50 Things You Don’t Know About Halifax
The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry service is the oldest continually operational saltwater ferry service in North America. Photo: HRM
Pirates gone wild, special tea and those “MicMac Rotary Blues”—weird and wonderful Halifax miscellany.
You likely know that Halifax is Canada’s largest city east of Quebec. It was founded in 1749 by Governor Edward Cornwallis and has more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada. (Although Montreal and St. John’s occasionally challenge that claim). There’s a cannon on Citadel Hill that fires every day at noon and a cartoon tugboat ambles around the harbour. But even though most of us know quite a bit about our fascinating, historic city, there are a lot of things you don’t know. Here’s 50 of them.
1. The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry service is the oldest continually operational saltwater ferry service in North America.
2. Until 1844, the Royal Navy hung pirates at Point Pleasant Park’s Black Rock Beach.
3. In 1847, Andrew Downs purchased land near the Northwest Arm where, shortly after, he established North America’s first zoological garden.
4. Until the mid-1970s, men and women weren’t legally allowed to drink together in public.
5. On May 15, 1750, the first divorce in the colonies that would become Canada was registered in Halifax, between Lieutenant William Williams and Amy Williams. The court ruled in favour of Lieutenant Williams. Not only was his wife forbidden to remarry while he was still living, she was also ordered to leave the province within 10 days.
6. In 1937, Mary T. King was elected to represent District 27 (the rural north of Halifax County), making her Canada’s first female councillor in a rural municipality.
7. From 1996 to 1999, Halifax Pop Explosion was called “Halifax on Music.”
8. In 1912, people gathered in the Orpheus Theatre on Granville Street to watch 1,000 feet of “motion photographs” called Scenes Incidental to the Awful Titanic Disaster.
9. There are some 32 Volvos on the floor of the Bedford Basin. Workers dumped them there in 1969 after the container ship that was transporting them sustained water damage.
10. On February 18, 1919, six popular Chinese restaurants on Gottingen, Brunswick and Barrington streets were attacked and looted by hundreds of rioters. Newspaper editorials blamed returned soldiers, bootleggers and even German spies.
11. The first Halifax City Council spent their first two meetings debating the legitimacy of some of the candidates and whether or not all of the results were accurate.
12. In 1982, Bryson-Lysen released the song “MicMac Rotary Blues” (Solar Records), based on Dartmouth’s MicMac Rotary, which was replaced in the late 1980s by the Parclo.
13. The first black Canadian woman to receive the Governor General Award (1983), Dr. Marie Hamilton, is originally from Beechville.
14. On the evenings of October 8 and 9 in 1882, Oscar Wilde lectured at the Academy of Music, which stood where the Maritime Centre is now. More than 1,900 Haligonians attended the two lectures.
15. The first African Nova Scotian to be elected to the Halifax City Council was Thomas J. Johnson. He represented Preston Township from 1899 until 1901.
16. In the early days of its existence, Rockhead City Prison, which was located in the North End of Halifax, was a working farm.
17. One of Halifax’s early harbour ferries used a team of eight horses to turn its paddlewheels. In 1871, a drunken passenger caused an uproar and interrupted ferry service when he stabbed all eight horses.
18. In 1809, the Royal Navy hung pirate Edward Jordan at Black Rock Beach. They coated his body in tar and left the remains up for almost 20 years.
19. A 1952 city directory lists 44 Chinese-owned restaurants in the most bustling areas of Halifax and Dartmouth, including Gottingen Street.
20. In the 1960s, Dartmouth had a youth-elected Junior Council that met occasionally with Mayor Joe Zatzman.
21. Waye Mason, Councillor for District 7, re-launched the Halifax Pop Explosion as a not-for-profit in 2001.
22. Private Guy Hunter Dillman became a hero to many Dartmouth residents after the Halifax Explosion. Before collapsing from his own injuries, he rushed many others to the hospital.
23. Someone walks into a library in HRM once for every minute that the libraries are open.
24. The Dalhousie Gazette, established in 1868, is the longest running college newspaper in Canada.
25. Hieroglyphs written on birch bark, stone or wood by the Mi’kmaq people are considered to be the first written signs in eastern North America.
26. In the 1970s, you couldn’t order alcohol unless you bought food as well.
27. On the first day of HRM’s existence as an amalgamated municipality, City Council toured the entire region in a Metro Transit bus.
28. Canada’s last piracy trial took place in Halifax in 1844. Four crew members of the British vessel Saladin were the last people hanged as pirates in Canadian history.
29. Haligonian D.H. Craig was the first foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.
30. Only a quarter of the people living in HRM have skated on a lake or pond.
31. The first public library in Canada was Halifax’s Citizens’ Free Library, established in 1864.
32. One in every five Canadians is related to someone who passed through Halifax’s Pier 21.
33. In the early 1990s, Halifax was known as “Seattle of the North” because of the success of bands like Sloan, The Super Friendz and Thrush Hermit.
34. The Sir Charles Ogle was the first steam-powered ferry to cross from Halifax to Dartmouth. It began service in 1830.
35. In the 1950s, the Halifax Refugee Clinic on Grafton Street was a Chinese restaurant called Hum Mow. People would go there after the ballrooms closed to drink “special tea,” which was actually scotch.
36. In July 1918, the Halifax Herald accused members of the Halifax Council of stealing 20 gallons of rum and two cases of scotch from the Liquor Inspector’s office. Clarence Horton was arrested.
37. In 2010, Judge Timothy Gabriel became the first Mi’kmaw judge in Nova Scotia.
38. In 2010, Halifax’s volunteerism rate of 56.5 per cent was higher than the national and provincial rates.
39. From 1841 to 1994, aldermen in Halifax signed their oath of office on The City of Halifax Aldermanic Scroll. It’s 21 feet long.
40. In the early 1800s, a section of Grafton Street was named Hogg Street, after the owner of a brothel.
41. William Roue, who designed the Bluenose, also designed the Governor Cornwallis, a ferry that caught fire on December 22, 1944. Although there were over 200 people onboard,
no one died.
42. On April 21, 1863, the Halifax Police swore in 120 temporary constables in an effort to control the widespread fighting that had broken out between soldiers and civilians at a brothel on Brunswick Street.
43. In 1849, Halifax became the first North American city to transmit European news to New York City and Boston.
44. Acadius or Love in a Calm, which was performed in 1774, was the first original English Canada Play to be written and performed in Halifax.
45. Maugher Beach on McNabs Island used to be called Hangman’s Beach. The Royal Navy often had four pirate corpses up at any given time.
46. Dartmouth had a city philosopher. In 1991, John Savage appointed Dr. Peter March of Saint Mary’s University to work on a series of programs, including the future of the waterfront.
47. The first newspaper in English Canada was the Halifax Gazette, initially published on March 23, 1752 by John Bushell.
48. In the early days of the ferries, people were called to the terminal with three blows of a conch shell and the crew’s shouts of the word “Over.”
49. Canada’s first covered ice rink was opened on January 3, 1863 in the Public Gardens.
50. From 1901 to 1902, Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote a column for The Daily Echo, which was housed on the second floor of the Nova Scotian building.
Writer’s note: I had a lot of help with this article. I began by contacting a variety of people, including archivists, professors and bartenders. My appreciation goes out to the following people who shared their knowledge and helped with research.
• Richard S. MacMichael, senior heritage interpreter, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
• Joanne McCarthy O’Leary, local history and genealogy librarian, and the Reference Department at Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library, Halifax Public Libraries
• Albert Lee, research associate at the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies, Saint Mary’s University
• Susan McClure, archivist, HRM Municipal Archives
• Jonny Stevens, executive director, Halifax Pop Explosion
Additional sources include A Collection of Nova Scotia Firsts by Ruth A. MacDonald, The Journey Continues: An Atlantic Canadian Black Experience by Craig Marshall Smith, Maritime Firsts by Dan Soucoup, Halifax’s Vital Signs 2012 by The Community Foundation of Nova Scotia, Halifax Street Names, edited by Shelagh MacKenzie.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.