By Everett Potter
“It took five days for the rescue ship Mackay-Bennet to reach the site where the Titanic went down onApril 16, 1912” said Blair Beed, as we gazed out over the mistyharborofHalifax,Nova Scotia. “By the time they got there, and saw the bodies bobbing in their life jackets, they were no longer calling themselves a rescue ship. They were a recovery ship.”
In this 100th year since the Titanic went down, no place on earth is more redolent of the tragic sunken passenger thanHalifax
It was from Halifax that the rescue cum recovery effort was made to reach the site, some 750 miles away. You can walk into the excellentMaritimeMuseumand see a deck chair recovered from the ship, as well as other flotsam and jetsam. Right now, they have an exhibit about the cable ships like the Mackay-Bennet that were sent out for the rescue and recovery effort. Even on a stroll into the lush and magical Victorian-style Public Gardens of Halifaxyields a sighting of the Titanic – albeit a scale model of the ship in a pond.
To show you around, you could find no better guide than Beed, a born and bred Haligonian, to take you around the charming seaport. Beed has been leading tours in Halifax for 38 years and he specializes in tours about the Titanic.
Friendly and soft-spoken, Beed is not only steeped in the lore and minutiae of the famous shipwreck. He’s the author of Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards and his family, which has been in Nova Scotiafor 175 years, was involved in the recovery. Beed’s grandfather, then a mere boy of 12 or so, was hastily employed to work on the wharves by a local undertaker, overwhelmed by the hundreds of bodies that were eventually brought to shore.
The fact is that you don’t have to go very far in Halifaxto find a local family that doesn’t have personal stories relating to the 1912 tragedy stories that still live fresh in the imagination.
But Halifax, as Beed explained to me, wasn’t the closest point to the sinking. That would have been Newfoundland.
“But in 1912,Newfoundland wasn’t much more than a collection of fishing villages,” Beed explained. “It lacked the infrastructure. And the owners of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, did not want to make families seeking loved ones make a sea voyage from Nova ScotiatoNewfoundland. They thought the idea of a sea voyage would be too traumatic for them, given the circumstances.”
They chose Halifax instead, on the southern coast ofNova Scotia.
“Halifax was the closest developed mainland harbor,” Beed says. “The city had train service, undertakers and hotels for families arriving to find out about their loved ones.”
So the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, which was normally deployed to lay communication cables across the North Atlantic between Nova Scotia and England, were marshalled into service.
“The Mackay-Bennet found 328 bodies,” he explained. “Some were brought on board and then tossed over the side, usually because they had ‘charms’ around their necks.”
“Religious medallions,’ Beed said. “They were Catholics, Irish most likely. Don’t forget the animosity between Protestants and Catholics that existed at the time.”
I thought of my own grandmother, who emigrated from County Donegal a year or two later, “charms” aplenty around her own neck.
“In the end, they brought 209 bodies back to Halifax,” Beed said as we did a leisurely drive through the city, stopping at various points of Titanic interest.
A tour around Halifax with Beed is an extraordinary experience. He’ll take you past the house of Halifax millionaire George Wright, onYoung Avenue. Wright perished when the ship went down, “three days after signing his will. He left his house to the Halifax Women’s Council and they still own it.”
Wright is commemorated in stately St Paul’s, in downtownHalifax, which seems like an English country church erected in the middle of the new world.
We drove to leafy Fairview Lawn Cemetery, and walked around the graves which are laid out, somewhat eerily, in the shape of a ship’s prow, courtesy of White Star Line. There are 121 graves here of Titanic victims, made from Nova Scotia granite. The cruise line paid for all of them.
“The gravesite is pointed Northeast, just as the bow of Titanic was pointed northeast,” Beed says. We walked past various graves, some simply numbered, their inhabitants unknowns. Other have names and dates and even inscriptions. Their stories, when known, are enhanced by Beed’s deep knowledge of their lives.
“Jakob Alfred Wiklun,” says Beed, reading the inscription. “He was Finnish and going to work on a farm in Quebec. There’s Harry Reynolds. He was on his way to Toronto to join a friend in the bakery business. And here’s James McGrady. He was a steward on the Titanic and his was the last body found.”
There are more graves in a Jewish burial ground in Fairview, which requires special permission to visit. There are also 19 Catholics graves at Mt Olivet, thanks in part to a priest who was sent out on one of the recovery ships to prevent those wearing ‘charms’ from being tossed back over the side.
“Who’s buried there?” says Beed. “You can only imagine. If you had dark hair, you were considered an ‘Italian type’ and you were were put in the Catholic cemetery. There were Greeks and Syrians on board whose bodies were recovered and buried. What was there religion? It was guesswork.”
We come upon the grave of John Laws Hume.
“He was a violinist in the Titanic band, the band that was instructed to just play on,” Beed says.
A moment later was pause at the gravestone of one “J. Dawson.”
His name was appropriated by director James Cameron for the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film “Titanic,” which was just re-released in 3D
“Ever since the movie came out, I’ve had young women fall to the ground weeping when they see his stone,” Beed says.
Wherever you go in Halifax during this year of the Titanic, you have a powerful sense of lives interrupted, of extraordinary loss — and exceptional valor.
Blair Beed (902-455-9977; $150 for up to six passengers) is a terrific a local who brings tales of the Titanic to life.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic1(675 Lower Water Street; 902-424-7490; http://museum.gov.ns.ca) has ship models and artifacts, but it also has a deck chair from the Titanic and a year long exhibit on the North Atlantic cable ships, such as the Mackay –Bennett, that participated in the recovery effort.
For more on Titanic and Halifax, visit Destination Halifax