Halifax: Titanic Centennial Commemoration Event

My weekend in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Many events are taking place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in April 2012. The Titanic 100 organizers believe that after Belfast, where the Titanic was constructed, Halifax is the second-most important Titanic city in the world because of the abundance of historic sites. Halifax boasts three Titanic cemeteries and 24 Titanic sites including the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the Titanic Scientific Exhibit at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, the recovery locations of the victims, the morgues and locales for James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic.

Halifax, Nova Scotia is a quiet place by New York City standards but on the weekend of April 14-15, 2012, it was buzzing with “Titaniomaniacs”, who flocked from all corners of the world to participate in the 100th year Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

After an emotional visit to Mount Olivet cemetery, I headed to the Nova Scotia Archives on University Avenue for a Titanic exhibit which included original First and Second Class Passengers Lists, the diary of Clifford Crease, a crewman on the Mackay-Bennett, a series of official records documenting the recovery, identification and disposition of two of the victims and various photographs taken at the time of the disaster. After visiting the exhibit, I attended a presentation given by the granddaughters of Clifford Crease, a brave crewman who was only 24 years old when he set out aboard the Mackay-Bennett to participate in the daunting task of retrieving the hundreds of Titanic victims left in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

His granddaughters related how he never spoke to his wife or only daughter about his ghastly experience. It was only after watching a television program about Walter Lord’s notorious book: “A Night to Remember” that Clifford Crease opened up about his connection to the Titanic and finally spoke to his son-in-law about what he saw and did in those dark days after the disaster. He also revealed that he had kept a diary in which he logged all of the details of this harrowing mission. One discovery he writes about in his diary would haunt him forever.  The fourth body that the crew of the Mackay-Bennett recovered was that of a baby boy, found floating in the freezing water, without a life vest. Clifford Crease was the one who pulled the tiny child onto the boat and into his arms.

After returning to Halifax and learning that no one came to claim the boy, The Mackay-Bennett crewmembers referred to the unknown child as “our babe” and were so shaken by this unspeakable discovery that they committed to providing the child with a proper burial. The crew took care of the child’s funeral arrangements, carrying him to his grave in Halifax’s Fairview cemetery and depositing a brass plate in his coffin that read “Our Babe”. The plate placed by the caring crew 95 years ago was found to have protected the only remaining bone from the boy’s body thereby allowing forensic experts to perform DNA testing.

The 19-month-old boy, widely known as the “Unknown Child” was therefore identified as: Sidney Leslie Goodwin.

Tombstone of the "Unknown Child", Fairview cemetery, Halifax,Nova Scotia

The presentation was followed by another talk given by Gary Shutlak, the Senior Reference Archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives. He is an expert on the history of the Titanic and in particular, its connection to Halifax. A barrage of questions, occasionally composed of minutiae only a Titanic obsessed enthusiast would dare ask, followed the two presentations at the Archives denoting a stronger than ever abiding interest about anything related to Titanic.

After this interesting albeit gloomy visit to the Nova Scotia Archives, I headed to the official Halifax event to commemorate the sinking and the lives that were lost, called Titanic Eve-Night of the Bells.

A horse-drawn hearse leads the Titanic Eve-Night of the Bells Procession on Saturday April 14, 2012, Halifax, Nova Scotia

The somber event, rich in memory and symbolism, began with a candlelit procession by Haligonians dressed in 1912 epoch clothing, which started at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Lower Water Street. The gathered crowd  followed a horse-drawn carriage with a period casket representing a Snow and Co. hearse as it moved from the waterfront to Grand Parade on Barrington Street passing Titanic landmarks along the way. After the deeply moving procession with marching band and Scottish bagpipes, the large crowd gathered in front of a stage set up with three giant screens and the Night of the Bells event started at 9:30pm. As the balmy April night grew colder and colder, I bundled up with my winter coat, hat and gloves. I could not help but of the bone chilling, dreadful and intense cold that the Titanic victims must have endured. This terrifying realization made me stop fidgeting and I froze riveted by the superbly conceived commemorative event. Night of the Bells consisted of three parts: the Jubilation, an optimistic homage to the launch of the world’s largest and most luxurious ship; the Bump, which described in word, music and image the events of that fateful night in 1912; and the Coming Ashore, which related the story of the heroes of Halifax, the men on the Mackay-Bennett and the Minia ships, who left their homes and braved the treacherous oceans on a disturbing recovery mission.

The commemoration ceremony was very well executed and even included a selection of pieces played by the Nova Scotia Rhapsody Quintet, reminiscent of music performed aboard the Titanic 100 years ago.

Night of the Bells outdoor stage with three giant LED screens, Halifax, Nova Scotia

The climax came at 12:27am Sunday. The crowd solemnly observed a minute of silence to mark the time when the last wireless telegraph message from the Titanic was received in Nova Scotia. The church bells rang sending a chill down my spine only to be exacerbated minutes later by distress flares lighting up the dark sky reminiscent of those vainly fired by the Titanic crew 100 years ago to this day, to this minute.

On this moving cold night in Halifax, a large number of people, myself included, came from all over and gathered in silence and with deference to pay their respect to the 1,500 souls that tragically perished on the Titanic.

A hundred years later, you have not been forgotten.

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