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Tales from the Bedford Basin

More than a body of water, this centre of the community has a long history of princely visitors and wartime stories

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If you live in Bedford, you’re familiar with the Bedford Basin. When I was growing up in Halifax, Bedford Basin didn’t interest me at all.

About eight years ago, we bought a home located near a street that flows down onto the Bedford Highway where the Basin dominates the scenery. That view inspired me to research stories of the Basin’s history.

In February 1868, there were popular horse-trotting matches held on the ice on Bedford Basin.

In those days, most of the excitement had nothing to do with the races, but with people who, when a crowd gathered, had often begun to fight. Soon, blood was flowing recklessly on the ice and snow.

One such situation created a lot of fear when a mob attacked a young man and beat him up. He might have been seriously injured, but a friend drew his gun and scared off the attackers.

A year later, the arrival of Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, also had a positive effect on Bedford Basin.

A description of this event is found in Phyllis Blakeley’s Glimpses of Halifax 1867-1900. She writes that more than 900 Haligonians were so anxious to see this royal visitor, they journeyed to Prince’s Lodge and Bedford Basin in their own carriages or aboard the ferry Micmac.

Blakeley also added that when the prince later arrived in the Basin on board the ship, HMS Mullet it was flying the Royal Standard. Visitors greeted the prince warmly.

Another unforgettable Basin-related historical moment was early in 1892 when the second Halifax to Dartmouth bridge collapsed. Wreckage from the bridged floated in the Basin’s waters.

Newspapers at the time reported the bridge, which had been only competed less than two years before, “was a dismal structure that had fallen down with hardly a breath of wind blowing.’’

Visiting ships have always played a dramatic role in the Basin’s history, especially during the Second World War. The Norwegian whaling fleet had a controversial presence in the Basin.

Their whaling fleets had 2,000 sailors on board but they weren’t popular with local residents. Many of the sailors got drunk and were accused of using foul language.

One of the most memorable Bedford Basin Second World War episodes happened during a September 1940 crossing to Europe.

On Sept. 20, only two days after it had left the Basin, the German submarine U-47 made first visual with the convoy. With only one torpedo remaining on board, this submarine waited until eight other submarines arrived before it reacted. During the two days that followed, another 11 ships in the convoy were sunk.

Warships HMCS Saguenay and HMCS French escorted the convoy. But the escort group was later changed to seven Royal Navy warships. Many of whose crews included sailors from the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.

The crews of the escorting British destroyers and corvettes must have been emotionally devastated during the sinking. There was nothing but fire amongst the destroyed ships. Retaliation against the German submarines was impossible.

For five years, thousands watched ships steal into Bedford Basin one at a time to wait until a convoy was assembled. They had grown accustomed to seeing the Basin full of ships in the evening, only to find it empty by the dawn of the next day.

There are yet more stories about the Basin.

The first one is about a man who is said to have lived some time ago in Bedford. According to some sources, he built a boat using driftwood and scraps of material that he found in strange places and, he had rarely gone into the community for food.

He did tell people that he was planning to sail across the Atlantic, but local authorities advised him to give up such a ludicrous plan. Apparently, he ignored this wise advice and one day sailed off in his frail boat and was never seen again.

The other yarn involves a yacht named the Danjinn, which anchored in Bedford Basin during the summer of 1963.

The boat was the second largest pleasure craft in the world and was owned by a man named Daniel Ludwig who, according to the New York Times was one of the world’s richest man. The yacht was 78 metres long and had crew of 30 men who were mostly from Okinawa.

Elsie Churchill Tolson wrote about the yacht in her book, The Captain, the Colonel and Me. She mentions that it was a very wet, cold summer when the vessel docked in Bedford Basin.

Most of the crew were cold and miserable but, thankfully, a local family took pity on them and welcomed them into their home. Years afterwards, the crew and their kind benefactors continued to correspond.

The Bedford Basin’s history is anything but dull.

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