Canadian Maritimes #01 – Halifax & Area

May 26, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


Canadian Maritimes #01 –Halifax

This is part 1 of a trip we took in October of 2019 to the southeastern portion of the maritime provinces in Canada.  On this trip we visited Halifax, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.  We flew into and out of Halifax Nova Scotia but the rest of the trip was by rented car. 

This installment is for Halifax and area.

Three major destinations on this trip
02 Map 0 - Overview02 Map 0 - Overview


Where we wandered in Halifax
03 Map 01 - Halifax03 Map 01 - Halifax

From our home base near San Francisco, we had an uneventful flight to Halifax where we picked up a rental car a bit before midnight and drove the 20 miles to our Hotel in downtown Halifax where we spent several days.  During our stay in Halifax we wandered around on foot, took a Duck Tour, went shopping for a yoga mat on the other side of the bay and took two driving excursions along the coast to the east of the city.

Halifax is the capital of the Nova Scotia province. It had a population of 403,000 in 2016 – making it a bit bigger than Tulsa Oklahoma.  As the capital of the province, Halifax is of course a major economic center for the Atlantic coast of Canada.  And understandably has a large concentration of governmental buildings as well as private businesses who need (or want) to be near the center of government.

Even though Halifax has a robust economy with a mix of shipping, manufacturing and government, it also has a fair tourist trade as well.  Many cruise ships make a stop here and dozens, if not hundreds of restaurants, shops and hotels have opened to cash in on the ever increasing number of visitors.  The skuzzy old area along the downtown waterfront has seen a major gentrification and transformation into the tourist center of town.  There is now a wide harbor walk where you can stroll 2.5 miles along boardwalks, floating docks, and asphalt promenades along the edge of the water which are lined with tourist shops, restaurants, and lodging of every variety.  And this tourist area continues to take over more and more maritime facilities as it extends in both directions.

So, why Halifax instead of any number of other harbors along the east coast of Canada one might ask.  One of the things that made Halifax a significant seaport was a lucky state of geography.  As it turns out, Halifax harbor is the closest large harbor to Europe (by ship) in North America that does not freeze over in the winter.  In terms of location it is two days closer to Europe and one day closer to Southeast Asia (via the Suez Canal) than any other North American East Coast port.  Add to that the fact that it is a year round port and you can understand its popularity throughout modern history. 

For being so far north it is quite unusual for harbors not to freeze, especially considering harbors much further south that do freeze such as Boston, Portland and New York.  This strange phenomenon for a harbor so far north and where the winters are quite chilly is due to the harbor being over 65 feet deep throughout its length.  In the clutches of winter it is the only Atlantic seaport in the country of Canada that remains open for shipping.  Another nice feature of the harbor which made it even more popular in the sailing ship era was that the tidal surge in and out of the harbor is quite weak with very low water level change between high and low tides.  

But, let’s look at a bit of its history.  Of course the area was inhabited way before the European’s arrived in the 1400’s.  In the US we call these people “Indians” or “Native Americans”, in Canada they are known as the “First Peoples” – a much better term in my opinion.  For the most part between the 1400’s and mid 1700’s Canada followed more or less the same trajectory as did the US.  This time frame was filled with wars against the native inhabitants, westward expansion by the settlers, differences of opinion resulting in small wars between various European countries trying to claim territory, Etc.  As for Halifax itself, it was formally established in 1749 by the British which of course started a war – this one called Father Le Loutre's War. The war began when Edward Cornwallis arrived with a fleet of ships to claim the area for Britain and to establish a port for the Hudson Bay Company which was funding much of the occupation of North America.  This, it turned out, was a violation of earlier treaties with the Mi'kmaq tribe that was signed 23 years earlier in 1726 after some warfare.  Pretty much the same pattern as in the US where we invaded the native lands, had some wars, signed some treaties and then disregarded those treaties later.  Well, when Cornwallis arrived he brought with him 1,176 settlers and their families to start the town. 

So, here come the Protestant British to settle an area that had been given to the Mi'kmaq, and to which the Acadian’s and the French also had a claim.  In other words, a dicey situation.  So the first thing that Cornwallis did was to build a string of protective forts, including one on Citadel Hill in Halifax (1749), one in Bedford (Fort Sackville- 1749), Dartmouth (1750), and Lawrencetown (1754).  All of these are now inside the greater Halifax Regional Municipality.

The Citadel

The Citadel sits atop an expansive hill overlooking the city of Halifax and provided the main defense of the city from 1749 through 1906.  During that time frame it was rebuilt four times.

The first iteration of the fort on the hill was built by Cornwallis in 1749 which was just a wood garrison typical of frontier forts of the time.  With the fort for protection, this new community felt secure, much like a whole series of other British settlements throughout Nova Scotia.  Not too long after, the French had regained control of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island nearby, and the British believed they would attack the mainland and they didn’t care for that idea.  In fact the British deduced that Halifax, with its deep ice-free harbor, would be the prime target for the French.  As it turned out, climate, not the French artillery, posed the greatest threat to the wood fort as the French never attacked.   Fog, rain and cold winters along with neglect over time contributed to the decay of the old wooden fort.  But even as the fort withered away, Halifax itself continued to grow, becoming the capital of Nova Scotia when representative government was granted to the colony in 1758. 

By1761, the first Halifax Citadel was in shambles, due to decay.  Work began on a new fort that year, but luck was not on their side.  Plans for the new Citadel required that the top 40 feet of the hill be removed and that job fell to the soldiers stationed there.  I’m sure they were thrilled.  “Hey guys, it’s a nice summer, here are a few shovels - go remove the top 40 feet of that hill”. 

But there were very few soldiers stationed there and not much progress was made.  Even though 1,000 soldiers came up from Massachusetts to help out, winter set in with little progress to show for the summer worth of work.  Well, there’s always next summer.  But before then the French attacked St. John’s, Newfoundland.  So, here in Halifax, resources were diverted away from rebuilding the fort and put to work on harbor defenses on Georges Island in the bay and the Halifax and Dartmouth shores for fear of a naval attack.  And so it went. 

It wasn’t until the outbreak of the American Revolution in the 1770s for focus to shift back to Halifax’s land defenses and the Citadel.  Now remember at this time there was no “Canada” or “USA”, it was all just British colonies with a few French enclaves thrown in for good luck.  Well, as it turned out, many Halifax residents had come from what later became New England to the south, and supported the US revolution.  Fearing the Americans would launch a land attack and be joined by the local US revolution sympathizers, British troops led by Captain William Spry, finally constructed the new fort on the hill, using an expanded version of the plans from 1761. The highlight was a large octagonal tower, which served as a barracks for 100 soldiers.

Like the fort before it, this second Citadel never saw battle.  By 1784, it too was in ruins due to neglect and Nova Scotia’s climate.  Well, as we know, the best remedy to get neglected forts fixed up is a good war and the British and French obliged with renewed hostility.  This then put in motion the effort to build a third fort atop Citadel Hill.

By 1794 the French and British war was well underway, albeit nowhere near Halifax.  However when Prince Edward (Duke of Kent) arrived as commander-in-chief of British forces in Nova Scotia he felt that the French might attack this strategic British naval base.  And so he started construction of the third Citadel.  Although plans for the fort were approved in 1795, a shortage of men and material (after all there was a war going on) meant work did not really get underway until 1796. By then, the old fort had been leveled and the hill cut down by 15 feet.

Four years later the new fort, the first one to be set directly atop the hill was completed. This one was smaller than its predecessor and was made primarily of earth and timber.  There were just three major buildings within its walls: a barracks, a provision store and a powder magazine.  And much like the first two this one never saw battle either.  They tried to keep it up over the years with many repairs, including patchwork during the War of 1812 but by 1825 it too was in ruins.  So, planning began for number 4.

During the 1820s, tensions between Britain and the United States were running high. So much so, that Britain believed US forces would try to seize Halifax, possibly by land, if a war broke out. Once again, they set out to strengthen the town’s defenses, but this time was different. This time, they decided to build a permanent fort that would protect this vital naval base for generations to come. And in August 1828, work began on a fourth Halifax Citadel.

This one is a star-shaped stone fortress and was expected to be finished in just six years.  However flaws in the design caused delays in construction and the Halifax Citadel was not completed until 1856, 28 years later.  Like the citadels before it, this new fort never saw battle, and advances in weaponry would soon render it obsolete.  This is the one that is still there today.

In 1906, the British handed it over to the Canadians.  During World War I, it served as soldier barracks and a command center for Halifax Harbour Defenses.  It remained a temporary barracks for troops in World War II, and was their last glimpse of Canada before heading overseas.  Today, the Halifax Citadel is among the nation’s most significant and beloved historic sites. Operated by Parks Canada, it has been carefully restored to its Victorian-era glory.

We spent several hours in the Citadel, including a wonderful docent led tour, some exploring on our own and a close up view of the daily firing of a cannon at noon.  What’s funny is that when the fort was built and the daily noon firing tradition was started, the cannon they used had a clear view of the entire harbor over the tops of the city buildings.  However now, the cannon seems to fire right into the side of a tall office building.

The site is currently “manned” by docents in authentic period clothing worn by soldiers of the time.  As in most militaries, there are different types of these soldiers who wore different uniforms.  The black uniforms were mostly for the guards.  The red seemed to be more for what we’d call the infantry or foot soldier, etc.  We were told by our guide wearing a red uniform that these garments are quite accurate; not warm enough in the winter and way too heavy in the summer.  About the only thing (other than modern restrooms) that was admittedly not an accurate representation of the period is that today the “soldiers” are mixed gender whereas in the 1700’s it was male only.  But interestingly enough, if you look at the uniforms, most could be considered unisex by today’s standard.  The kilts worn by the males, serve equally well on the females.

Docent guarding front gate of the Halifax Citadel
Guard, Halifax CitadelGuard, Halifax Citadel

Our tour guide telling us about the brig
Docent, Halifax CitadelDocent, Halifax Citadel

The cells of the brig served double duty, also being used for cannon placements.  One of the punishments for inmates was to move a stack of cannon balls from one side of the cell to the other.  And then move them back again – all day long. 
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Many school groups visit the Citadel as part of their history requirement. 
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The Citadel is quite well restored
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Preparing to fire
Getting ready to filreGetting ready to filre

Just after firing the daily shot announcing noon.  Notice the office building in “the line of fire”
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Halifax was primarily a naval base from a military perspective.  So, of course a fort on the top of the hills should have a couple of masts.  These were used to raise various flags as a way to send messages to other forts in the area as well as to the population of the town.

Two signaling masts on the hilltop fort
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The Town Clock (sometimes called the Old Town Clock or Citadel Clock) just outside the fort, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the urban core of Halifax.  The idea of a clock for the British Army and Royal Navy garrison at Halifax is credited to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent in 1800. It is said that Prince Edward, then commander-in-chief of all military forces in British North America, wished to resolve the tardiness of the local garrison.

The clock went into operation in 1803.  It sits in a three story octagon tower built atop a one story white clapboard building. It was erected on the east slope of Citadel Hill facing Barrack (now Brunswick) Street. The clock face is 4-sided displaying Roman numerals. As with most clocks the "4" is shown as IIII for aesthetic symmetry and not as IV.  The mechanism uses three weights along with a 13-foot pendulum.  To this day the weights are manually winched up twice a week.   Its bell strikes hourly and quarterly and the durability of the mechanism (which dates to the original installation) is attributed to its slow movement.

Halifax Citadel Clock Tower
Halifax Citadel Clock TowerHalifax Citadel Clock Tower

Harbour Walk

Once we’d exhausted seeing the Citadel, the other main area of Halifax we visited was the waterfront, about 4 blocks from the hotel.  As is the case in most all harbor cities, the waterfront was the historical center of commercial and naval activities.  In other words it was a bustling working harbor supporting the growing city.  Eventually though, the shipping business moved from the manual loading and unloading of ships to containerized shipping displacing large numbers of dock workers and this in turn led to property deterioration as businesses moved elsewhere in the harbor.  Over this same period, Halifax declined as a fishing port.  So, all in all things were not looking too good for the Halifax waterfront. 

Then in 1960, the Harbor Front Highway project was proposed right along the shore that would cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city.  In fact, if you look at many harbor side cities in North America at that time, many actually built such highways along the shore.  One of these was San Francisco where a freeway from the Bay Bridge was to go along the shoreline, right over the top of Fisherman’s Wharf and all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.  The first section of this was actually built but was severely damaged in the 1986 earthquake and subsequently was torn down to everybody’s delight.  In Halifax though, a community led movement got the proposed highway project replaced by a more progressive strategy for their waterfront. 

The resulting Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk is a roughly 2 mile long public footpath that stretches from a Casino at the north end to an immigration museum at the south end and by the looks of things may be extended further.  In addition to these two book end attractions you will find a lovely maritime museum and some historic ships you can tour near the middle.  Of course this is in addition to the ubiquitous snack stands, restaurants, hotels souvenir shops, marinas and excursion booking kiosks.  Mostly the Harbour Walk is between the city buildings and water but one place it is out over the bay due to construction and at another place is actually a floating dock you walk on.

Typical section of Halifax Harbour Walk
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Small Marina’s dot the length of the Harbour Walk
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At some spots the walk is out over the bay.  Here you can rent a snooze in a hammock
Hamocks on Harbourside Walk, HalifaxHamocks on Harbourside Walk, Halifax

For those of you with kids, you may be familiar with Thomas Train children’s books.  Well, not to be outdone, in Canada there is a similar series of books called Theodore Too which are based on a tug boat.  And here it is in real life

Theodore Too tug boat from a series of children’s books
Theodore Tugboat, Halifax, N.S.Theodore Tugboat, Halifax, N.S.

And, what self-respecting city doesn’t have modern art installations in high tourist areas.  Now usually I don’t care for these sorts of things that much but in this case I found the art quite amusing (which was its intent).  This art is by Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg and consists of three modern street lights doing very human activities.  One shows the street light taking a leak over the edge of the dock.  The other two depict a drunk who fell down being looked over by a concerned friend.

Taking a Leak,  Fallen Drunk, Concerned Friend
The Way Things Are sculpture (Halifax)The Way Things Are sculpture (Halifax)

“The Bicycle Thief” metal sculpture in front of a bicycle shop
Red Bike Pile (Halifax Harbourwalk)Red Bike Pile (Halifax Harbourwalk)

One of the things we enjoyed while traversing the Harbour Walk are the reflections in some of the newer buildings that line the walkway.

Hotel reflection in office building window
Halifax Building ReflectionHalifax Building Reflection

Harbour Walk reflected in building window
Halifax Harbourwalk reflectionHalifax Harbourwalk reflection

Immigration Museum

At the south end of the Harbour Walk is the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.  I don’t have any photos of this museum but it tells quite a remarkable story which is barely known to those of us in the States – and in many ways quite different then our Ellis Island in New York Harbor. 

The museum occupies a former ocean liner terminal which also served as the “immigration shed” from 1928 to 1971.  Yes, 1971.  Pier 21 is Canada's last remaining ocean immigration shed. The facility is often compared to Ellis Island (1892–1954) in terms of its importance to mid-20th-century immigration.  Canada’s eastern coast also had other 19th century immigration sheds such as Grosse Isle, Quebec (1832–1932) and Partridge Island in Saint John, New Brunswick (1785–1941).

This is not a particularly large museum but is quite well done.  The museum shows visitors what it was like to immigrate through Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971. Visitors can open replica children's trunks to see what five immigrant children might have brought with them to Canada, walk through a replica of the colonist train cars that newly arrived immigrants boarded for the next stage of their journey, and even dress up as some of the key staff and volunteers at Pier 21.

Among other things, you can see a replica of the inside of a transport ship used to bring immigrants across the Atlantic showing sleeping quarters and dining facilities for the immigrants.  This was quite interesting.  In one exhibit they had a ships dining hall table set up as it would have been at the time.  This was a table for 4 people.  There was a pressed white table cloth.  Each place setting had a china plate, bowl, saucer, tea cup and water glass.  The chinaware was painted with an intricate design.  For silverware there was a knife, several forks, and several spoons.  All was topped off with a neatly folded and pressed white cloth napkin.  It really looked like one of the posh table settings in the Titanic movie.  The question asked by our guide was, “Whose dinner table was this?”  Captain?  Officers?  First Class passengers? 2nd class passengers? 3rd class immigrant class passengers? Or Crew?  .  The group all guessed at one of the first three but in reality it was typical of the 3rd class immigrant class.

Unlike NY’s Ellis Island, Immigrants coming into Canada where “processed” much more quickly.  But one of the biggest differences is that in the US, once you were approved for entry you were just released on the streets of your entry city.  For some period of time they required you to have a “sponsor” which many times was just a name and address you got from who knows where.  This is how ethnic ghetto’s sprang up in New York, Boston and Philadelphia among others.  Due to language, and economics, new foreign arrivals just tended to gravitate to the areas where previous immigrants from the same country were living.  However, in Canada, things were done differently.  When you were released from the immigration shed (usually in under 24 hours) your family group was paired up with a family somewhere in the country with whom you and your family would stay for a while.  These were usually places in the middle of the country where they needed more people.  it was very rare for new immigrants to be released into their arrival city.  These sponsoring families throughout the country were paid by the government and they would help the immigrants get acclimated to life in Canada, would help them learn the language, find a job and get a place to live for their own within a specified amount of time. 

To make this work, the government had immigration trains that would pick up the immigrants right from the Immigration Shed and take them all the way to their destination depot where the sponsoring family would meet them at the station.  That is the reason that immigration port cities such as Halifax never had those waves of new people deposited in their midst forming country by country ghetto’s like in New York.  It is also why diversity in Canada was more homogeneous rather than isolated to specific areas.  Of course there were problems as there are with any government run program but all in all it proved to be a pretty good system.  

One of the stories we were told involved the Immigration train.  Once you boarded the train, you were not allowed to get off till you got to your destination station which in most cases was several days away.  So, they would give the immigrants boxed meals to take on the train for the journey.  The contents of these boxes were usually donated by companies as a way to get the new folks acquainted with their products and as such would be more inclined to buy those same things once they got settled.  Ok, sounds good but sometimes the best laid plans just don’t work out.  It seems that the Kellogg’s company was one of the suppliers and they put boxes of corn flakes into these meal boxes.  That makes sense.  You can eat them dry as a hand held snack, or add milk in a bowl.  Well, it turns out that in Germany and much of Europe the only thing corn is used for is pig feed.  People don’t eat corn.  So, the good old Kellogg company got known as the pig food company and pretty much all the cornflakes wound up being thrown on the floor.  Not to mention that this fostered a sentiment of “what kind of country did we come to where they treat new comers so bad by giving them pig food?”

Another story was of a family whose meal box contained things to make sandwiches.  Well, many of the European’s had never heard of bread that was pre-sliced and white.  After all, bread was heavy, very dark in color and came in a loaf.  So, what was this flat thin white stuff?  Well the obvious answer was some sort of weird napkin that was so poorly made that it fell apart when you tried to use it. 

Several families figured out how to use their new Canadian dollars to get folks standing on station platforms to go buy some better food for them and bring it back to the train.  In fact many prior immigrants from similar countries who had landed in such places came to the station just to provide that sort of aid to their fellow countrymen and knew what to get them.  Sausage was a well-received item – especially for the Germans.  So with sausage in hand, and with that weird mustard in their boxed lunch – it was just like home.  But that mustard was just awful.  Not only was it a strange color, and too thick, it tasted horrible.  What is wrong with the people in this country – Not only is it freezing cold and they don’t even know how to make a loaf of bread they can’t even make edible mustard?  So, the mustard jars went out the window of the train as it sped along.  But then the oddest thing happened.  Folks who had houses or farms near the tracks kept finding all these mostly full peanut butter jars in their yards and fields.  Very perplexing.

Maritime Museum

The Maritime Museum is more or less in the middle of the Harbour Walk.  This museum includes a traditional indoor museum but also a few ships floating at docks nearby.  There is the CSS Acadia and the museum ship HMCS Sackville. 

The museum itself is not a very large, museum, but is very nicely done with some very interesting exhibits.  I recommend the guided tour but you can certainly do it on your own. 

One of the focus points in this museum is on model replicas of historic and modern ships which can be seen throughout the facility.  Many of these representing historic cruise ships are on the 2nd floor and are quite large – in the 8 to 20 foot long range.  They also have a model building room with a glass observation window so you can watch expert model builders doing their work.  It is quite difficult to photograph these models, which are in glass cases, due to reflections of the overhead lighting but I was able to get a few shots.  Here’s one of a quite large model cruise liner.

Model of an early cruise ship
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019

Along with the expected exhibits, there were some that I found especially interesting or unique.  One was a live sailors parrot named “Merlin” who is a Rainbow Macaw.  Then there was the Fresnel lens from the Sambro Island Lighthouse off the south coast of Nova Scotia, and a room of small boats one whimsically being attacked by a Kraken (giant squid) and a couple of others I’ll talk about later.

Fresnel lens from the Sambro Island Lighthouse
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019


Re-creation of original marine supply hardware store inside the original building (gray box is a manually operated fog horn)
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One of the interesting things that I had forgotten was that the when the Titanic went down, Halifax, being the nearest full port to the sinking site, became the recovery operations center.  In the museum there is a pretty extensive exhibit devoted to this disaster.

As we all know the Titanic is considered one of the greatest marine disasters in recorded history.  The ship left Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 on her maiden voyage and 4 days later struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and the “unsinkable ship” sank.  The first vessel to arrive at the scene was the Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia and she was able to rescue more than 700 survivors.  Shortly thereafter the White Star Line dispatched the first of four Canadian vessels to look for bodies in the area of the sinking.

On April 17, Halifax sent a ship with a minister, an undertaker and a cargo of ice, coffins and canvas bags to recover bodies.  They found and recovered 306, 116 of which had to be buried at sea.  Several other Halifax based recovery ships followed.  The majority of the bodies were unloaded at the Coal or Flagship Wharf in Halifax and horse-drawn hearses brought the victims to the temporary morgue in the Mayflower Curling Rink.

Of those bodies, only 59 were returned to their families.  The remaining victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries.  Most of the gravestones, erected in the fall of 1912, were paid for by the White Star Line and are plain granite blocks.  In some cases, however, families, friends or other groups chose to commission a larger and more elaborate gravestone.  All of these more personalized graves, including one with a striking Celtic cross and another being a beautiful monument to the “Unknown Child”, are located at Fairview Lawn Cemetery.

But, none of the graves were for the fictional Jack Dawson from the movie.  However in the Fairview Cemetery where 121 of the Titanic victims are buried, there is a grave labeled "J. Dawson".  The real J. Dawson was Joseph Dawson, who shoveled coal in the bowels of the ship.  But this nuance seems to be lost on the thousands of tourists who each year descend on this cemetery to see where the hero of the film is buried.  Local tour guides each year keep track of how many people ask them how to find this grave site and at the end of each tourist season the guide with the most requests is treated to a beer.

Another transfixing exhibit is dedicated to an event that happened mid-way through WWI that almost destroyed the city.  This was not an attack by an enemy air force or navy but rather was self-inflicted.  This was the December 6th, 1917 Halifax Explosion.

It seems the ship the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship which was laden with war bound high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbor to Bedford Basin.  The Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry cargo from New York City via Halifax to Bordeaux, France and was trying to join an Atlantic convoy.  At roughly 8:45 am, she collided at low speed, with the empty Imo.  Neither ship was severely damaged but on the Mont-Blanc, the impact caused some benzol barrels stored on deck to fall over and break open.  Benzol is a highly flammable fuel (a variation of which is now used as an octane booster in gasoline).  These barrels were stored on deck as they were deemed to hazardous to be in the cargo hold.  This benzol flowed across the deck and down into the hold leaking vapor as it went and was eventually ignited by sparks.  It’s not clear if the sparks came from the collision or from the reversing of the engines.  At any rate, a fire started and quickly got out of control with all that Benzol sloshing around. 

Several ships came to lend assistance with rescue operations and firefighting.  They even had started an effort to tow the damaged ship away from a pier it had drifted into to keep the pier from catching fire.  It was then, 20 minutes after the initial collision, when the fire reached the munitions stored in the hold of the Mont Blank and explosives do what explosives do and it was a whopper of an explosion. 

The blast devastated the entire Richmond district of Halifax which is a kind way of saying that it leveled it.  Approximately 2,000 people were killed outright by the blast, debris, fires, or collapsed buildings, and an estimated additional 9,000 others were injured.  The blast was the largest man-made explosion in history, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT (20% the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb).  Nearly all structures within a half-mile radius of the ship, were obliterated.  A pressure wave snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, created a tsunami, and scattered fragments of the Mont-Blanc for miles in all directions.  Across the harbor, in Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage.  The tsunami created by the blast wiped out a community of the Mi'kmaq First Nation people who had lived in the Tufts Cove area for generations.  Airborne debris from the explosion went mostly south and east of the explosion site some tearing into homes and businesses nearly 5 miles away.

Relief efforts began almost immediately, and hospitals quickly became full. Rescue trains began arriving the day of the explosion from across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick while other trains from central Canada and the northeastern United States were impeded by blizzards.  However help did arrive.  The city of Boston mobilized their Red Cross organization who sent a large contingent of doctors, nurses and other disaster experts to Halifax by ship, thus avoiding the snow bound rail lines.  Construction of temporary shelters to house the many people left homeless began soon after the disaster.

The initial judicial inquiry found Mont-Blanc to have been responsible for the disaster, but a later appeal determined that both vessels were to blame.

Debris fall
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019

Fragment from the Mont-Blanc hull found embedded in the wall of a house 2.5 miles away.  It was discovered decades later when the roof was being replaced
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019

What used to be a city
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019

What used to be “home”
Halifax Maritime Museum.  Halifax, NS, Canada 2019Halifax Maritime Museum. Halifax, NS, Canada 2019

Out on the piers by the museum are a couple of ships.  One is the HMCS SACKVILLE which is the last of 269 corvettes built for WWII of which 123 were built in Canada.  This one has been restored to her wartime configuration and is the last one still afloat.  These ships were mostly used in submarine hunting. 

Depth charge launchers, HMCS Sackville
HMCS Sackville, Halifax NSHMCS Sackville, Halifax NS

Peggy’s Point

While staying in Halifax we drove out of town on two occasions.  The first was a late afternoon trip down to Peggy’s Cove to take a look at the lighthouse at sunset which was highly recommended for photographers.  The second time was a full day trip where we went back to Peggy’s cove to take a better look at the village itself, but then continued along the coast to the east winding up in a town called Lunenberg

Our excursions outside of Halifax
01 Map 03 Peggy & Lundenberg P1 Full enhanced01 Map 03 Peggy & Lundenberg P1 Full enhanced

Peggy’s Cove and Lighthouse

Peggy's Cove is a small community on the eastern shore of St. Margarets Bay about 26 miles from Halifax.  It was established in 1868 and has remained a fishing village ever since but in recent years has become a very popular day trip for tourists visiting Halifax.  It is only one of many such small fishing villages along the shore outside of the city but this one is exceedingly charming – and I might add picturesque.  On our first visit we arrived a bit before sunset and went straight to the lighthouse just dashing through the village itself so as not to miss the last light on the lighthouse itself

There is Peggy’s Cove, Peggy’s Point, and Peggy’s Lighthouse.  So, who was Peggy?  Well it seems no one knows for sure.  The first recorded use of the name in regard to this area was in 1766 where Peggs Harbour is mentioned.  But the records from the time do not include anyone of import with that name.  The best guess is that since Peggy’s Point marks the eastern side of the entrance to St. Margaret's Bay, and many times people named Margaret call themselves Peggy, that that must be where the name came from.  OK, but St. Margaret is not a saint one hears about all that often, so who was she?  Well, she was a real person (1045 – 1093) who was also known as Margaret of Wessex, an English princess and a Scottish queen.  Margaret was sometimes called "The Pearl of Scotland". Born in exile in the Kingdom of Hungary, she was the sister of Edgar Ætheling, the short reigned and uncrowned Anglo-Saxon King of England.  So, now you know.

But, that’s not the only story.  Another story suggests the village may have been named after the wife of an early settler. This popular legend claims that she was the sole survivor of a shipwreck at Halibut Rock near the cove.  Artist and resident William deGarthe said she was a young woman at the time while others claim she was just a little girl too young to remember her name and the family who adopted her called her Peggy.  The young shipwreck survivor married a resident of the cove in 1800 and became known as "Peggy of the Cove".  Visitors from around the bay eventually shortened that to Peggy's Cove.

The village itself was officially founded in 1811 through a land grant of more than 800 acres to six families of German descent who relied on fishing as the mainstay of their economy but also farmed where the soil was fertile.  In the early 1900s the population peaked at about 300. The community supported a schoolhouse, church, general store, lobster cannery and boats of all sizes nestled in the cove.  Today the population is smaller but Peggy's Cove remains an active fishing village.  In recent years the economy has been “buoyed” by a robust tourist trade and is quite a popular destination for artists and photographers from around the world.

Rentals going up
37 7d2R03-#904137 7d2R03-#9041

Ready for the foot weary
Peggys Cove Chairs (NS Canada)Peggys Cove Chairs (NS Canada)

Hunger & Thirst
Green Dory at Peggys Cove (NS Canada)Green Dory at Peggys Cove (NS Canada)

The setup and the shot
35 7d2R03-#9013 - 5d3R04-#6064 Pair35 7d2R03-#9013 - 5d3R04-#6064 Pair

The Old and the New
Marooned Dory, Peggys Cove (NS Canada)Marooned Dory, Peggys Cove (NS Canada)

House on the cove
33 5d3R04-#604933 5d3R04-#6049

Living on the cove
Peggys Cove, NS, CanadaPeggys Cove, NS, Canada

Peggy’s Lighthouse is an active lighthouse and an iconic Canadian image.  It is one of those “everyone has photographed iconic post card” shots for the area.  Its draw of artists and photographers has made it one of the busiest tourist attractions in the province of Nova Scotia and is a prime attraction on the Lighthouse Trail scenic drive.

This is a classic red-and-white lighthouse which is still operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.  It sits on an extensive granite outcrop allowing views from all sides.   This lighthouse is one of the most-photographed structures in Atlantic Canada and one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world – and for good reason.  Whether you are at eye level from the town behind it, on the same level from the granite plateau it sits on, or are below it near the water shooting up at it – it is as picturesque as they come.  But be careful.  Not only watch your footing when scrambling around on the rocky outcrop looking for the ideal composition, but watch out for sneaker waves if you are near the water.  Despite numerous warning signs of unpredictable surf, several visitors each year are swept off the rocks by waves.

Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse
Peggys Point Lighthouse, N.S.Peggys Point Lighthouse, N.S.

After scrambling around on the rocks for an hour or so trying every angle I could find as the light faded, I finally figured it was enough.  Especially as no matter where I stood or how long I waited, there was always a bevy of people around the lighthouse distracting from the scene I envisioned.  In fact in the shot above there are 3 tourists walking in front of the lighthouse but I waited till they were obscured behind that top rock in the shade.  Just 1 or 2 seconds when they were all hidden.  So, with the last bits of light after sunset receding I clamored back up the rocks toward the parking lot.  On the way, I turned around for one last look before driving back to Halifax in the dark and decided to grab one last shot.  Didn’t even bother setting up the tripod.  You know, one of those “I’ll never be here again, so why not take one more shot” sort of things.  When I got back home it was not that great of a shot as there were a half dozen folks standing at the base of the building.  But, I really liked that one person off to the side.  So, I darkened the entire lighthouse to pure silhouette (thus hiding the people in front of the lighthouse and turning the lone person on the side also to silhouette as well and it became one of my favorite shots of the trip.

The winning shot
Peggys Point Lighthouse Sunset SilhouettePeggys Point Lighthouse Sunset Silhouette


Lunenburg is another picturesque fishing village a bit farther down the south shore of Nova Scotia.  Founded in 1753, the town was one of the first British attempts to settle Protestants in Nova Scotia in an effort to displace the French colonial Roman Catholic Acadians and indigenous Mi'kmaq.  The economy has always been based on offshore fishing and today Lunenburg is the site of Canada's largest secondary fish-processing plant. The town flourished in the late 1800s, and much of the historic architecture dates from that period.

In 1995 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. UNESCO considers the site the best example of planned British colonial settlement in North America, as it retains its original layout and appearance of the 1800s, including local wooden vernacular architecture.

Prior to 1753 the native Mi'kmaq lived in the area.  Then around the 1620’s French colonists, who became known as Acadians, settled in the area.  The Acadians and Mi’kmaq lived peacefully and some intermarried creating networks of trade and kinship.  When Edward Cornwallis, the newly appointed Governor of Nova Scotia, visited in 1749, he reported several Mi’kmaq and Acadian families living together in comfortable houses and said they appeared to be doing well.  The town was officially named in 1753 after the Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg who had become King George II of Great Britain.

Britain and France who had been battling each other in Europe in the 1700s eventually signed a Treaty in which France ceded the part of Acadia (today known as peninsular Nova Scotia) to Britain.  But the French and native inhabitants of the area did not welcome this development.  So, to guard against Mi'kmaq, Acadian and colonial French attacks, Cornwallis ordered the town destroyed – which it was. 

So now that those pesky French and Mi'kmaq were gone, the British sought to settle the lands with loyal subjects, and recruited more than 1,400 Protestants from Europe in July 1753 to populate the site.  And, those settlers arrived with 160 soldiers to build the town of Lunenberg.

During the American Revolution, privateers from the colonies raided Lunenburg, including a 1782 raid which yet again devastated the town.  In retaliation British officials authorized the local “Privateer Lunenburg” (sort of a volunteer national guard), to raid United States American shipping.  It’s not clear if they followed through and if so did any damage but in general the local ships from these privateer groups were no match for the ships of the US fleet.

But, all that aside, it is another very popular destination for photographers and artists.  And again for good reason.  The town sits on one side of skinny bay where you have a splendid view of the town from the other side – if you don’t mind trespassing along a well-worn path on the edge of a golf course.  The waterfront of the town is chock full of colorful vintage buildings behind a bay full of moored boats.

Lunenberg boats in the harbor
Lunenburg Harbour #4 (NS, Canada)Lunenburg Harbour #4 (NS, Canada)

Red clapboard fish processing “factory”
Lunenburg Harbour #2 (NS, Canada)Lunenburg Harbour #2 (NS, Canada)


I hope you enjoyed reading about our time in Halifax and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.


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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)



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