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The story behind Halifax’s Titanic tombstones

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Barrie Clarke, adjunct professor of earth sciences at Dalhousie University, shown here in a file photo, has completed his  personal quest to find out where the granite in the tombstones for the Titanic victims buried in Halifax was quarried. His extensive, world-wide search had led him to the region, and then to a quarry in Bocabec, which bears stone almost certain to be those used to mark the graves of those lost in the Titanic disaster. Photo: Kathy Bockus/Courier

Barrie Clarke, adjunct professor of earth sciences at Dalhousie University, shown here in a file photo, has completed his personal quest to find out where the granite in the tombstones for the Titanic victims buried in Halifax was quarried. His extensive, world-wide search had led him to the region, and then to a quarry in Bocabec, which bears stone almost certain to be those used to mark the graves of those lost in the Titanic disaster. Photo: Kathy Bockus/Courier

This story was originally published in the St. Croix Courier, which (like Halifax Magazine) is owned by Advocate Printing.

Barrie Clark has solved the mystery.

The black gabbro tombstones marking the graves of 150 victims of the Titanic were shipped to Halifax from the now long-defunct Charles Hanson quarry in Bocabec, New Brunswick.

“We’ve got really strong evidence to say this is the quarry,” said Clarke, retired professor of petrology at Dalhousie University.

Clarke wrapped up a 15-year quest to determine the origin of the tombstones, undertaken he said, in the best tradition of Sherlock Holmes and CSI, with a presentation to members of the Atlantic Geosciences Society at its annual meeting at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick in January.

The presentation offered supporting information on “geological DNA” together with circumstantial lines of evidence to confirm the “identical twin” of a chipped piece of rock taken from a victim’s headstone that was under repair was found in the Hanson quarry.

Included in the information presented was analytical confirmation of the rocks’ age, minerals, textural features and chemical composition.

Clarke said the response to his presentation was gratifying.

“People were interested. If there were any skeptics they didn’t reveal themselves,” he said with a chuckle, adding scientists always question if other scientists have the right answers.

For many years, Clarke said he was convinced the rock for the tombstones—150 of them in three cemeteries in Halifax—came from Scotland.

But an analysis of a sample from a quarry in that country by Greg Dunning at Memorial University showed the Scottish rock was 50 million years older than the 422-million year old rock in the tombstones.

“Then my job became much easier,” said Clarke. “All I had to look for was 422-million year old black granite.”

Clarke said he went up and down the length of Maine, his next best choice for the origin of the rocks.

“I never saw anything that was right. I was coming home with my tail between my legs and on the way through, stopped for a night in St. Stephen”

Clarke said for “entertainment” he went to the St. Stephen Rural cemetery and what he found there on that visit in 2012 prompted him to start researching quarries in Charlotte County.

“I didn’t know St. George was known as a granite town with a booming industry. There were half a dozen sheds cutting and polishing stones drawn from 50 quarries in the region.”

Research showed a number of cemeteries in the area, which Clarke visited; quarries which, with the help of locals, he explored and information about the “transportation realities of the era – trains” which, when put together, painted a picture Clarke found hard to ignore.

“I could tell I was in the right area.”

He found headstones which appeared to match in the St. Stephen cemetery, but discovered better ones in what he described in the St. George-Saint Andrews corridor.

“I started seeing so many of them.”

Enter Dave Stevens, local prospector.

Clarke credits Stevens for helping him locate the Hanson quarry and lists him as one of the five authors of the report he presented last weekend. The others include Dunning, Chris McFarlane of University of New Brunswick’s earth sciences department who provided the age of the rock and chemical analysis of its minerals, and David Hamilton in the math and statistics department of Dalhousie University who is compiling statistical information to support Clarke’s finding.

“Dave Stevens is an absolutely essential part of this,” said Clarke. “He’s typical of the sort of people I encountered, all who gave me as much information as they knew. We ended up traipsing through the woods to this quarry and that.”

Stevens said he received a call from Clarke and guided the man to Orr’s Mountain, also known as Chickahominy Quarry, as well as the old Townsend Quarry on Russell Ridge.

“He thought Chickahominy looked good, but the rocks were a little bit inconsistent,” explained Stevens.

Stevens followed up on Clarke’s initial findings for the area.

“With the help of locals we were able to pinpoint the quarry,” said Stevens.

He said he found the old Hanson Quarry marked on a map with an “X” but was uncertain of its actual location. After talking with a couple of local residents who said their kids played in the quarry as youngsters, Stevens found the site.

“I didn’t find it on my own. I lucked out talking with local people.

The quarry is off the Bocabec Ridge Road, not far from Route 127.”

Stevens said he is pleased with Clarke’s findings, but, like Clarke, cautioned the analysis only proves the men are 99 per cent certain the rocks for the tombstones came from the Hanson quarry.

“There’s always that little, tiny chance, not a good chance, that there is a similar quarry,” said Stevens. “There’s always that lingering, tiny speck of doubt.”

Stevens and Clarke both question why there appears to be no documentation of any shipping records or any news accounts of the order for the stones and would like to hear about any information Hanson family members might have pertaining to the quarry which shipped “Black Egyptian” stones. Also associated was the Henry McGratton family who took over the quarry from Hanson in 1906.

“All we need is a picture of someone standing beside these stones. That would be the clincher, the non-scientific back up to my story.”

Stevens said he enjoyed helping Clarke.

“It was fun. It fits right in there with prospecting because it’s a mystery you’re trying to solve.”

He said he’d like to see more geology and history of the area included in school.

“None of this really interesting stuff is taught in the schools,” said Stevens. “It would be wonderful to see it.” He called the mining history of the region “extraordinary” and noted the gold mine at Basswood Ridge, St. Stephen’s nickel mine and Mascarene’s copper mine.

Stevens said the Hanson Quarry site needs to be protected and stated he fully supports the idea suggested by Clarke calling for a stone marker to be erected along the highway pointing out the site and its connection to the Titanic victims.

Clarke said he has suggested to the New Brunswick Museum and the Department of Natural Resources a marker needs to be placed.

“What they should do is take one of those big blocks in the quarry right now, have it cut and polished and put on Route 127, with an inscription saying ‘on the hill behind you is the quarry…’ explaining the connection to the Titanic and then have a walking trail there.

“People travelling along would see this and think ‘hey, that’s kinda cool.’”

The next mystery Clarke said he intends to undertake is to find out where the headstone marking the grave of Abraham Gesner came from. Gesner, a native of New Brunswick and the inventor of kerosene, is buried in Halifax.

“At least now I know the methodology,” said Clarke with a laugh. “It won’t take me 15 years.”

kathy@stcroixcourier.ca

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