Links between Halifax and the Titanic remain strong

On the 110th anniversary of one of the world’s worst maritime disasters, we look back.

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It was billed as the most luxurious ocean liner of its time, a four-city-block behemoth with room for more than 2,000 passengers and crew.

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Inspired by Greek gods, the RMS Titanic set sail with great fanfare on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, carrying with her the dreams of many of a better life in the New World.

But after colliding with an iceberg late on April 14, 1912, in just two hours and 40 minutes, the sea reclaimed the once-thought-unsinkable ship, with the loss of more than 1,500 people.
The city of Halifax and the ill-fated Titanic are inextricably linked in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.

In the dark days that followed the tragedy, the capital of Nova Scotia became the main mourner, coroner and undertaker. “He collected, identified and buried the bodies, and he did so with great diligence and respect,” said the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2012 during the 100th anniversary events. “The moving stories of love and loss uncovered in the process ensure that the sinking is remembered, not just as a historic event, but as a human tragedy on a colossal scale.”

As the closest major port to the disaster site located 600 kilometers southeast of Newfoundland, Halifax came under pressure from the Titanic’s owner, White Star Line, which chartered several Canadian ships to recover the dead.

But the tragedy also unleashed a frantic press package. “The international media descended on the East Coast community to document the grim spectacle when the corpses of millionaires and poor alike were lined up along the docks,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia, citing an article from Maclean’s magazine.

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The first of the recovery ships, the Mackay-Bennett, arrived in port with its grim cargo on April 30, 1912, greeted by a mournful tolling of church bells and hearses flanking docks. In the days that followed, Halifax was transformed into a “city of funerals.”

The bodies of the first-class passengers were unloaded in coffins, while the rest were carried out on stretchers or in duffel bags.

Halifax-based Mackay-Bennett and CS Minia, with their supplies of caskets, body bags and embalming fluid, recovered 306 and 17 victims, respectively, but only 59 of the recovered bodies were released to their families. More than 115 were buried at sea.

The remaining 150 unclaimed victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries between May 3 and June 12, making the city the largest Titanic grave in the world.

Fairview Lawn Cemetery, with 121 victims, is the largest of these cemeteries.

Most of the headstones on the Titanic are plain granite blocks provided by the White Star Line, but in some cases families, friends and Haligonians have raised money to commission larger, more ornate custom markers.

Grieving local residents and businesses expressed their sympathy with flowers and wreaths, adorning the coffins of unidentified victims with bouquets of lilies.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax houses one of the world’s finest collections of wooden artifacts from the Titanic, including a nearly perfectly preserved mahogany deckchair bearing the White Star Line’s distinctive five-pointed emblem.

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A pair of children’s shoes, their brown leather worn but still rugged-looking, is one of the most poignant pieces in the collection, stirring the steeliest of hearts.

The longest-living Titanic survivor was Millvina Dean, who was two months old at the time and died in 2009 at the age of 97, linking Halifax ever closer to the legacy of the ocean liner.

It is a mantle that the city and the province wear with reverence. As the Ministry of Culture and Heritage states: “Nova Scotians have remained respectful as guardians of the ship’s memory.”

Interest in the story of the doomed ocean liner reached a high point in 1997 with the release of James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and again in 2012 during events marking the centenary of the loss.

Even today, the Titanic is never far from the headlines.

Last year, it was reported that Canadian investigators are trying to determine the authenticity of a message in a bottle dropped from the ship before it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.

With a letter dated April 13, 1912 and signed by Mathilde Lefebvre, the sealed bottle was found by a family walking along the shoreline at Hopewell Cape, NB.

It may turn out to be a hoax, but as CTV News Atlantic noted: “As investigators continue to try to solve this mystery, one thing is for sure: the cultural curiosity surrounding the Titanic continues, even more than 100 years later.”

— Andre Ramshaw

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