No matter how long we dig, Halifax has proven to be a bottomless well of weird history, strange by-laws, important firsts and fascinating people. Our archives, libraries, museums and people are full of stories and facts that are just waiting to be shared. Read on to learn the story behind the Sambro Lighthouse, the misdeeds of an embezzling city tax collector, our own version of the Scarlet Letter, and a creative solution to a stray-cat problem.
1. In 2012, scientists at Dalhousie University developed the first new antibiotic invented in 30 years.
2. In 2001, George Elliot Clarke became the first black Canadian writer to win the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
3. The Halifax School for the Blind, opened by Sir Charles Frederick Fraser in 1871, was one of the first tangible results of Fraser’s pioneering efforts to establish equal educational rights for the blind.
4. Neptune Theatre’s first production was George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara on July 1, 1963.
5. Halifax’s first gay bar, Thee Club, opened on January 29, 1971. Admission on that first night was 69 cents.
6. Gloria Ann Wesley, Halifax resident and author of To My Someday Child, was the first published black Nova Scotian poet.
Take me to church
7. In the late 1700s, members of St. Matthew’s United Church had the option of paying for a better seat. The prices for pew rental ranged from $100 to $144 per year (converted to today’s loonies).
8. St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Argyle Street is the oldest building in Halifax.
9. In the latter half of the 19th century, eight churches located on Brunswick Street inspired the street’s nickname, Church Row.
10. When the Sambro Lighthouse was built in the late 1750s, it was partially funded by a lottery. Organizers sold 1,000 tickets for 3 pounds each.
11. In 1828, the Legislative Council provided 10 pounds towards the building of a school and schoolhouse in Hammonds Plains.
12. In 2014, 3,200 of Nova Scotia’s 4,400 international students went to school in Halifax.
13. Factors like land subsidence (sinking land) and rising sea levels have caused our water levels to increase by 32 centimetres over the last 100 years.
14. From January to October 2014, there have been 169 pedestrian/vehicle collisions. This is up 59.4 per cent from the same period last year.
15. According to the Master Plan for the City of Halifax, published in 1945 by the Civic Planning Commission, the city was originally designed in London, and “consisted of 35 blocks roughly 320 feet long and 120 feet wide, with 55-foot streets.”
16. In 1773, the Cornwallis family sold McNab’s Island to Peter McNab for 1,000 pounds sterling, which is about $1,800 in today’s loonies.
17. On March 30, 1988, Halifax City Council passed a motion allowing taxi drivers to charge 25 cents for every piece of luggage they handled or 10 cents per grocery bag.
Rules & regulations
18. It’s illegal to own a lizard longer than 2 metres in Halifax.
19. According to a bylaw on the use of sidewalks in Halifax, “No person shall drive or ride any horse, cow, sheep or other animal, on any sidewalk where the passage or excrement of such animal would be likely to cause annoyance to persons using the sidewalk.”
20. Bylaw P-500 states that commercial vehicles may be left in any parking space, free of charge, for up to 30 minutes as long as they’re being loaded or unloaded with “goods, wares, merchandise, materials or passengers.”
21. Ordinance 10A states that you can be fined up to $20 for parking in Grand Parade. The fine for skateboarding in the same area? Up to $500.
22. According to bylaw C-700, it is illegal to have a picnic in a cemetery.
The way it was
23. Hammonds Plains once had its own phone company called (you guessed it) the Hammonds Plains Phone Company.
24. Alexander Keith built an underground passage leading from his Hollis Street home to his brewery.
25. In the Chickenburger’s early days, waitresses spent their summers sleeping in a boarding house called the “Chic-Inn.”
26. Government House’s front door originally faced Hollis Street. It was moved to face Barrington Street shortly after completion so that the building’s dignified visitors wouldn’t have to pass through what was once a rougher area.
27. The Bengal Lancers property, located near the Natural History Museum, used to provide stables for the mounted police’s horses. The main building originally housed Halifax’s “City Works Shops.”
28. The Moir’s chocolate factory began as a small family bakery that sold mainly to the navy.
29. According to the earliest recorded rules of hockey (the Halifax Rules), a block of wood was used as a puck.
30. By 1946, a number of reports had shown that the City Home did not meet “modern” standards because it routinely separated elderly couples and had inadequate emergency procedures.
31. According to June 7, 1924 council minutes, the Dartmouth Town Council gave a company called Sparks Circus permission to do a full-day performance, provided they pay for a $200 permit in advance.
32. A Cape Breton Club in Halifax once sang “Mairi Nighean Domhnail” to Canadian folklorist Helen Creighton.
33. Halifax’s first punk bands were The Vacant Lot and the Trash Kanz. The bands were formed at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in the 1970s. (EDITOR’S NOTE: After we published this article, Andrew Webber, founder of the Vacant Lot, emailed us the following correction. Although the Vacant Lot and the Trash Kanz were in fact the first punk rock bands in Halifax; neither had their origin in, or little, if anything, to do with NSCAD. Both bands were started by students of Halifax West High School; the Vacant Lot by me, and the Trash Kanz by my childhood buddy Ronald Macdonald. The Vacant Lot came first with an appearance at the Halifax West ‘Gong Show’ in 1977. The Trash Kanz followed promptly thereafter with appearances at HWHS ‘coffee houses’. Both bands went on to play from time to time at Odin’s Eye (subsequently Grafton Street Café) as well as various other venues around the city. The earliest punk band stemming from NSCAD would almost certainly be The Permuters, a ‘pick up’ band that played backup to the Vacant Lot and the Trash Kans at Theatre 1707 at New Years Eve 1979.)
34. The Halifax cartoonist behind Owen McCarron’s Fun and Games, which appeared in newspapers across Canada, also created Marvel Fun and Games, the result of a successful pitch to Stan Lee.
35. Jay Ferguson of Sloan landed his first job at the age of 12, at Ol Dan’s Records on Dresden Row.
36. After the Halifax Explosion, the Group of Seven’s Arthur Lismer created a series of drawings that showed the damage sustained by the city. The drawings were first published in the Canadian Courier.
37. Joel Plaskett’s first band was called Nabisco Fonzie. He formed it with Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan when he was 14. EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a fact-checking error, Rob Benvie’s last name was incorrect in the print edition of this story and in the version originally posted here. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
38. Mount Saint Vincent University has an extensive lesbian pulp fiction collection, with over 120 pieces.
39. A May 1969 article in Halifax’s 4th Estate mentions an organization comprised of “Halifax-Dartmouth women” that was lobbying for spousal support.
40. Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library was recommended in the 1945 Master Plan for the City of Halifax when it stated “It is strongly urged that the Halifax war memorial take the form of a library building, worthy architecturally and including within itself symbolism and dignity.”
41. The Black United Front of Nova Scotia was founded in 1968, when Rocky Jones invited Stokely Carmichael, Prime Minister of the Black Panthers, to Halifax. They held a community meeting to discuss issues of racial inequality in the province. About 500 people attended.
Law & disorder
42. In winter of 1788, Halifax County held a by-election between Charles Morris and a man named Jonathan Stern. Morris won with a significant lead, but there was plenty of anger nonetheless. That night, a significant riot erupted, resulting in multiple beatings and shootings, and one death.
43. Rumour has it that the Old Halifax Court House on Spring Garden road is haunted, probably because pieces of Halifax’s old gallows are stored in the building’s attic.
44. In 1759, a man named Thomas Monroe was sentenced to death for stealing clothing.
45. When three men were found guilty of manslaughter in 1754, their sentence required them to brand the letter “M” onto their left hands.
46. On the evening of June 29, 1923, Halifax City Council gathered for a Special Meeting to discuss a tax collector named Robert Theakston, who had misappropriated thousands of dollars in taxes.
…And the rest
47. According to residents at Dalhousie’s Shirreff Hall, the ghost of a woman named Penelope roams the halls and sometimes appears at the foot of their beds.
48. Barrington’s Green Lantern Restaurant moved from the Roy Building to the Keith Building in 1917. When they re-opened, patrons discovered a brand new ice cream parlour with a 12-metre soda fountain.
49. On August 9, 1862, a California newspaper called the Morris Mountain Democrat published an article about Halifax physician Dr. Frederick Morris. According to the article, Morris was successfully treating smallpox using a traditional Mi’kmaq remedy: an infusion made from the purple pitcher plant.
50. On May 15, 1889, the Newfield Steamer left Halifax with a cargo of Haligonian cats. The steamer was heading for Sable Island, where the cats were expected to tackle a bad rabbit problem.
WRITER’S NOTE: Researching Halifax is easy if you know where to look. I couldn’t have put something like this together without fantastic resources like: Halifax Public Libraries / Doors Open Halifax / Greater Halifax Partnership / Nova Scotia Archives / Paranormal Studies and Investigations Canada / CBC / National Gallery of Canada / Neptune Theatre / Halifax Regional Municipality / The Municipal Archives /
Peter L. Twohig’s Weird Shit in Historic Newspapers blog / The gayhalifax website / The Canadian Encyclopedia / The Mark News