing by the post the other day. Another time there was a woman with a child floating outside the window,” says Matt Relf, a barman at the restaurant.

Walking around the dimly lit restaurant, with its dark wood panels and grandeur from a time gone by, it’s hard not to be spooked by the tales.

The fact the restaurant is now as renowned for its ghost stories as its delicious cold-water lobster and other Nova Scotian seafood might be because it was previously the site of the John Snow & Co Funeral Home.

Following the Titanic disaster, the bodies of some of the wealthier victims, among others, were brought to the funeral parlour.

Just five years later, in 1917, it was besieged with more mass-scale death when most of the 2000 bodies from the Halifax harbour explosion were carted in.

The explosion was caused by the collision of a French cargo ship, laden with wartime explosives, and a Norwegian vessel in the strait.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: Halifax has a colourful charm reminiscent of its nautical past.

Downtown, lines of attractive, multi-coloured terrace houses, now converted into lively pubs and restaurants, serve up the State’s signature dish (seafood chowder), Alexander Keith’s India pale ale and a hefty dose of Canadian charm.

Further down the hill on the waterfront, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is believed to have the biggest and finest collection of wooden Titanic artefacts in the world.

Here you can sit in a replica deckchair, view an elaborate carved-wood balustrade from the Titanic’s forward grand staircase (where you can almost see Leonardo DiCaprio waiting for Kate Winslet in the 1997 blockbuster).

It’s in this museum where, for the first time, I can actually fathom two well-known concepts about the tragedy – first, a replica gives my imagination plenty to work with in regards to the size of the behemoth ship and second, the jarring double standards onboard.

A luxurious first-class ticket on the Titanic cost $2500, whereas one could snag a spot in the more cramped third-class quarters for a mere $40.

Maintaining the strict class segregation during the grim clean-up operation, first-class bodies were removed from the Halifax-based rescue cable steamer Mackay-Bennett in coffins, while second and third-class dead were relegated to canvas bags and crew on open stretchers.

The dead were dispatched to three cemeteries in town – Mount Olivet, Baron de Hirsch and Fairview.

The biggest collection of Titanic graves in the world is at the Fairview Cemetery, on the north end of town. Visitors can follow signs through the nondescript but pleasantly green cemetery to lines of small, neat gray granite markers inscribed with the name and date of death of the 121 victims resting here.

Some families paid for larger markers with more detailed inscriptions, but occupants of at least a third of the graves were never identified and their markers bear only the date of death and marker number.

At the far end of the row, there is a stone for the Unknown Child.

The inscription reads: “Erected in the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster of the Titanic”.

He was later identified as Sidney Goodwin, a one-and-a-half-year-old English baby who was lost along with his entire family.

Today the gravesite is overflowing with colourful stuffed teddy bears and toys left by touched visitors.

On the waterfront, children enjoy jumping, climbing and sliding down the belly of a modern submarine- themed playground inspired by the area’s nautical theme.
An aerial view of Halifax harbour / Picture: DC Productions
Another great way for children and parents to learn about Halifax harbour’s historic significance is a trip on tugboat Theodore Too, complete with red cap, cute face and a larger-than-life personality.

The character was created by a local Halifax dad, Andrew Cochran. His bedtime stories became the basis for a hit children’s TV show on the CBC network, a hugely popular line of books and finally the friendly replica tug based at Murphy’s Cable Wharf.

On a harbour tour you get a good view of Pier 21, where my great- grandparents and more than a million other immigrants, refugees and wartime evacuees entered Canada between 1928 and 1971. The former ocean liner terminal, known as the gateway to Canada, is now Canada’s National Museum of Immigration.

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