Halifax: World of firsts

It’s famous for one of the world’s greatest harbours – and naval disasters.

Halifax had already made global headlines in 1912 when search ships brought 209 bodies of the Titanic‘s 1,517 victims to Canada’s largest maritime city. But just five years later during World War I, that historic tragedy was eclipsed by the Halifax Explosion.

On Dec. 6, 1917, the Belgian relief ship Imo inched through dense morning fog in the harbour’s Narrows. Then, at 9:06, it struck the French munitions vessel Mont Blanc packed with 8 million pounds of TNT. The blast killed 2,000, maimed another 9,000, and levelled the city’s north end. It was the largest man-made explosion before the A-bomb.

But it was far from being a Halifax “first.” The city was, to start with, Canada’s first English town – with the country’s first telegraph system, post office, newspaper, French and English universities, parliament building, law school, Protestant church, public park and art gallery.

First governments
It was North America’s first colony with a legislative assembly and representative government – and the first to have a British prince as residentBut 200 years before George III sent his fourth son, Edward, to defend Halifax from the French, both nations had tussled over its turf.

No sooner had Sebastian Cabot claimed Nova Scotia for England in 1597, than Samuel de Champlain set up his French colony of Acadia. In return, James I sent English settlers to found a new order of knighthood, the Baronets of Nova Scotia, in the first British colony to boast its own flag. Ironically, while the colony failed, the flag and Order still survive.

When Nova Scotia became officially British in 1713, the hapless Acadians fought to keep their homeland. But the stern new rulers drove thousands into exile – many settling in Louisiana, where the re-dubbed “Cajuns” were immortalized in Longfellow’s Evangeline.

Their lands were swiftly grabbed by United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. When it ended in 1783, another 25,000 American colonists settled in Nova Scotia. Then, for the next four decades, 50,000 Highland Scots swept in – comprising more clans, it’s said, than in Scotland itself.

Their descendants take fierce pride in the Gaelic language and Highland Games, with no parade complete without kilted bagpipe bands. And fields of heather, Scotch thistle, and clouds of purple lupin edge Nova Scotia roadsides all spring from seeds brought over in Highland soldiers’ bedrolls.

Halifax itself was founded in 1749 by Lord Cornwallis, Earl of Halifax, head of the powerful Board of Trade and Plantations, which chose the town as Britain’s naval and commercial centre in the brave New World, and sent 2,500 English settlers. Which, along with the Loyalist influx, explains why Nova Scotia is the British heart of Atlantic Canada today. And why Halifax natives are so ardently Anglophile.

Next page: Built for a mistress

The town’s first wooden citadel already stood when Prince Edward arrived in 1794 as garrison commander. Immediately the gangly Prince of Wales began turning the shabby settlement into the mightiest fortress outside Europe. And, before he left six years later, it was. But besides erecting battlements, Edward built a mansion on Citadel Hill for his striking young mistress, Julie de Saint-Laurent.

Telegraphing love
Yet, when the aristocratic Julie threw snits about the view (specifically the gallows and flogging post in the parade ground below) the love-stricken prince built her another two-storey manor six miles away – where footpaths spelled out Julie’s name, and a brook burbled down to a heart-shaped pond. And to keep in contact with his garrison, Edward invented the continent’s first telegraph system, an ingenious combination of signal flags and drums.

Then suddenly, George III ordered his son home to marry. Heartbroken, Edward sent Halifax a gift: the ornate Old Town Clock still ticking away on Citadel Hill, the city’s most famous landmark. The prince also left Halifax a legacy of love and incredible accomplishment, in an era still called the city’s “Golden Age.” Coincidentally, just months before his death, he also sired a daughter – whose reign would be called “The Victorian Era.”

Today, Halifax sits on a small peninsula, linked to the city of Dartmouth by two suspension bridges across the massive harbour – the Allies’ chief naval base for World War II convoys.  On its banks stand the city’s Bell Tower (to mark the 1917 explosion), the 1797 Martello Tower, and the old York Redoubt, now a national park with walking tours to 14 historic stops. While within the 75-hectare Hemlock Ravine Park, which held Julie’s hideaway, the heart-shaped pool remains.

Yet the great walled Citadel endures as the city’s top attraction, not only for its kilted 78th Highlander guards but its cannon roar each noon. The present fortress was built in 1856 – just three years before the Great Halifax Fire razed the city’s core. Its victims lie besides Crimean War soldiers in the town’s Old Burial Ground, with tombstones dating back to 1749.

Film brings visitors
Among the city’s 150 Titanic graves, tourists now flock to one marked J. Dawson – Leo DiCaprio’s name in the movie. While on the bustling four-block boardwalk beside the harbour, where 50,000 cruise passengers swarm ashore yearly, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic holds the largest exhibit of Titanic artifacts.

It’s skirted by the huge Casino Nova Scotia (where such stars as Dionne Warwick and B.B.King perform), plus 35 pubs, clubs and cabarets pulsing with live Celtic or Western music. Near the Farmers Market, Ye Olde Towne Pub, Nova Scotia’s tiniest saloon, still sports barred windows because in 1884 it was a bank.

Yet Halifax also boasts 450 eclectic eateries ranging from Turkish and Mexican to superb Maritime seafood. Just remember, “When in Rome….” But after exploring the city’s stone fortresses and steep Victorian streets, Halifax’s City Hall offers a free summer treat. Each Monday to Thursday at 3:30 p.m., the mayor presides at afternoon tea.

For more information on this destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website at www.travelcanada.ca

Getting there:
For more information on this destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website at www.travelcanada.ca .
Call for the free Halifax travel guide Doers and Dreamers.  Phone: 1-800-565-0000.
Visit  www.halifaxinfo.com and www.destinationhalifax.com

Photographer: Nova Scotia Tourism and Culture