Cruise 10, Halifax, Vacations

Vacation 2010: Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax is steeped in history: from the Halifax explosion to most notably, (or in our opinion at least), the 300 people from the Titanic who are buried there.

But let’s back up a bit:

Once again, we opted for the more relaxed and easy shore excursion with the Halifax City Tour. It was on a huge tour bus so Kevin was comfortable and we saw much more of the city than we would have normally. Our tour guide was dressed in a kilt and frequently sighed in either boredom or exasperation as he told us about the history of his fair city.

It was both amusing and annoying.

We toyed with the idea of taking a shore excursion that included the city and admission to two of their popular museums, the Martime Museum of the Atlantic and the Halifax Citadel, but we changed our minds at the last minute because we’re not sure Kevin would have been able to handle all of that walking.

I’m glad now that we stuck with just the city tour. Because by the time we got to Halifax, the week was catching up to him and he was reaching the exhaustion point of no return (though I suspect he had already reached it by that time).

We got on our bus and headed to downtown Halifax.

The tour was very interesting. I’ve really enjoyed taking these tours because you learn so many interesting details about the city, details you might not have learned otherwise unless you Googled the city before leaving.

One of the things we enjoyed hearing about, was the Halifax Explosion.

The Halifax Explosion occurred on Thursday, December 6, 1917, when the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was devastated by the huge detonation of the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, fully loaded with wartime explosives, which accidentally collided with the Norwegian SS Imo in “The Narrows” section of the Halifax Harbour. About 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. This is still the world’s largest man-made accidental explosion.

The smoke stacks that you see in the above picture, in addition to being functional smoke stacks, symbolize the disaster that happened in the cove.

The tour guide told us that 24 short hours after the devastating explosion, a train carrying doctors, nurses and first aid supplies arrived from Boston to help take care of their wounded. As a way to show their appreciation, Halifax now sends Boston a huge Christmas tree every year.

In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks and remembrance for the help that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided immediately after the disaster. That gift was revived in 1971 by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, who began an annual donation of a large tree to promote Christmas tree exports as well as acknowledge the Boston support after the explosion. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia Government to continue the goodwill gesture as well as to promote trade and tourism. The tree is Boston’s official Christmas tree and is lit on Boston Common throughout the holiday season.

See? Interesting stuff.

But it gets better.

Personally, I’ve always sort of had a fascination with the Titanic disaster. It’s hard not to have an appreciation (especially if you cruise) for what happened considering so many of our boating laws were changed and improved after the tragedy.

Shortly after the Titanic sank in April 1912, the White Star Line went out to try and retrieve as many bodies as they could from the water.

(Side note: The White Star Line, the British shipping company that built the Titanic, merged with its chief rival Cunard Lines in 1934 which then became a part of Carnival Corporations in 2005. Carnival Corporations, Carnival Cruise Lines … interesting that we were sailing on a ship made by a company that built the Titanic, no?)

The White Star ships were able to retrieve a little over 300 people. Most of them are buried in the Fairview Lawn Cemetary in Halifax, though a few were claimed by relatives and taken home to be buried.

The slant of the gravestones symbolizes the bow of a ship.
The gravestones state the name of the person, the date he/she died and the number by which they were pulled out of the water. (Bogie was the 274th person they pulled out of the water).

We all huddled in close to hear the stories the tour guide told us about that fateful voyage.

We were all fascinated, yet horrified, at the individual stories. Looking at the gravestones made the tragedy personal, more real, and our group became extremely quiet. After our guide finished speaking and we were allowed to spend some time on our own in the cemetery, me and the guys quietly walked down the line of gravestones, our hands clasped behind our backs, and silently read the names of all the poor people that were fished out of the sea.

It was a very sobering experience.

There were two stories I thought were especially fascinating:

The grave of the unknown child, and Jack Dawson.

The title ‘Unknown Child’ refers to the body of a small, blonde boy which was pulled from the ocean after the sinking of the ship. When instructed to burn the victim’s clothes to discourage souvenir hunters, the morgue workers could not bear to burn the sweet little child’s shoes, and buried him in a grand tomb in a cemetery in Halifax

For years, it was believed the ‘Unknown Child’ was 2-year old Gosta Palsson, from Sweden, as Mrs. Palsson’s body had been found floating nearby. In 2001, however, DNA tests revealed the boy’s identity was actually that of Eino Panula, a 13-month old Finn whose entire family perished in the disaster, as did Gosta’s. Panula descendants came across the ocean to visit their ancestor’s grave. However, in 2007, scientists revised their opinion and confirmed the body to belong to 1-year old Sidney Goodwin, a third-class English boy who was the youngest of a lost family of eight. Nowadays, the ‘Unknown Child’ has become a symbol of all the innocence lost in the disaster, and how it can still be remembered and honored many years later.

Only the tour guide didn’t tell us the identity of the child, he left it hanging. We naturally had to look up the entire story when we got home.

Now, the story of Jack Dawson.

Does that name sound familiar? It would if you saw the movie “Titanic” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett.

Jack Dawson’s name was taken from the 227th person the White Star Line pulled from the water, J. Dawson. There’s a bit of a mystery behind the J. Dawson name – it is believed that J. Dawson was actually Joseph Dawson and the story behind this man is perhaps even more intriguing than the Titanic story itself. I’ll let you read it for yourself.

However, that’s where the popular “Titanic” movie ends as far as accuracy. Our tour guide told us that if we wanted a more accurate (he said it was about 80% accurate) portrayal of the disaster, we needed to watch the 1958 “A Night to Remember.”

And Kevin and I watched it. In fact, I watched it twice, the second time around I listened to the commentary, which was fascinating.

The movie was exactly the length it took the Titanic to sink, from a half hour before the boat hit the iceberg until it sank. It gave me goosebumps. If you get a chance to watch it, I recommend it, and listen to the commentary, there are some really interesting facts about the tragedy, not to mention all of the laws that have been enacted since the tragedy.

The reason I took a picture of J. Dawson’s gravestone, complete with the bare earth leading up to the gravestone was because shortly after the film came out (and up to about five years ago, our tour guide said), people laid out flowers and all sort of memorabilia to remember “Jack Dawson.”

I found this disturbing. One, that people would become so emotionally invested in a movie that they would place flowers on a dead man’s grave (granted, they thought the character was an actual person), but that they would place flowers on a grave of a person they didn’t even know. People are honoring a fictitious person, it turns out. Does no one remember the REAL J. Dawson? I feel like the memory of the real Dawson has been eclipsed by Hollywood and I think it’s a tad disrespectful. Because even if people thought they were honoring the real Jack Dawson, they weren’t, they were honoring the PORTRAYAL of the real Jack Dawson (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character), not the actual man.

At any rate, I felt sorry for the real J. Dawson, whoever he might have been.

The tour bus took us to some Victorian Gardens (the plants were planted in symmetry, something that was (is?) very important to Victorian culture) and we visited the Citadel, though we didn’t actually go in (that was extra and we would have had to find our own transportation back to the pier). We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Halifax. The historical tidbits were just the icing on the cake and I think the boys really liked hearing about the details behind the landmarks.

The skies were a bit overcast when we were there (which is typical Nova Scotia weather, apparently), but it was still beautiful and quite warm. Our tour guide gave us the option of getting off the bus and walking the length of the pier back to our ship (which was about a mile and a half) and though normally we would have done that, Kevin just didn’t feel up to it, so we rode the bus back the entire way. Most of the people had gotten off though and our guide came back to talk to us. He asked Kevin what had happened to him and was suitably sympathetic when he found out. He also flirted with a pair of older women in front of us going so far as to satisfy their curiosity on whether or not he was wearing any underwear under his kilt

He was. (I didn’t exactly want to know that information, quite frankly, but it WAS funny).

We walked through the pier a bit (I bought a Nova Scotia hoodie) before we boarded the boat. We ate lunch and then took it easy for the rest of the day.

We had a full day of sailing back to New York the next day and though I have a few pictures to share with you, overall, it was a relaxing day for all of us.

And we needed it.