The Titanic, Belfast & The Halifax Diaries

Original story posted on Travel Maritimes, November 2016. 

Once described by Lonely Planet as one of the ‘four B’s’ (Beirut, Bagdad and Bosnia), Belfast has a complicated past (and present) fuelled by a century of religious feuds of Catholic vs Protestants. I ventured there to explore Titanic Belfast, recently announced as Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction at this year’s World Travel Awards. Titanic Belfast has provided a link to the tragic past of the RMS Titanic to over three million visitors from around the world since its’ opening just four years ago.

… As the smart ship grew in statue, grace and hue, In shadowy silent distant grew the iceberg too.
– The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on Loss of the ‘Titanic’) By Thomas Hardy

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THE TITANIC CONNECTION

The connection between Halifax and Belfast is just as contrasting as the two cities. In Belfast, it’s a celebration of the construction of the world’s ‘unsinkable ship,’ whereas in Halifax, it’s a commemoration of the more than 1,500 lives lost at sea. The sinking of the grand ship is considered one of the greatest marine disasters in recorded history.

People from the Maritimes have heard and have been taught the story of the Titanic all their lives; we feel a deep connection and an almost inherited proudness around our response to the tragedy. When word of the ships sinking reached Nova Scotia shores on April 15th, 1912, the North Atlantic was dark, frigid and choppy; almost as if she was upset by the horrific fate of the 882-foot-long vessel. The Halifax-based cable repair ship the Mackay-Bennett was the first to receive the call; they were contracted by the White Star Line, the same company who owned and built the Titanic, to go search for life after the wreckage.

Due to the rough, tempestuous seas, notoriously littered with shipwrecks and thick fog known to frequent the Maritimes, it took the barge four days to reach the wreckage. Was all hope lost?

The rescue mission mostly recovered frozen lifeless bodies. Among those pulled from the frigid temperatures of the Atlantic included; John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man on the ship and at the time, in the world; Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s Department Store in New York and the body of an unknown infant child. When the boat returned to Halifax shores, all the bodies were sent to the temporary morgue at the Mayflower Curling Club rink to be identified, buried or collected by relatives. Only 1 in 5 passengers lost at sea were ever found.

Understandably, the rescuers were so distraught by the discovery of the small child and the overall mental toil of the rescue mission that the entire crew paid for the infants burial at Fairview Lawn Cemetery as well as a headstone, out of their own wages. The copper plaque on the tombstone reads, ‘Our Babe.’ The crew, as well as most of the population of Halifax attended the burial of the child on May 4, 1912. In heart aching sadness, we banded together in solidarity for those who survived and those who were lost.

The Cemetery, located between Windsor St and Lady Hammond Rd in Halifax, has 121 victims of the ship buried, more than anywhere else in the world. In May and early-June 1912, there were upwards of 40 funerals performed daily in Halifax for the victims. There’s actually a gravesite for a J. Dawson, where fans of the James Cameron movie speculated was Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio), the lead character from the 1997 blockbuster. When the movie came out, ticket stubs from adoring fans could be found lying at the base of the grave. Could this be where James Cameron drew his inspiration from?

J Dawson was actually, Joseph Dawson, a 23-year-old Irish worker from Dublin who laboured in the ships’ coal room keeping the furnaces burning during the voyage, which never reached its’ destination.

The 705 survivors of Titanic went to New York, the intended end of the voyage, whereas those who perished at sea were sent back, frozen to Halifax.

The ship’s final resting place has now become a UNESCO underwater cultural site and lies 600km off the southeast coast of Newfoundland, approximately 12,600 feet underwater.

THE HALIFAX DIARIES

At the museum, there’s a section called the Halifax Diaries which is an interactive touch screen story detailing the personal accounts from passenger, Frederic Hamilton’s diary as well as a timeline of the rescue efforts. The showcase describes the chaos and mass confusion surrounding the ship and includes articles with misleading headlines from papers around the world.

The exhibition sheds light on the heroic effort made by Nova Scotian’s during the rescue. When reading the articles, and mentions of Halifax, our people and their support efforts during the turmoil, you can’t help but feel a massive sense of pride surging through your chest. Nova Scotian’s are resilient and have always been known for their generosity, it’s a great feeling to see an entire section dedicated to Halifax.

I spoke with one of the exhibition staff and explained I was from Halifax; he told me he’d never met someone from there before, but since starting work at the museum he now wants to visit and uncover the other history of the iconic ship. Hopefully the museum will be an economic opportunity for Nova Scotia and a chance for us to show our hospitality and final resting place of the world’s unsinkable ship.

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