Church bells tolled as cable ships steamed into Halifax harbour laden with grim cargo: the bodies of Titanic passengers whose voyages across the North Atlantic had ended in unthinkable tragedy.
As the simple wooden boxes began piling up along the waterfront, the disaster shifted to the seaside city and local officials found themselves trying to quell the public’s morbid curiosity.
“One of the things that was preached by the city fathers, requested by the White Star Line and even talked about in sermons in churches was, ‘Please do not make this into a three-ring circus, you don’t need to go see the bodies coming off the ship,’ ” says Garry Shutlak, a senior archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives.
It was the days immediately following the sinking of the magnificent ship on April 15, 1912. The largest liner of its time had struck an iceberg on a calm, moonless night and slid to a watery grave south of the Grand Banks.
Cable ships were dispatched from Halifax in the aftermath to pluck bodies from the frigid waters when it became clear only those who made it into the lifeboats had survived.
The crew of the Minia and Mackay-Bennett knew how to navigate the unforgiving North Atlantic. The ships, too, were dolefully well-suited for the task: their storage holds were large enough to accommodate the dead.
Halifax was considered an ideal centre to receive the victims because of its connections to other cities by rail and sea, which facilitated the return of bodies to families who could afford it.
Alan Ruffman, a local Titanic researcher, says Halifax was also a wireless communications hub, meaning word of Titanic’s sinking reached the city within hours.
“We knew there had been a major disaster offshore,” says Ruffman, author of “Titanic Remembered: The Unsinkable Ship and Halifax.”
“The White Star Line knew it had a public relations problem on its hands because the same day of the sinking, the 15th of April, ships in the area reported seeing bodies floating in their life-jackets.”
By the time the cable ships returned to Halifax, the city was in mourning. Flags were flying at half-mast. Some windows were draped in black crepe.
Headlines in the local newspapers proclaimed Hilda Slayter of Halifax had survived the ordeal. Others asked what had become of George Wright, a well-heeled philanthropist who had booked a first-class ticket on Titanic, but whose body was never found.
The bodies of other victims were taken to Snow’s funeral home and the Mayflower Curling Club, which served a makeshift mortuary. Police officers and military personnel stood by to keep the prying eyes of the public at bay.
Residents mostly heeded the request to stay away, but there was an understanding news of the sinking had to be shared as reporters from Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York descended on Halifax.
Shutlak says the dockyard commander granted reporters a pass to a holding wharf to witness caskets being off-loaded. Photographers, however, were strictly forbidden. It’s why there are so few photos from the time.
“If someone was photographing something illegally, they stopped them,” says Shutlak.
“This was also in deference to the families. They didn’t want people to take snapshots of someone fainting.”
Over the coming weeks, families of descended on Halifax in hopes of finding their loved ones among the dead and claiming personal effects.
There was no single memorial to remember the victims, though Ruffman says there were a number of funeral services for individuals, including an unidentified toddler who was plucked from the icy waters by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett.
“It was quite an elaborate service, very well attended by Haligonians, well attended by the mourners, those who had not already found their body and departed,” he says.
The youngster was buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery under a headstone paid for by the ship’s crew and dedicated to an “unknown child.” He was later identified as 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin through painstaking genetic testing.
In all, the remains of 150 victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries. The White Star Line paid for simple grey headstones, while more ornate markers were often paid for by the family.
A few weeks after the sinking, there was little else to be done. The bodies were buried. Families had gone home. Slowly, life in Halifax returned to normal.
By the fall, headstones were being placed on Titanic graves — quietly putting the tragedy to rest while serving as an indelible reminder.
A century later, other memories of Titanic linger in parts of the city, though they are harder to find.
Millionaire George Wright’s home still makes an impressive statement in the city’s south end, while a downtown building continues to bear his family name.
The Mayflower Curling Club was destroyed in the Halifax explosion in 1917, but exists today in another location under the same name. Snow’s funeral home was located inside what is now the Five Fishermen Restaurant and Grill.
And St. George’s Round Church, where mourners gathered to pay tribute to the unknown child, still holds services on Brunswick Street.
“In many respects, it is our story,” says Ruffman. “While they built it in Belfast, sank it in the Atlantic, we buried it here in Halifax.”