General Articles


Here’s Halifax in days of peace—a tangy, historic city her harried wartime visitors scarcely ever saw

EVA-LIS WUORIO June 15 1948
General Articles


Here’s Halifax in days of peace—a tangy, historic city her harried wartime visitors scarcely ever saw

EVA-LIS WUORIO June 15 1948



Here’s Halifax in days of peace—a tangy, historic city her harried wartime visitors scarcely ever saw

IT RAINED that Sunday night I arrived at Halifax. When the bellboy threw open the windows of my hotel room the fog billowed in like a curtain ballooning. The sound of the foghorn mingled with the ringing of the sea bells in the harbor. There was a new tang to the air, of salt and tar.

And then I heard the accordion. Faintly, voices rose to accompany it. The song was a melancholy chant in some foreign tongue, liquid in the night. I could see the misty Lights of a ship, by the Quay Wall below, and as I leaned out of the window the song grew stronger.

Between the pier and the Nova Scotian Hotel there is only the rose garden, the CNR tracks and the harbor sheds. I walked down through the thick fog which somehow makes you wary of your balance, as though with its grey undulations it might move the ground to an unaccustomed slant.

The shed was dim and mazelike with heaps of cargo piled high. In the rafters a pigeon nattered in its sleep. The foreign song was louder now. From the upper deck of the liner drawn up to the stone quay like a car to a curb, the accordion pulled the poignant tune along.

At the very edge of the quay, a stout little man with flashing dark eyes was shouting up at the ship, ushering his words along with many gestures. Calling down at him in answer was a woman in a shawl, leaning on her elbows, head and shoulders out of a high porthole. The blue and white flag of

Greece hung limply wet from the flagpole in the stern of the ship.

» The shed watchman stopped by me. His voice had a soft drawl; some people swear this kind of drawl is typically Haligonian. “That fellow’s been there nearly all day, since the ship came in,” he said. “That’s his wife. Some reason they can’t let her land here. I hear this is the first they’ve seen of each other since before the war.”

A foghorn wailed in the mist. Somewhere toward the harbor mouth a ship hooted. The sea bells rang and rang again.

The watchman continued. “There’s another ship in, down the quay. Latvian, she is. Hasn’t a home port now. The Russians took over their country while she was at sea and the crew voted not to go home. They’re supporting themselves on coastwise traffic, I hear. Had a big fire the other night. Could have been bad. Might have burned up their whole floating nation. The cargo’s tallow. But we got it out.”

A breeze lifted the fog. Lights bobbed in the mist and the moving blackness beyond. Sharp, soprano hoots mingled with the deep-throated ships’ siren. “Tugs going out,” the watchman said in his slow drawl. “For the cable ship, I’d suppose. We’ve been expecting it to come in for repairs. Or-maybe it’s the Aquitania. She’s due too.”

The Scottish Influence

IT WAS raining briskly now and I took a cab back to the hotel. The driver glanced over his shoulder as I gave the address.

“An Upper Canadian, are you now?” he asked. “An Upper—? Why, yes, from Toronto,” I said, and added, “pretty long trip, Toronto to Halifax,” thinking of the two days and a night, 1200-mile journey.

“No farther than from Halifax to Toronto,” he said sharply. And then his mellow drawl came back, “Good night to you now, ma’am.”

I’ve often told myself since that I found, that night, part of the key to Halifax. To a visitor from an inland province these two things surely are the strangest; the closeness of the sea and the familiar acceptance of its romances, and the sturdy, almost aggressive independence and pride of the people. (There’s still scattered support for secession. Kingsley Brown of West Jeddore, N.S., former editor of a Halifax daily, heads the secessionist Free Maritime League, some of whose members write indignant anti-Confederation letters to the newspapers.)

As the days went by you broadened your picture of the people of this seagirt province and the equally seagirt town. They speak the same language as the “Upper Canadians” and the men of the prairies and the Pacific coast, but they speak it more slowly and softly. They apply themselves to the same sort of activities but it is with a leisurely, offhand air which as much as says that living is more important than making money. Their firm conviction that the rest of Canada doesn’t understand them and doesn’t want to is only exceeded by their lively interest and participation in politics. They aren’t the backslapping type and they call you and one another with the formal prefix of “Mr.” or “Miss,” and yet one I met drove me a hundred miles to see a friend. And still called me “Miss” at the end of the trip. There is an oddly natural gentility about all the people you meet, perhaps due to the predominance of the Highland Scot.

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Lower Water Street and marched down i a long grey wooden wharf with a ; bright-faced boy shouting to a friend, j “Off to Newfoundland 1 am, at four j right this afternoon!”

The wharf ends in a shadowed long J shed filled with piles of thick hawser I and anchors and a narrow walk where ! steep steps lead up to the makeshift j second story. Here is a small office. The biggest thing in it is not the potbellied stove or even the wall-wide window looking out over the harbor I to where Atlantic surf breaks white on Maughers’ beach. The biggest thing is its tenant, Captain T. Ormiston, the superintendent of the tugboat service. He is a huge man, so well-ensconced in a big chair that you are surprised he can get out of it tc shake your hand.

My guide and the captain go into the Maritime act. This could be called, “How not to come to the point.” They pass civilities, gossip, speak of ships as though they were dear, cantankerous friends, remark on the weather, and are a little upset when I finally say I’d

like to go out on a tugboat. Captain Ormiston points out it is not a very comfortable vessel. He tells me a story apropos of nothing I can think of.

“Do you know,” he says, “that not so long ago every ship that entered the harbor, and right many there were too, came in between the legs of a man.”

“Is that so, indeed,” I said, catching the lilt.

He chuckled. The sound was slightly Neptunian. “It is that,” he said. “It was the lighthouse keeper on Maughers. He had his left leg severed in a distressing accident and gave it a Christian burial on the mainland. And then took up his duties again as a keeper. You see—the ships must pass the narrows between Maughers and the mainland right between his legs!” He chuckled and then he said, “There’s a tug going now. To take out a Norwegian carrying planes to China.”

With Cap Turner at the wheel I went on the fast tug. (We’re getting close to the point of the story now.) The harbor was choppy green. The roofs of the city rose in tiers toward the Citadel HÚI on your right. To the left, beyond Dartmouth roofs, an RCAF Canso roared up above the spruce

woods surrounding the airfield. We found the neat-looking Norwegian at the Halifax Harbor Commission Ocean Terminals, her decks piled high with parts of obsolete Mosquitos the Canadian Government is selling China.

Busily two tugs manoeuvred to position. The Norwegians threw a line. Two young men at the rail of the tug caught it, held it out to a little man with face and neck black with beard and grime. Then, before he could fasten it, they let go. He was almost yanked away by the snaking rope. He whirled on them, his mouth opening on a might oath, caught sight of me and said weakly, “God—bless me.”

I said, “That was a quick recovery.”

He gave me a twinkling look. “I saw you there, lady.”

Perhaps that’s what made me listen for profanity. And note that throughout my days in Halifax I never heard anyone swear, even in the common conversational way which has become a habit in Upper Canadian speech. Perhaps it’s a hang-over from a law passed by the First Assembly, 1758, which declared profane swearing an indictable offense.

These, then, are the Haligonians— Captain Ormiston and his tugboat men; courteous scholars like Premier Angus I.. Macdonald, reserved members of families whose names are Nova Scotian history; Cape Bretoners and men from the fishing villages now in business, politics and seafaring. They make up the 90,000 residents of greater Halifax and will next summer celebrate their city’s 200th birthday.

To Indians it Was Chebucto

The past of Halifax goes back to the beginnings of white man s history in North America. Leif Ericson on his Vinland trip might easily have touched kind here, John Cabot in 1498 certainly did. While the Micmac Indians hovered in the darkness of the thick firs to peer out on strange craft on the green waters of Chebucto, “the great safe harbor,” French Verazano, Spanish Gomez and finally in 1607 Champlain, saw and wondered at the landlocked bay which was to become one of the world’s great ports.

Here D’Anville’s men, failing to conquer Louisburg from the New Englanders, patched their diminishing fleet after it was dispersed on the treacherous Sable Island shoal, and died, 1,100 of them, of scorbutic fever and dysentry. Their bones were still yellowing in the lush undergrowth when young Edward Cornwallis brought over his settlers from England in June, 1749.

Here the Indians sniped at the London Cockneys and the discharged soldiers and sailors who hacked a 12-acre clearing from the wilderness, set up their tents, shacks and lean-tos, built a rough line of stockade and blockhouses around them, and called the whole dismal muddy heap Halifax as a dubious compliment to England’s First Lord of Trade. It was the first English settlement in what was to become a far-flung, free dominion of Canadians.

Today those 12 acres have grown to cover all of an egg-shaped peninsula, and the city is rapidly spreading up the thin handle that connects it with the mainland, to ever-widening suburbs. Geographically, Halifax is one of the most complex sleight-of-hand tricks of the Great Glacier. Behind the north end of the Halifax peninsula the glacier gouged out an incredibly deep sea haven, which, as Bedford Basin, has sheltered more fleets and convoys throughout the centuries than you can put a name on.

Not to do things by halves it threw

up three hills, one in the centre of the peninsula—neatly flattened some 70 feet by the Duke of Kent and crowned with the Citadel; another, George’s Island, in the middle of the harbor, which, thimble-sized as it is, also holds old fortifications; and yet a third one named for Peter McNab, who bought it for 1,000 pounds. Today that island is mainly important for the lighthouse which sends its beam over the Atlantic to guide home far wayfarers.

Perhaps because the rest of the continent and its populous cities lies beyond such a weary long haul, Halifax has conditioned herself into thinking in terms of history. Partly, too, the reason may he the bitterness born of many Nova Scotians’ unyielding conviction that Confederation brought few benefits, while taking away their former remunerative coastal trade routes, clapping on new tariffs and taxes and destroying, by inland competition, many industries. The past had moments of bright glory. And they turn to it.

The Rousing Past

Cornwallis’ first Haligonians, 200 years ago, came tempted by free passage, a year’s free provisions and free land. Many of them were the poor of London, or soldiers and sailors accustomed to change and adventure. The harsh land, the mosquitolike Indians, the backbreaking work, proved too much for them. They drifted south, to the already well-settled New Elngland states, or back across the sea. By then, however, there had come boatloads of new immigrants from the north of Ireland—there’s still an Irish town in the south end of Halifax. Hanoverians came from the Upper Rhine, but most of them moved down the coast and became the forefathers bf the present-day Lunenburg fishermen. In 1752 the Gazette, the first newspaper in Canada, started publication. From here, in 1758, Wolfe set off to conquer Louisburg, and here also he planned his attack on Quebec, a thin, chinless, hot - tempered young man walking impatiently the narrow, crowded streets.

With the American Revolution came prosperity to Halifax, the supply port. Between 1777 and 1814, 800 ships, captured on the high seas, were brought into the harbor. In 1813 there were, in one day, 27 sea ships and cargoes sold at an auction in the Vice-Admiralty Court.

In 1783, from the United States, came some 10,000 Loyalists, fleeing the revolution. Since at that time the whole population of Halifax was only 8,000, there rose an immediate lack of accommodation,foodandwater. People lived in cellars, attics and tents on the commons. Rents tripled. Some built shelters from brush and blankets. At the end of the year there wasn’t a dog or a cat left in the town—you had to eat something.

The Loyalists traded their silver, jewelry, furniture and even clothing for necessities. In this inflated market the native Haligonians made hay. Wartime and times of trouble have always served the seaport. But after 1783 the city began to settle down.

Now the money came from soldiers and sailors, from troops garrisoned at the Citadel, some of whom, like Loudon’s men, grew cabbages on the commons as a scurvy cure. There were never fewer than three regiments stationed in Halifax. Always the harbor was alive with Navy and commercial ships.

Colored people came, too, to add to the international tang of the city. First there were the slaves with the Loyalists, but in 1790 every Negro was sent out of the province to Africa. In

1796. however, Nova Scotia accepted £30,000 from the British Government for taking in the Maroons, who had proved troublesome in the West Indies. They were big, fine-looking people, led by their own officers, magnificently picturesque in uniform. They worked on defenses on the Citadel Hill, but the cold was too much for them. They, too, were sent away. In 1814, when the British seized Washington, many fugitive slaves came north on British ships. From all of these vagrant immigrations, some were left. Today, Africville, a bleak huddle of houses on the spruce-clad rocks a couple of miles out of Halifax, houses Nova Scotia negroes who look and act as much at home as their white neighbors.

It takes you a time to wake up to this sense of the past. Most of Halifax’s modern wartime visitors turned blind eyes to it, stared angrily at the city’s lack of entertainment, restaurants, living quarters. They complained at the Haligonians’ tendency to fleece them, a tendency no more pronounced here than in any other war-swollen city, yet more accented perhaps because of the naturally higher prices due to high freight rates from the manufacturing centres of Upper Canada, because of the town’s smallness, and its edgy position as a jumping-off place to danger.

But had they troubled to look harder, they might have caught glimpses of the young years of Canada in the grey city.

There’s the Province House, on the old Lower Parade, the "heavy, wellproportioned stone walls black with winter soot, yet solid with dignity—the cradle of responsible government in Canada. The men who made the laws left the mark of their feet on the stone stairs, unevenly worn and hollowed with history. In the high-vaulted, stately Council Chamber, rich in plaster work, where a Liberal Government rules today, Charles Dickens once peered down from the visitors’ gallery and remarked it was like Westminster seen through the wrong end of the telescope.

Now, on the second floor of Province House is a well-stacked library which looks as though it belonged to a dignified private mansion. It’s presided over by a straight-backed, grey-haired, pink-complexioned lady with a choker about her throat. She looks about the

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room with personal pride as she tells you: “This is the very room where

Joseph Howe in 1835 defended himself át his own trial and not only won a victory for the freedom of the press, but also discovered his own gifts of eloquence and set himself on the path of fame. Here, too, in 1819 after a dawn duel, at which he killed his opponent, young Richard John Uniacke was tried for his life by his father . . .” She takes a quick breath and waves a white hand at a stout man yawning behind a big book, “There’s a Uniacke now,” she says triumphantly.

The Gay Duke

’ There are many other things to see. The fat-faced, cupolaed town clock, built in 1803 at the instigation of Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent, Commander-in-Chief, who had a passion for clocks, watches and chronometers. If he hoped to give the comfortably indolent Haligonians some sense of time, he not only failed then, but for centuries.

The stout, gay, energetic duke left many a memento. One’s the Citadel, adiamond-shaped fortification that was never used and now is falling into sad disrepair. There’s a fat Martello tower, hidden in the pines of 200-acre Point Pleasant Park fronting the sea. Once a Scottish regiment camped here and, emptying their heather-stuffed mattresses when leaving, seeded the only heather patch in Canada. 1 he Park, where Cornwallis first wanted to found his town, but didn’t because of the fear of the blasting sea winds, is to Halifax what Stanley Park is to Vancouver.

Then there is the pleasant campus of Dalhousie University, historic too, for that institute of learning was founded with pirate gold. There’s Saint Paul’s, the oldest Protestant church in Canada. In the west end of the city is the cemetery where 150 of the survivors of the Titanic are buried. The children’s library is the Duke of Kent’s old office. In Halifax too, Cunard, a native son, founded his famous line, 109 years ago.

So Halifax slumbers with her history through the summer months. There is swimming and water shows in the North West Arm, which thrusts a long salt-water finger into the midst of streets and houses. There are clam and lobster bakes on the beaches, mere minutes’ walk from the city’s centre. Haligonians drink tea with their meals, check their watches by the noon gun at the Citadel, ride their small yellow tram cars, fight the sea winds on the curving cobbled streets, and never turn to stare at a peg-legged character swinging across the common. In their broad “a” drawl they speak of “my friend girl” and commend a thing as “right good.” They claim they’ve exported more brains into the rest of Canada than any other province, and say their reserve is fed on the fact that they’ve been abused and called slow and old-fashioned. After a visit inland they take a long breath and expand enough to say that it’s good to get home to the salt water.

P>ut let winter come and the St. Lawrence freeze and Halifax bursts into great activity. Now with her rival, Saint John, N.B., she is the vital gate for Canadian goods eastward and “open the year around to all that floats.” Now the airy office of Port Manager R. W. Hendry will be the hub of the city and the great modern sheds, cold storage plants, and warehouses will hold cargoes of crude oil from South America, rubber from East Indies, sugar from the West Indies, pineapples from Singapore and dried fruit from

Genoa and, in turn, the freighters and j the liners will be loading grain for the United Kingdom, Italy and France j —last year 7,183,000 bushels were shipped from Halifax. Flour is earmarked for Iceland, Newfoundland, the West Indies, Italy and Britain, lumber will be landed in Hull and Liverpool, tractors, motorcars, trucks, sail down to South America, newsprint to South Africa, the Far East and Britain, aluminum and copper ingots to Britain.

During the winter business boom, bustling, perky Mayor John E. ‘ Gee” Ahearn will symbolize his city better than his reserved, slow-speaking constituents. When he is mad at the rest of Canada he hoists the Nova Scotia provincial flag above the Union Jack on the City-hall flagpole. When he forgives the Upper Canadians he reverses the order.

There is a thing to remember. To every person a city or a place is precisely what he sees in it. Thus with Halifax.

It might have been waking up in the early spring morning to the sound of the foghorn and the sea bells and, later, the sun rising over Dartmouth woods, shedding red light on the spot in the harbor where the last Saladin pirates were hanged and a golden glow on the four funnels of the Aquitania sliding in slow majesty to her berth at the Quay Wall.

Or a bright morning, with the blue harbor churned white by freighters and liners, tugs, ferries, schooners, fishermen and Navy crash boats, and the lighthouse keeper from Georges Island rowing over to the city in his green dory for supplies. And a rainy afternoon, prowling at Batson’s Chandler’s Shop (“everything from a needle to an anchor”) wondering which you need the most—a sea lantern, a pair of huge candlesticks, a stuffed crocodile, an old telescope, a rusty foghorn, a ship in a bottle, feather pillows or a sour-looking stuffed gull.

A Dip in the Dingle

To the Haligonians their city is, too, the little things. A feast of fresh clams after a hockey game, a regatta in the North West Arm, a swim in the Dingle, a walk in the cool pine shade of the park, with the surf a sounding symphony. It’s Lower Water Street and the sharp tang of fish and tar strong in the air and the song of the man mending a net. It’s the many long, cluttered, grey wharves and the salty wind blowing and the men swinging off the schooners and cable ships and black-painted Lunenburgers, the Cape Bretoners singing their Gaelic songs.

It’s Citadel Hill at night, and couples in one another’s arms in the shadows of the gay Duke’s bastions. From here the lights of the city dribble down to the water and blink back to Mrmgher’s Light which never catches in its beam the ghosts of the pirates handed there, though they keep scaring the bravest sailors.

From here, from the grass-grown ramparts, you can see how closely the forest and sea engirdles this city. The elaborate wooden villas of the residential sections, the dreadful slums of the north end and centre city, the old houses turned shops in the small business district, the spreading harbor front, all draw close against the wilderness and the Atlantic blasts.

For 200 harsh years these Haligonians, reserved, cool - mannered, warmhearted people, have been building history here. They themselves will criticize the results, but in their voices will be love for the ancient land and the grey city. ★