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CityScapes: Halifax

Coming of Age

Halifax was incorporated as a city in 1841. Before the 1840s, a few sewers had been built, though most waste was dumped into cesspools. A few public wells had been dug, though these often went dry in the summer. Most of the residents relied on backyard wells for their water. Typhoid remained a problem and source of death. The Halifax Water Company first piped water into the city in September 1848.

Photograph of Union Engine Company No. 6,  circa 1878

Union Engine Company No. 6, circa 1878

Photograph of people gathered for a band concert at the Public Gardens, Halifax in 1897

Public gathered at a band concert at the Public Gardens, Halifax, in 1897

Photograph of a cotton factory, Robie Street, Halifax

Cotton factory, Robie Street, Halifax

Water for firefighting was very important in a city with so many wooden buildings. In the early days of firefighting, when a fire broke out, someone would rush to the firehouse and sound the alarm. Volunteers then arrived to form a bucket brigade to the nearest well or pump, or even harbour. The firefighting brigade was composed of volunteer members until the mid-1890s, when part-time firefighters were employed. There were no full-time firefighters until 1918. Though it escaped the great fires of other Canadian cities, Halifax did have its share of devastating fires. After a serious fire in 1861, the city bought steam-powered engines and purchased the Halifax Water Company.


McAlpine's Halifax City Directory for 1900-01, p. 20

In 1846, Halifax had twelve constables on staff during the day, while twelve volunteers patrolled the streets at night calling out the hours. These two services merged in 1864, creating a more modern law enforcement agency. Thirty constables, under six sergeants, were given their orders by a magistrate until 1870, when the mayor regained authority over the police.

For many years, Halifax was condensed into a small enough area for its residents to travel most places by foot, horse or sedan chair. Ferries carried passengers between Halifax and Dartmouth. Sailing ships and steamers were in use for people whose destinations were further afield. Halifax's first steam-powered vessel, the Sir Charles Ogle, and another steamer, the Boxer, added greatly to Halifax's public transport in the 1830s. Halifax resident Samuel Cunard won the contract for a scheduled steam-packet service from Liverpool to Boston, via Halifax. On June 1, 1840, the first of Cunard's vessels, the Unicorn, powered by a coal-fuelled engine, arrived in Halifax harbour. As the city grew and spread, horse-drawn streetcars were introduced, running from the south end of Halifax to the railway depot by 1866 - much to the chagrin of the cabmen and operators of omnibuses. Electric streetcars were introduced in 1896 by the Halifax Electric Tramway Company.

Photograph of the Halifax Hotel, 1902

Halifax Hotel, 1902

While it was widely felt that development depended on construction of a railway, paying for it was a less popular notion throughout the 1850s and 1860s. The short railway lines built during this time period had resulted in debt. The promise of an intercolonial railway, funded by a source outside city council aided the acceptance of Confederation.

Gas lamps were installed on streets in the central part of the city in 1843, replacing the seal or whale oil lamps. Electric street lights appeared in 1886, and by 1890 Halifax was the first city in North America to be lighted completely by electricity. The Dominion Telegraph Company operated a telephone service for 25 subscribers in 1879. Bell Telephone Company took over and by 1888, Halifax had 400 telephones.

Portrait of Anna Leonowens, 1903

Anna Leonowens, 1903

Beautification of the city progressed with the development of the Horticultural Gardens in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The Gardens were open to those who could pay the entrance fee. They became known as the Public Gardens when they became city-owned in 1874.

Many Halifax women worked to improve life for the city's inhabitants. Isabella Brimney Cogswell, daughter of financier Henry H. Cogswell, used her inheritance to promote many charities and co-founded the Protestant Orphans' Asylum. Another contributing member of society was Anna Leonowens, who helped form the School of Art and Design in 1887. Leonowens was the teacher whose story was made famous in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

Photograph of the first ship to enter the Halifax graving dock, September 1889

HMS Canada, the first ship to enter the Halifax graving dock the day it was opened, September 20, 1889

Industrialization came to Halifax in the 1870s. The Nova Scotia Cotton Manufacturing Company operated from 1883 until 1891 when it was taken over by Dominion Cotton Mills Company of Montréal (later Dominion Textiles.) At the time the cotton factory was Halifax's second-largest industry. Small factories, part of the Halifax landscape since the mid 1800s, gave way to larger enterprises, manufacturing such goods as candy, boots, rope and steam engines. William C. Moir was a military contractor who used his profits to support a factory that produced bread, biscuits and candy, milled flour and made boxes. Starr Manufacturing, with its plant in Dartmouth and offices in Halifax, manufactured the patented Acme ice skate, as well as iron goods such as nails and bridges. Halifax built Canada's first covered skating rink in 1867.

Halifax's development has been one of ebb and flow, affected by times of war and peace. Through it all, Halifax retained its reputation as a national port. Even in lean times, with conditions of poverty, overcrowding and disease, Halifax managed to welcome newcomers to Canada, providing immigrants with support as they began a new life.

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