Halifax Part One: Disastrous Shipwrecks and Visiting the Dead

When it comes to Nova Scotia, my heart immediately turns to Cape Breton and the beautiful Cabot Trail. Since that is a trip in its own right, and since Brit had her heart set on seeing the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, we headed in the opposite direction – south to Halifax.

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I’ve been to Halifax before, but all the sights we planned to see were new to me. We aimed high with our plans; hoping to see a museum, a cemetery, and a citadel all before the closing time of 5:30 pm. To ensure we made it to everywhere we planned to go, we had to leave PEI pretty early.

As I mentioned in my first PEI post, the two main ways to arrive/depart the island are the Confederation Bridge and via the ferry. As we had done the bridge already, we opted to leave via the ferry. When leaving PEI, you have to pay a toll, regardless of which method you choose. Though the ferry toll is higher than the bridge toll, it felt more iconic to leave that way, and made more sense, considering the next portion of our trip was in Nova Scotia.

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We used the helpful Ask an Islander feature on Tourism PEI’s website for tips on when to arrive for the ferry. We arrived about 30 minutes before the departure time, which worked out fine. During high season, if you haven’t pre-purchased your ferry pass, I would suggest arriving earlier, as they can sell out. In the event that they do, you can always take the bridge, but the ferry is far more enjoyable.

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Despite the crossing only being an hour and a half long, there is plenty aboard the ship to keep you occupied. If you take the earliest morning crossing (which we did – 6:30 am departure time) there is a cafe to eat breakfast. The food was quite tasty and very reasonably priced, and I’m sure during later crossings they serve more of a lunch/dinner variety of food. One note of caution – be sure to have cash. Though they offer debit payments, the machine was down for our crossing, so all purchases required cash. As far as I know, there is no ATM aboard.

During the voyage you have the ability to roam the ship, aside from returning to your vehicle (if it’s an absolute necessity, you must speak to a staff member, who can accompany you to your vehicle). They have an entertainment room with a TV playing the news, as well as a few arcade games. They also have plenty of seating on the top outer deck.

The ferry crossing from Wood Islands, PE to Caribou, NS meant a drive ahead of us upon our arrival. Even with the roughly hour and 45 minute drive, we arrived in Halifax around 9:30 am, perfect timing for the 9:00 am museum opening time.

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My first impression of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic was that it was a weirdly small building for a museum. From the website’s listing of its exhibits, I thought it would have been at least triple the size. Despite its small structure, the museum itself is packed with information, photos, and artifacts (both real and replica).

We started in the first room downstairs, mostly skimming information, but one memorial plaque in particular caught my attention. It begins as a normal dedication in honour of the Nova Scotia Highlanders who fell in a battle in 1945, but it continues with a second, unique dedication – one to those who fought on the opposing side of that particular battle. This was the first time I can ever recall seeing anything like that, and I couldn’t help but get a bit misty-eyed over it.

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We ventured upstairs to the Titanic exhibit next, and I was quite impressed with it. Due to where the Titanic sank, eastern Canada made the most sense in terms of launching explorations of the area, performing search and recovery missions, and retrieving bodies for burial. Due to this fact, this museum had several actual items from the Titanic itself, including a deck chair (Brit can be seen sitting in the replica version), and a cabinet, the only one that survived the sinking intact.

The Titanic sinking was a tragic event in which of the 2200 people aboard, only 705 survived. Scattered throughout the stories of loss are the small heroic efforts of the crew. The engineers worked to keep the lights on for as long as they could, and the musicians played their instruments until the end, determined to keep a sense of calm and peace as much as possible.

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The bag below is one of the ones used by the ships who were part of the search and recovery teams in order to keep personal items found on the bodies safe. Thanks to the numbers, the items were easily matched with the bodies they were found with. Crew members on the Mackay-Bennett were the first ones to start this method, and it is a trend that carried on through later disasters, such as the Halifax Explosion.

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Once we had our fill of all things Titanic, we headed back downstairs for the other two prominent exhibits. The Franklin Expedition was an effort to discover the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. Two years after setting out, the crew still hadn’t returned and searches eventually began. Despite leaving in 1845, it wasn’t until 2014 that one of the ships, the HMS Erebus was discovered. The kicker? It was found in only 10 metres (32 feet) of water.

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The Halifax Explosion began as an accident that turned deadly. On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc, a munitions ship. Sparks turned into a fire, and the crew members evacuated the Mont-Blanc. The ship continued to drift towards the harbour, and just after arriving at Pier 6, the ship exploded. Roughly 1,650 people were immediately killed, and almost the same number of buildings were destroyed. It was a devastating tragedy.

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After the heavy dose of a somber historical morning, we left the museum via the boardwalk and walked along the water back to our car. Halifax is a bustling city, and its waterfront is a great area to check out entertainment or a just see a really pretty view.

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After the museum, we had another Titanic-related stop in our plan for the day. We made our way to the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, a rather picturesque graveyard home to both a mass memorial for the victims in the Halifax Explosion and graves for 150 passengers from the Titanic.

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It’s also home to two of the most photographed graves in the world. Sidney Leslie Goodwin, not even two years old at the time of the sinking, was unclaimed until recent years. At the time his body was retrieved, no one was able to identify him, and it was believed his family perished in the sinking. The crew aboard the ship who were responsible for finding him also paid to bury him and have the gravestone erected. It wasn’t until 2010 that a scientific study identified the baby as Sidney, the youngest child in a family of 8, all of whom did indeed perish in the sinking.

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If you’ve ever seen the movie Titanic, you’ll recognize the name on this grave – J Dawson. Of course, the movie version of Jack Dawson isn’t based in any intentional way on the actual person, but due to the name choice, J Dawson is one of the most photographed graves ever.

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As I said previously, we had a pretty packed time in Halifax, despite only being in the city for roughly 24 hours. After a fairly somber experience at the cemetery, we continued down the path of history. Stay tuned for the next post to see how our day continued!

Have you sought out every location related to a specific historical event before? 

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