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A Yankee Notebook

November 12, 2012


MONTPELIER, VT – I’ve been after Mother for decades to go on a vacation trip to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. No soap. She’s thought of them always as cold, foggy, rocky, and probably unfriendly places. So we’ve never gone.

But as I write, she’s about to spend her second night in Nova Scotia, snug in the capital, Halifax. An old friend of ours who’s terminally ill called and asked her to come, and a few hours later she and a sister of the friend were off on their trek. “It’s beautiful down here!” she bubbled. “We really ought to come here when we can.” I’m no fool when it comes to marital dynamics. I shall resist the idea until the pressure to go is overwhelming, and then graciously accede.

The maritime provinces of Canada were the earliest areas to be exploited by Europeans in North America. The Norse were here in 1000 CE, but found the locals not only unwelcoming, but murderous. There is some dispute as to whether Basque fishermen and whalers, who were certainly on the coast by 1500, were here earlier than Columbus, who hit the New World farther south. The Smithsonian Institution has conducted extensive digs along the coast, investigating the early contacts between Europeans and the First Nations people.

We inlanders tend to think of the North Atlantic shores and continental shelf as one great fish basket – which it was till fairly recently – and envision life there as draped in drying fishing nets and brightened by primary-color houses in tiny coves. But a major part of the provinces’ life has revolved around mining. Early immigrants, many Scots and Welshmen among them, were accustomed to finding their living underground, and located plenty to dig for in Atlantic Canada.

I got hold of a Halifax tour guide by phone this evening. Blair Beed probably knows more about his home precincts than anyone else alive. I called him to talk briefly about the great munitions explosion that leveled the city in 1917; but one thing led to another when he mentioned that Nova Scotia had been the scene of many calamities, and soon we were off onto the others.

The first one Blair mentioned was the so-called Moose River Mine Disaster. It sounds worse than it was (except to its protagonists): In April of 1936 three would-be entrepreneurs descended into the dormant Moose River gold mine in search of possibilities. While they were far underground, the mine shaft collapsed, trapping them. Rescue crews, drilling with the uncanny accuracy that seems common to miners, tapped into the chamber they were in, and then dug through many meters of rubble to reach them after ten days. Two survived. This might have been only a blip in history but for the fact that J. Frank Willis, an intrepid announcer for the CRBC (later the CBC), was on the scene, and gave reports on the rescue effort every half-hour for 56 hours. It was sensational, and was rebroadcast worldwide: the first time that radio, then in its relative infancy, had been used this way, and it set the standard for all later live reporting.

In April 1912 another disaster occurred, this one offshore. The Titanic went down closest to Halifax of all ports, and several ships went out from there to search the area. While the Carpathia, the liner first on the scene, took the survivors to New York, the Canadians were sent for the bodies floating around the scene. The Mackay-Bennett set out with embalming supplies, a team of morticians, 100 coffins, and a few tons of ice. She found 306 bodies, 116 of them too damaged to return to shore. The ones they brought back were either shipped to homes in North America or buried in a graveyard in Halifax, which became a tourist destination.

There was also a Vermont connection. Blair Beed says that several years ago he received a letter with the reminiscences of a survivor, Hilda Bottomley Perkins of Belmont, Vermont.

But the greatest calamity to strike Halifax occurred in 1917. Because of its far eastern location, the port is the closest in North America to Europe; and military convoys gathered there during both world wars for the dash through the U-boats to safe harbors on the Continent.

Halifax is at the same latitude as Montpelier; a magnificent harbor, deep, sheltered from the winds, and in the old days easily defended by forts overlooking the Narrows, the entrance to the inner harbor. On December 6, 1917 – just 95 years ago – The Mont-Blanc, a loaded munitions ship chartered by the French government, collided with a Norwegian ship in the Narrows. The Mont-Blanc caught fire, and 25 minutes later blew up: the greatest man-made explosion ever until the first atomic bomb test. About 2000 people were killed and perhaps 9000 wounded by flying debris. The blast flattened two square miles, most of the north end of the City of Halifax.

Cleanup after the blast was swift, as it was thought the devastation would be demoralizing to young doughboys headed “over there.” A few months later, what was the city looked a lot like open pastureland. Today there are no physical scars of that trauma except, according to Blair, a cracked window in a church and a stick of wood driven through a wall. There may be a few survivors still who remember that calamitous day in their youth, but Halifax bustles brightly today, served by superhighways (“Three lanes!” Mother exclaimed over the phone). The piers can accommodate huge cruise ships end-to-end, and the yacht basins are filled with hundreds of small boats, many of them more “yare” than what you’d find on, say, Lake Champlain. I can hardly wait to get there. Mother and I will try to take a tour with Blair Been, and try to comprehend all that’s happened on that adamant coast over the last thousand years.

Photo by Willem lange