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50 Things You Don’t Know About Halifax

Pirates Gone wild, special tea and those “MicMac Rotary Blues”—weird and wonderful Halifax miscellany

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The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry service is the oldest continually operational saltwater ferry service in North America. Photo: HRM

The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry service is the oldest continually operational saltwater ferry service in North America. Photo: HRM

Pirates gone wild, special tea and those “MicMac Rotary Blues”—weird and wonderful Halifax miscellany.

You likely know that Halifax is Canada’s largest city east of Quebec. It was founded in 1749 by Governor Edward Cornwallis and has more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada. (Although Montreal and St. John’s occasionally challenge that claim). There’s a cannon on Citadel Hill that fires every day at noon and a cartoon tugboat ambles around the harbour. But even though most of us know quite a bit about our fascinating, historic city, there are a lot of things you don’t know. Here’s 50 of them.

1. The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry service is the oldest continually operational saltwater ferry service in North America.

2. Until 1844, the Royal Navy hung pirates at Point Pleasant Park’s Black Rock Beach.

Photo: Gerry Lunn

3. In 1847, Andrew Downs purchased land near the Northwest Arm where, shortly after, he established North America’s first zoological garden.

4. Until the mid-1970s, men and women weren’t legally allowed to drink together in public.

5. On May 15, 1750, the first divorce in the colonies that would become Canada was registered in Halifax, between Lieutenant William Williams and Amy Williams. The court ruled in favour of Lieutenant Williams. Not only was his wife forbidden to remarry while he was still living, she was also ordered to leave the province within 10 days.

6. In 1937, Mary T. King was elected to represent District 27 (the rural north of Halifax County), making her Canada’s first female councillor in a rural municipality.

7. From 1996 to 1999, Halifax Pop Explosion was called “Halifax on Music.”

8. In 1912, people gathered in the Orpheus Theatre on Granville Street to watch 1,000 feet of “motion photographs” called Scenes Incidental to the Awful Titanic Disaster.

9. There are some 32 Volvos on the floor of the Bedford Basin. They sunk in 1969 after the container ship that was transporting them sustained water damage.

10. On February 18, 1919, six popular Chinese restaurants on Gottingen, Brunswick and Barrington streets were attacked and looted by hundreds of rioters. Newspaper editorials blamed returned soldiers, bootleggers and even German spies.

11. The first Halifax City Council spent their first two meetings debating the legitimacy of some of the candidates and whether or not all of the results were accurate.

12. In 1982, Bryson-Lysen released the song “MicMac Rotary Blues” (Solar Records), based on Dartmouth’s MicMac Rotary, which was replaced in the late 1980s by the Parclo.

13. The first black Canadian woman to receive the Governor General Award (1983), Dr. Marie Hamilton, is originally from Beechville.

14. On the evenings of October 8 and 9 in 1882, Oscar Wilde lectured at the Academy of Music, which stood where the Maritime Centre is now. More than 1,900 Haligonians attended the two lectures.

15. The first African Nova Scotian to be elected to the Halifax City Council was Thomas J. Johnson. He represented Preston Township from 1899 until 1901.

16. In the early days of its existence, Rockhead City Prison, which was located in the North End of Halifax, was a working farm.

17. One of Halifax’s early harbour ferries used a team of eight horses to turn its paddlewheels. In 1871, a drunken passenger caused an uproar and interrupted ferry service when he stabbed all eight horses.

18. In 1809, the Royal Navy hung pirate Edward Jordan at Black Rock Beach. They coated his body in tar and left the remains up for almost 20 years.

19. A 1952 city directory lists 44 Chinese-owned restaurants in the most bustling areas of Halifax and Dartmouth, including Gottingen Street.

20. In the 1960s, Dartmouth had a youth-elected Junior Council that met occasionally with Mayor Joe Zatzman.

21. Waye Mason, Councillor for District 7, re-launched the Halifax Pop Explosion as a not-for-profit in 2001.

22. Private Guy Hunter Dillman became a hero to many Dartmouth residents after the Halifax Explosion. Before collapsing from his own injuries, he rushed many others to the hospital.

23. Someone walks into a library in HRM once for every minute that the libraries are open.

24. The Dalhousie Gazette, established in 1868, is the longest running college newspaper in Canada.

Photo: Dalhousie University Archives

25. Hieroglyphs written on birch bark, stone or wood by the Mi’kmaq people are considered to be the first written signs in eastern North America.

26. In the 1970s, you couldn’t order alcohol unless you bought food as well.

27. On the first day of HRM’s existence as an amalgamated municipality, City Council toured the entire region in a Metro Transit bus.

28. Canada’s last piracy trial took place in Halifax in 1844. Four crew members of the British vessel Saladin were the last people hanged as pirates in Canadian history.

29. Haligonian D.H. Craig was the first foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.

30. Only a quarter of the people living in HRM have skated on a lake or pond.

31. The first public library in Canada was Halifax’s Citizens’ Free Library, established in 1864.

32. One in every five Canadians is related to someone who passed through Halifax’s Pier 21.

33. In the early 1990s, Halifax was known as “Seattle of the North” because of the success of bands like Sloan, The Super Friendz and Thrush Hermit.

34. The Sir Charles Ogle was the first steam-powered ferry to cross from Halifax to Dartmouth. It began service in 1830.

35. In the 1950s, the Halifax Refugee Clinic on Grafton Street was a Chinese restaurant called Hum Mow. People would go there after the ballrooms closed to drink “special tea,” which was actually scotch.

36. In July 1918, the Halifax Herald accused members of the Halifax Council of stealing 20 gallons of rum and two cases of scotch from the Liquor Inspector’s office. Clarence Horton was arrested.

37. In 2010, Judge Timothy Gabriel became the first Mi’kmaw judge in Nova Scotia.

38. In 2010, Halifax’s volunteerism rate of 56.5 per cent was higher than the national and provincial rates.

39. From 1841 to 1994, aldermen in Halifax signed their oath of office on The City of Halifax Aldermanic Scroll. It’s 21 feet long.

40. In the early 1800s, a section of Grafton Street was named Hogg Street, after the owner of a brothel.

41. William Roue, who designed the Bluenose, also designed the Governor Cornwallis, a ferry that caught fire on December 22, 1944. Although there were over 200 people onboard,
no one died.

42. On April 21, 1863, the Halifax Police swore in 120 temporary constables in an effort to control the widespread fighting that had broken out between soldiers and civilians at a brothel on Brunswick Street.

43. In 1849, Halifax became the first North American city to transmit European news to New York City and Boston.

44. Acadius or Love in a Calm, which was performed in 1774, was the first original English Canada Play to be written and performed in Halifax.

45. Maugher Beach on McNabs Island used to be called Hangman’s Beach. The Royal Navy often had four pirate corpses up at any given time.

46. Dartmouth had a city philosopher. In 1991, John Savage appointed Dr. Peter March of Saint Mary’s University to work on a series of programs, including the future of the waterfront.

47. The first newspaper in English Canada was the Halifax Gazette, initially published on March 23, 1752 by John Bushell.

48. In the early days of the ferries, people were called to the terminal with three blows of a conch shell and the crew’s shouts of the word “Over.”

49. Canada’s first covered ice rink was opened on January 3, 1863 in the Public Gardens.

50. From 1901 to 1902, Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote a column for The Daily Echo, which was housed on the second floor of the Nova Scotian building.

Writer’s note: I had a lot of help with this article. I began by contacting a variety of people, including archivists, professors and bartenders. My appreciation goes out to the following people who shared their knowledge and helped with research.
• Richard S. MacMichael, senior heritage interpreter, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
• Joanne McCarthy O’Leary, local history and genealogy librarian, and the Reference Department at Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library, Halifax Public Libraries
• Albert Lee, research associate at the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies, Saint Mary’s University
• Susan McClure, archivist, HRM Municipal Archives
• Jonny Stevens, executive director, Halifax Pop Explosion
Additional sources include A Collection of Nova Scotia Firsts by Ruth A. MacDonald, The Journey Continues: An Atlantic Canadian Black Experience by Craig Marshall Smith, Maritime Firsts by Dan Soucoup, Halifax’s Vital Signs 2012 by The Community Foundation of Nova Scotia, Halifax Street Names, edited by Shelagh MacKenzie.

  • Jen

    Great list. I officially didn’t know any of these 50 things!

    A couple things:
    #2 and #18 *hung should be *hanged.
    #36 – who was Clarence Horton?

  • UNB Student

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but #24 is false. ‘The Brunswickan’ (student newspaper for the University of New Brunswick) was first published in 1867

  • Patrick

    Actually they used the correct terms in #2 and 18

  • cathy crosby

    re number 4, you could not drink beer in a tavern together as women were not allowed to be in one, but you could drink together in a beverage Room, men were guests of the women clientele. You could however drink other beverages together in lounges, such as The Victory or the Candlelight. Crazy liquor regulations!

  • Erin

    Jen is right. When it is an execution it is hanged, not hung.

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  • David Hensler

    Forty-five years ago I left Halifax to live in Australia and from down here I look back at my birth city and think … ‘My goodness! You have come a long way from those dim days in the 70s and before when drinking in a pub was segregated … to public displays of Gay Pride complete with a street parade and a huge number of public events. Halifax … who would have thought !!! Good on ya!!!

  • Makes me super proud (and concerned at times)… Mostly proud!!!

  • Sarah Sawler

    Re: UNB Student

    Thanks for posting! You made me take another look, but #24 is actually correct. Although The Brunswickan was originally published one year earlier than the Gazette, it experienced significant gaps in publication.

  • David Hensler

    I have to wonder just what it is about Halifax that makes Councillor Matt Whitman ‘concerned at times’.
    Let’s hope it is something so insignificant that his Pride in the city outweighs his Concern.

  • Alexandra Farrell

    I am Halifax born and bred, and even
    I didn,t know some of these facts!
    Very Interesting!

  • Richard Bonner

    The past tense of `sink’ is `sank’.

  • TGG

    A whole bunch of errors

    From the introduction:

    “more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada”

    Try Charlottetown some time

    ” Here’s 50 of them.” Try Here are 50 of them.

    2. Until 1844, the Royal Navy hung pirates at Point Pleasant Park’s Black Rock Beach.

    Actually the term is “hanged” when applied to execution, not hung.

    “4. Until the mid-1970s, men and women weren’t legally allowed to drink together in public.”

    Totally wrong – just that women weren’t allowed in the strictly defined Taverns.
    Lounges were packed with men and women. In Beverage rooms women could go alone but men had to have a lady escort them (Lord Nelson’s famous LBR {Ladies’ Beverage Room} allowed three men per lady) And restaurants allowed them to drink together over a meal. Private clubs could define their own rules as to co-ed drinking and legions, golf clubs, curling clubs etc. had the sexes imbibing together.

    9. “They sunk in 1969 after the container ship …”
    Perhaps they went down with the ship which sank ( not sunk )

    26. “In the 1970s, you couldn’t order alcohol unless you bought food as well.”
    Again totally untrue – that was only true of restaurants and is probably the case in many of them today although now it’s usually policy not law

    35. “… drink “special tea,” which was actually scotch.”

    It was actually ordered as Chinese Coffee and was usually Rum — The establishment had no liquor licence. Ordering Chinese Tea on the other hand got you Chinese Tea.

  • BF

    To : TGG Thanks for your corrections! Wow.. you have some time on your hands. Why dont you write your own article instead of picking others apart. And since when is it policy in a restaurant that you should order food if you want a drink lol…dont think so buddy. Think they will gladly accept your business regardless of what you order aslong as your paying for it. Oh and im sure there are grammer mistakes in my comment. But dont bother corecting them …cuz no one cares!

  • Trouble Funk

    Really though

  • EllaSilverYeah!

    Actually? People who seek the truth and want an accurate representation of history DO care.

    This person has suggested there might be errors. I’d like to hope that the author at least looks into the validity of his corrections.

    Don’t worry about it. Not everybody thinks like a scientist. In fact most people don’t and will have similar emotionally-driven reactions when something they read is refuted or questioned in any way.

  • Tiny Dancer

    To this day, some bars will not allow you to order a drink without a food order, until a certain time of the day… do your research.

  • NogoodBf

    I hope journalism isn’t your main job. Telling people off for correcting your inaccurracey. People do care about what you put up as an “artical” this isn’t your facebook page where you post whatever shit you want.

  • Greg K

    Of note; Rudyard Kipling referred to Halifax as “The Warden of the North”.

  • Trevor Adams

    Please note, the comment you’re referring to is from a reader, not Sarah Sawler, the author of this story. –Ed.

  • poktik

    Halifax is further south than Seattle by about 313 km

  • d. cook

    I’ve skated on a lake, and a couple of coves in the St. Margarets Bay area.. My great- grandfather was also the first merchant on Barrington st. I was told.

  • Lisa N Jean-Marc

    I don’t know why but I find it very annoying when someone writes a comment fixing all the grammar mistakes in an article….were not all english professors reading this by no means LOL> I also hate when people correct my grammar while i’m talking to them in person. “its Jean-Marc and I, not Jean-marc and me”….if I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me !

  • haligrl

    It’s great to see some history of my hometown especially since our PM banned access to our public archives

  • pinkyerin

    In a licensed establishment when children are present, in your party, before 9 pm they need to serve food to at very least the child.

  • Debbie

    Thank you very interesting

  • Batista

    There well said ,I want truth not garbage ! grammar yeah ok that’s fine ,but truth is what i seek .i have not checked any of the claims made in this article ,glad someone raised the fact there were corrections needed ,maybe someone needs to humble themselves and accept some constructive criticism

  • Haligonex

    More recently.. most teen swarmings without convictions. Fact.

  • halimonkey

    Regardless of how it is written… hung sounds better then hanged. Hanged sounds like something my english teacher would yell at me for lol ….

    Great article. Dont let ppl be your english teacher. Even if they do.. accept the correction as whatever they call it bevause no matter what your true intention is… which is to shock us with stuff we did not know , im sure they will pick and taunt it until it is fixed.

    Dont fix it. Ihink its fine the way it is
    And i love history. Ppl take grammer too seriously when they tink their teachers

    As far as execution. Im sure its hung cause its pass tense. If they say hanged, it sound hickish and uneducayted. Thats why i dont say hanged. Lol

  • Noneya


  • leslie

    I know right.. friggin’ grammar police!

  • Lak

    Wow, I’m so glad there are people who can take all the abuse that goes along with writing… The result is that I can learn more about my city! There are so many fun police out there! TGG probably has no friends. Lol

  • Richard Bonner

    #4 is not exactly right. That may have only applied to the old “Tavern” licenses. Of course, that law may still have been on the books, but was unenforced.

    #9 has a grammar error

    I don’t think #26 applied to all liquor licenses.

  • Danny Devine

    I remember getting just a beer and they put a dirty plate in front of you.

  • Tourist

    I was there in 1970 and you couldn’t stand up with a drink. A waiter had to move your beer glass.

  • David Grandy

    15. The first African Nova Scotian to be elected to the
    Halifax City Council was Thomas J. Johnson. He represented Preston
    Township from 1899 until 1901.

    Shouldn’t that be Halifax County Council, not City? Preston was never part of Halifax City.

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  • Jim Bradley

    In 1971 after the taverns closed at 11 PM we would go to a dive restaurant on Hollis St. where we would have to order a portion of fries just so we could order beer as well. There would be a neglected plate of fries on the table surrounded by glasses of draft beer.

  • PKipping

    Re: #13 – There are at least 15 different awards called “Governor’s General Award”. To be specific, the late Dr. Marie Hamilton of Beechville was awarded the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, more often known as the “Person’s Award”.

  • Lakergal

    I guess these are about Halifax the city not Halifax the vast region.
    Confusing eh

  • I think the person who wrote the corrections was just trying to help, not be mean about it. Think about this, a history teacher tells a student to write a paper about Halifax. The student decides to use this article for the project. It would be nice if it was 100% accurate, including grammar, which the student gets marked on.
    I’d like to think from a teaching point of view, the author would appreciate knowing an area may need correcting. They obviously put a lot of work into this article and would like it to be accurate, grammar and all.
    It is a wonderful piece. Why do people have to argue in the comments and be hurtful about it.
    As far as restaurants go, many years ago, as a server, our customers could only order alcoholic beverages if they ordeted food as well. The dirty plate comment surprised me. What about receipts? They would need to reflect a food purchase as well.

  • gamer

    in assains creed black flag they put edward [your character] in a cage like that prirate gerry lunn

  • vmhttammm

    Dartmouth not in HalifaX AT ALL

  • Bruwer

    i am thinking to adventure in Halifax (moving from North Carolina), any suggestion where i should get start?

  • nanny

    I wish people would just read and enjoy this interesting article and stop picking on the grammar. Stop being so childish, act your age not your shoe size!!!!

  • Debbie MacDonald Cameron

    There are more that I had just read in a book I gave my nephew for Christmas but one that sticks out in my memory is that Halifax hosts the largest Indoor International Tattoo in the world.

  • Debbie MacDonald Cameron

    There are more that I had just read in a book I gave my nephew for Christmas but one that sticks out in my memory is that Halifax hosts the largest Indoor International Tattoo in the world (I’m not positive if it said indoor or not).

  • Mike Arthur

    Deserters were actually hung on tarred poles on Hangman’s Beach on Macnab’s Island so any ships entering the harbour could see what happens to deserters. Since many men serving the British Navy found themselves on a ship when they awoke after going to their local pub or walking alone and meeting up with a pressgang who knocked them unconscious with a belaying pin and dragged them back to their ship. The British didn’t have a recruitment center and few joined willingly and life was harsh so many did desert and jump ship but the cost was death if caught. Not sure about pirates. Death was usually by keel hauling, an act by the British that makes modern day terrorists look not so bad. They would attach a rope to your hands and another to your feet and pull you half naked under the ship. One rope pulled you under while the other kept a strain on you and slowed your progress and to be really cruel they kept it tight so your body would rub against the barnacles on the hull of the ship tearing your skin open in the salt water. Usually they were kept under until they drowned so few survived the keel hauling and if any did survive, they later died on the post on Hangmans Beach.


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