Story by Mariellen Ward
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Just at dusk, I gathered my things, and myself, to leave the Press Gang restaurant, housed in one of the oldest buildings in Halifax. I had just sampled dishes inspired by the first-class dining menu of the RMS Titanic, seated in a centuries-old room made of rough=hewn stone and timber. The food was superb, but I was anxious to leave. I headed down a sloping street towards the harbour. I could see the blue sea ahead, lit up by the last light of the fading sun.
It was about 8 pm on April 14, 2012. A century before, at the same time, and only about 700 kilometres off the coast of the Nova Scotia capital, the passengers on the Titanic were sitting down to what would be the last supper on the great ship.
A large crowd had already gathered at the waterfront, behind the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. When I reached, I was given one of the last electric candles available and joined the procession along the waterfront and past the cable ships’ wharf just as the various musicians — marching bands and pipers — began to play and walk towards the Grand Parade in the centre of the city.
It was a deeply moving procession as the evocative sounds of the bagpipes filled the historic streets of this port city — one that has played hero, undertaker and friend to many a maritime disaster over hundreds of years. At the top of Prince Street, in front of the Five Fishermen restaurant — formerly Snows Funeral Home — a horse-drawn funeral hearse with employees of Snows walking somberly behind, led the procession. This was where the bodies of first class passengers of the Titanic, including John Jacob Astor, were brought after the cable ship Mackay-Bennett retrieved them from the rough seas of the North Atlantic.
I followed the procession all the way to Grand Parade, feeling the emotion rising, and feeling part of Halifax’s Titanic story, when I took my seat to wait for the Night of the Bells to begin. The free public event, hosted by Canadian icon and maritimer Gordon Pinsent, was the central piece in a series of events, exhibits, tours and cultural presentations in Halifax designed to highlight the city’s many connections to the world’s most famous maritime disaster.
HALIFAX REMEMBERS THE TITANIC 100 YEARS LATER
The Night of the Bells started at 9:30 pm and ran until about 1 am, as the balmy April night grew colder and colder. I bundled up and drank coffee to stave off the cold, because I couldn’t leave. I was transfixed by the commemorative event, which was superbly conceived. It was in three parts: the Jubilation, which set the optimistic tone of the day and the launch of the great ship, the world’s largest machine; the Bump, which described in word, music and image what happened on that fateful night in 1912; and The Coming Ashore, which told the story of the heroes of Halifax, the men who left Halifax harbour on two cable ships, the Mackay-Bennett and the Minia, in a rescue-and-recovery operation.
These were the ships that brought back 209 bodies to Halifax. Each was called a “ship of death” and Halifax “the city of sorrow.” As the closest port city to the disaster with a rail head, Halifax played an important role in the tragedy of the Titanic. The city took care of the dead, preparing bodies to be claimed by loved ones, and committing 150 to graves in three of the city’s cemeteries.
Halifax’s sad, somber and significant contribution to the Titanic drama — a story that has gripped and fascinated people for fully a century now — was fully evident in every aspect of the Night of the Bells. With Pinsent narrating, the presentation was a tasteful, respectful and very moving; perfectly commemorative in tone.
The awful awareness that more than 1,500 men, women and children perished in the frigid, dark waters that night was palpably evident during the evening and especially as the time grew closer to the real time when the ship struck the iceberg and began to sink, sending people scrambling to save themselves or others.
A large crowd gathered in front of a stage set up with three LED screens. Pinsent sat in a wing-back chair, wearing a tuxedo and overcoat, and narrated the story, as musicians, dancers and actors took the stage — too many to recount or accurately describe. Music featured prominently, and evoked some of the most heart-aching moments: a single baritone voice, John Gracie, singing “Danny Boy” in remembrance of the Irish lost (and the Irish who built the ship); the Rhapsody Quintet playing “Nearer My God to Thee”; Samantha Gracie singing “Hallelujah”; the RCMP Drums and Pipe band playing before the moment of reflection, when flares went up at 12:27 am to signify the time when the boat began to sink and the last signals were heard.
It was a monumental show and the Titanic 100 Society organizers, partners and sponsors should be proud. It was not without its missed cues and technical problems — Pinsent’s microphone seemed to be cursed, but the veteran actor handled it with humour and aplomb. I watched the show and also the Twitter stream of the Nova Scotia Museum — hashtag #TitanicMMA — which was sending out real-time SOS and CQD messages telegraphed from the Titanic and the responses from Cape Race in Newfoundland and the various ships that also picked up the calls.
As the Twitter messages on Saturday night grew more frantic, the music, narration and acting on stage grew more somber. When orange flares shot up in the black sky above Halifax, the scene was set. I was cold, and felt completely swept up in the tragic story. That was when I “got” it. I felt the sense of tragedy, the panic, the heartbreak and the incredible disbelief of first the passengers aboard the “unsinkable” ship — the ship of dreams, the marvel of the age — and then slowly the world, as the news got worse and worse.
Halifax is one of six Titanic cities, and the only one in North America. All of them honoured the events of that tragic night, the heroes, victims and survivors, and their own significant role with decorum and artistry.
“With one barely perceptible bump — a grey icy mass in the ocean brought down the unsinkable ship, and the Titanic became synonymous with death and destruction. For Halifax, the City of Sorrow, the Titanic continues to loom large … told in the story of the grave stones of those 150 who perished on this day a century ago. Halifax can be proud of that she played her part well from beginning to end … with dignity, care and compassion.” — Night of the Bells