Halifax, A Hub for Heroismby Matthew Gillies
Back in 2001, Transport Canada initiated Operation Yellow Ribbon in response to the 9/11 attacks on the US. With a goal of ensuring the potentially destructive air traffic be removed from U.S. airspace as quickly as possible, many flights were re-routed to the Halifax International Airport. For the residents of Halifax, an air of nostalgia floated through the city. It was during this time, nearly a 100 years ago, that the city of Halifax was the hub for another disaster that took place in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic.
It was April 17, 1912 when cable ships steamed into the harbours of Halifax. With church bells tolling, simple wooden boxes acting as coffins began piling up along the waterfront, leaving many local officials quelling the curiosity of local citizens.
News had already begun circulating that the unsinkable ship known as the RMS Titanic had struck an iceberg and met a chilly fate, plunging its passengers into the icy waters of the Atlantic, south of the Grand Banks on a calm, moonless night. Even as the Titanic sent out distress calls that night, it was Halifax who received the messages within hours of the tragedy because of its strength as a wireless communication hub.
For the days to follow, the city of Halifax was in a state of mourning, with flags drawn half-mast and windows draped in black crepe, ministers travelled onboard the recovery ships, as they navigated through the waters recovering bodies and reading last rites. Meanwhile, the city was booming with a flood of reporters, photographers and out-of-town undertakers to assist in the burials of the 150 bodies recovered.
However, just as passengers were divided into classes onboard the ship, so to were they treated upon death as first-class passengers were brought ashore and transported in caskets to John Snow & Son Undertakers on Argyle Street. Meanwhile, second and third class passengers were transported in body bags to the Mayflower Curling Rink as they were not to be embalmed, but instead were literally put on ice at the rink until burial.
The reason for this separation of the classes fell mostly on the fact that those who could afford it, were able to make the commute from New York to Halifax and oversee the interment while those who could not afford a trip were comforted in knowing that their loved one(s) had been recovered and were being given proper burials.
However, while social status may have seen these people not as equal during life, the dance macabre sees them as equals in death. While these burials took place in three of Halifax’s cemeteries, with the White Star Line paying for simple grey headstones lined in military precision with an identification date of death as April 15, 1912, amongst the dead, first class passengers, third class passengers and crew members are buried side-by-side.
Of the 150 passengers buried in Halifax, 121 of them have been buried in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery; a cemetery that offers many stories of those who died from the clothes presser, the butcher, the assistant boot polisher, the infamous unknown child, and orchestra violinist, John Law Hume, among many others.
Now as the centennial anniversary of the Titanic approaches, Halifax is once again preparing to see a flurry of tourists visiting the city. In honour of the lives lost during the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the city (as it has done for years past) will show its respects by holding numerous commemorative events, many of which will be hosted by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.