HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - When the Titanic left Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, she was the largest moving object ever created. Measuring 883 feet from bow to stern, the mega-ship and its seven decks had the capacity to hold 2,566 passengers and a crew of 892. Her bulky lifeboats didn’t really fit with her streamlined look, so her owner, the British cruise and shipping company White Star Line, reduced the number to 20, less than half the number needed to hold the passengers and crew.
“I cannot conceive of any disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone far beyond that,’’ said Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, long before the launch.
As we were reminded recently, captains are not infallible. Thirty bodies have been recovered from the Costa Concordia, with two people still missing after the ship went off course and ran aground on the evening of Jan. 13 near Isola del Giglio, Italy. It did not sink.
But the Titanic would go to her watery grave ever so swiftly. Smith ignored numerous warnings of an impending ice pack, and the ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14. A mere two hours and 40 minutes later, the ship had sunk, killing almost 1,500 people.
The Cunard liner Carpathia was en route from New York to Fiume, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia), traveling in the opposite direction. The passenger steamship was the first to arrive on the scene, finding survivors and eventually taking them to New York.
Cape Point, Newfoundland, was the closest land mass to the wreckage, but it was Halifax, 700 nautical miles to the west and the closest major seaport, that would play the most pivotal role in search and rescue operations.
Halifax had an important rail line. When news broke of the disaster, relatives were put on special trains to make their way north from New York. Even more important, Halifax was the home port of cable ships that were being used to repair breaks in underwater telegraph cables between North America and Europe. The three cable ships, Mackay-Bennett, Minia, and Montmagny, had the grisly task of taking the dead to Halifax for burial.
“As far as the eye could see, the ocean was strewn with wreckage and debris, with bodies bobbing up and down in the cold sea,’’ noted Arminias Wiseman, a crew member aboard the Mackay-Bennett.
“Cable Ships: Connecting Halifax to Titanic and the World,’’ an exhibition on view from April 12 to Nov. 4 at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, is just one of the many events planned in the city to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Begin your tour of the museum at the permanent Titanic exhibition, which displays more than 50 artifacts, including the last remaining deck chair, ornate wood from the lounge stairwell, and a homemade cribbage board created from the floating debris.
“Most of these objects were found by the crew of the cable ships and were kept in their families for generations,’’ said Derek Harrison, the museum’s heritage interpreter. Harrison pointed out a mahogany cabinet that had been in a first-class bathroom on the Titanic. A crew member from the Minia found it and it was used as his family’s medicine chest for years.
Nearby were two leather shoes that, through recent DNA testing, are thought to have belonged to Sidney Leslie Goodwin, a 19-month-old toddler from Wiltshire, England. Sidney’s father was on his way to Niagara Falls, N.Y., for a job interview; the entire family went down with the ship.
“Most of the clothing was burned to stop souvenir hunting. This little pair of shoes was kept by a local police sergeant for six years because he didn’t have the heart to throw them away,’’ said Harrison.
Before leaving the Maritime Museum, pick up a brochure that points you to 14 other sites in Halifax with a Titanic connection. (The brochure is also available at the Visitor Information Centre on the boardwalk at 1655 Lower Water St.)
Among the sites is the George Wright House, one of the estates that line Young Avenue. A millionaire who made his fortune from publishing a worldwide trading directory, Wright was the only Halifax resident aboard the ship and among its casualties. The day before Wright left on the trip, he had bequeathed his turreted home to the Local Council of Women, which still owns it today.
Wright was a visionary who believed that the affluent, middle class, and poor should all live in the same neighborhood. You can still tour the South End development he created where mansions of the rich reside on South Park Street, the more modest homes of the working class can be found on adjacent Morris Street, and the row houses of the poor line Wright Avenue.
The bodies of first-class passengers who perished in the Titanic - and who could be identified - were transported to their respective towns. The remaining 150 victims were buried at three cemeteries in the city’s North End: Fairview Lawn, Mount Olivet, and Baron de Hirsch. At Fairview Lawn their graves are marked by three rows of headstones shaped to look like the bow of a ship.
The 121 passengers and crew buried here at Fairview Lawn include Joseph Dawson. “Titanic’’ director James Cameron could have based his protagonist, Jack Dawson (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) on this man. In reality, they had nothing in common. The Dawson buried here, a 23-year-old Dubliner, was happy to find work aboard the Titanic as a coal trimmer. He had the thankless task of transporting coal from the storage area to the hot furnaces.
St. Paul’s Church, the oldest Protestant place of worship in Canada, was one of the many congregations in Halifax to hold memorial services after the sinking. On April 21, 1912, the Anglican church was overflowing with mourners who came to pay their last respects to Wright, a parishioner, and other victims.
End your tour down the block at the former site of Snow’s Funeral Home, where many of the ship’s dead passed through.
The address is now home to one of Halifax’s finest restaurants, The Five Fisherman Restaurant and Grill. Head upstairs to dine on unlimited mussels at the salad bar and savor one of Nova Scotia’s good white wines.
But first toast the men, women, and children who were aboard the Titanic on that unfortunate evening 100 years ago.
If you go...
What to do
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
1675 Lower Water St., Halifax
Starting at 11:55 p.m. Newfoundland Standard Time on April 14, you can follow the hash tag #TitanicMMA on Twitter and be sent the exact same wireless messages operators received from the Titanic in 1912.
George Wright House
989 Young Ave.
Now called the Local Women’s Council House.
Fairview Lawn Cemetery
St. Paul’s Church
1749 Argyle St.
Erected in the summer of 1750, the church’s original timbers came from Boston.
The Five Fishermen Restaurant and Grill
1740 Argyle St.
Dishes range from $12 for a bowl of seafood chowder to $60 for the steak and seafood entree.
A list of all Titanic sites in the province.