After Titanic
Halifax and the Titanic Disaster

The fatal maiden voyage of the Titanic and the subsequent loss of 1,522 lives is well-known throughout the world and requires no repeating here. What is not as well known, however, is the key role which Halifax, Nova Scotia, played in the drama.

News of the sinking of the Titanic was very slow in reaching the mainland. In fact, a 'wireless' signal monitored in Cape Race, Newfoundland the following morning related that the Titanic had, indeed, struck an iceburg, but all passengers were safe and the Liner was currently under tow and en route to Halifax. White Star officials had quickly chartered a train to meet the passengers in Halifax and to transport them by rail to their original destination: New York City. A steam ship, the Lady Laurier, was also hired to join in the effort to bring them safely to port.

TitanicThe Wall Street Journal reported: "The gravity of the damage to the Titanic is apparent, but the important point is that she did not sink. She kept afloat after an experience which might well appall the stoutest heart." Five hours later, the world learned the truth: the Titanic had, indeed, sunk, becoming the worst disaster in maritime history.

As the Cunard steamer Carpathia sailed toward New York with 705 survivers aboard, White Star made arrangements with the cable ship MacKay-Bennett, lying idle in port at Halifax, to sail to the icy waters off the Grand Banks to recover the bodies of the Titanic victims.

Captain F. H. Lardner, of the MacKay-Bennett, set sail shortly after noon on Wednesday, April 17. Also aboard were: Canon Kenneth Hinds of Halifax's All Saints Cathedral; a local undertaker named John Snow; and large a supply of pine coffins and crushed ice. At daybreak of Sunday, April 21, boats were lowered into the water and the first of 51 bodies was recovered. That night, 24 unidentifiable bodies were returned to the sea.

The following day, the body of John Jacob Astor was recovered and identifed by the large diamond and platinum ring he wore and the $4,000 cash still in his pocket. Another 87 bodies were recovered on April 25, after which the MacKay-Bennett was joined by a second cable ship, the Minia.

TitanicOn Friday the 26th, the MacKay-Bennett recovered 14 more bodies before returning to Halifax, leaving the Minia to continue the search alone. In total, the MacKay-Bennett had recovered 306 bodies, of which 116 had been returned to the sea. Still aboard was the body of Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley, pulled from the Atlantic with his music case still strapped to his body.

The following account, written into a diary by MacKay-Bennett engineer Fredrick Hamilton, recounts a ritual burial at sea:

"Another burial service held and seventy-seven bodies follow the others. The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hinds, all combine to make a strange task stranger. Cold, wet, miserable, and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy."

Meanwhile, Halifax had been busy preparing for the return of the 'death ship' on April 30th. Coffins were piled high at dockside and the Mayflower Curling Rink had been established as a temporary morgue. At 9:30 a.m., with the main-mast flag at half-staff, and city churchbells tolling its arrival, the MacKay-Bennett docked in Halifax and the first bodies (those of the Titanic crew) were brought ashore. They had not yet been embalmed and the sight was a gruesome one for the on-lookers who had gathered at dockside to witness the proceedings. Next, sewn into canvas bags, were the bodies of the second-class and steerage passengers. The first-class passengers, all identified, embalmed, and placed in coffins, were the last to be removed from the ship.

Thirty teams of undertakers from all over Nova Scotia had gathered to assist in the process of preparing the bodies for burial. Rows of coffins lined the curling rink. A room had been set aside as a 'hospital' to assist grieving relatives and friends and a coroner's office had been prepared upstairs for the coroners who worked frantically to keep up with the steady stream of Titanic victims.

Curious onlookers had gathered outside to watch the procession of horse-drawn hearses as they travelled back and forth between the dock and the curling rink-cum-morgue. Sixty bodies brought to the rink remained unidentified, although it is believed that they were all members of the Titanic crew. John Astor was the first to be claimed and removed from the temporary morgue.

On may 3rd, special memorial services were held at St. Mary's Cathedral and at the Brunswick Street Methodist Church. Mourners filled the churches and hundreds more gathered outside to pay their respects. During the services, 50 bodies were taken to the Fairview Cemetery for interment. A second service was held the following Monday, and, on Friday, May 10, another 32 unidentified bodies were laid to rest in Fairview. Between May 11 and June 12, six more victims of the Titanic were buried. In all, 121 Titanic victims were laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery.

In total, 209 bodies were transported to Halifax. Three city cemeteries contain the graves of 150 victims. Fifty-one bodies were claimed and taken elsewhere for burial. Of the 328 bodies recovered (including those buried at sea), 118 remain unidentified.

White Star Lines deposited $7,500 into a Royal Trust account for the perpetual care of the graves. Cunard Line, which merged with White Star in 1934, continues to assist in the upkeep.