March 25, 2012

Titanic victims find peace in Halifax (VIDEO | 11 PICS)


You know when you're in the White Star Line plot at Fairview Lawn Cemetery because the tombstones are lined up in military precision. There are 121 of them, all bearing the identical date of death: April 15, 1912.

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - You know when you're in the White Star Line plot at Fairview Lawn Cemetery because the tombstones are lined up in military precision. There are 121 of them, all bearing the identical date of death: April 15, 1912.

On a grey, drizzly day, retired school principal Glenn Taylor pauses before a stone inscribed J. Dawson. The grass in front is trampled. Faded flowers lie at its base. It has been this way since 1997, when Titanic first hit theatres.

"The gardeners can't get the grass to grow since the movie came out," Taylor says. "People think the J. Dawson buried here was the basis for Leonardo DiCaprio's character (Jack Dawson). He wasn't. This was 23-year-old Irishman Joseph Dawson, a coal trimmer on the Titanic."

Fairview Lawn Cemetery is one of 24 spots in this Atlantic Canada city with links to the world's most famous shipwreck. Of course, it has more going for it than Titanic lore. There's a vibrant waterfront that in summer bustles with outdoor diners, buskers and shoppers. Its 19th-century hilltop citadel is imposing. And its maritime museum and public gardens (with a model of the Titanic floating in a pond) are top-notch.

Front of Titanic
But with 2012 marking the centennial of the maritime disaster that killed 1,523 passengers and crew, the city is poised for a flurry of Titanic-related activity that will continue even after solemn ceremonies on April 14 and 15.
The grave of Ernest Freeman is one of many Titanic victims buired at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Two commemorative Titanic cruises bound for the wreck site 700 miles offshore are planned in April. And Titanic-themed events, including theatre performances, lectures and exhibits, will play into summer.

"People are drawn to the Titanic like no other disaster," says Taylor, who comes to this conclusion after six years conducting tours of Halifax's Titanic-linked sites for Ambassatours Gray Line.

In the two hours and 40 minutes from the time of the first distress call to being rescued or enveloped by the North Atlantic waters, "people faced so many consequences. Individuals can ask themselves, 'What would I have done? Would I have been brave?' How do you say goodbye to your husband or your wife?" Taylor muses.

"It draws out so many emotions, and that's why I think the Titanic story will go on forever."

Halifax was an unwitting participant in that story. St. John's, Newfoundland, was closer to the wreckage, but because Halifax had reliable rail connections to America, Titanic's owner, White Star Line, chose to stage recovery operations from here.

Fairview Lawn Cemetery is one of 24 spots in Halifax with links to the world's most famous shipwreck. Of 150 Titanic victims buried in three of the city's
An exhibit opening April 12 at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic will explore the role of cable ships (used to lay trans-Atlantic communications cable on the ocean floor) in recovering bodies.

In its permanent Titanic exhibit, the museum displays a wooden deck chair from the ship (it was picked up by the cable ship Minia and given to a local clergyman who had performed many of the services at sea for victims). Part of the ship's Grand Staircase and a newel post are on display. So are a pair of tiny leather shoes belonging to a victim dubbed "the unknown child."

Transcripts of the distress calls, the first of which came at 12:05 a.m. April 15, are here, along with details of personal effects found with the victims. For instance, records show that financier John Jacob Astor wore a blue serge suit, gold watch and gold diamond-inlaid cuff links, and he carried 225 pounds in British currency and $2,440.

Related sites walk 'a fine line'

Starcrossed lovers: Jock Hume, right, in a portrait released by his family after the Titanic sank. Left, Mary Costin in 1915, after her court victory over Andrew Hume, Jock's father
If passengers were divided by class onboard the ship, those distinctions persisted as the bodies were brought ashore in Halifax, Taylor notes. First-class passengers' bodies were transported in caskets to John Snow and Sons Undertakers on Argyle Street. (Forty or so outside embalmers had to be summoned to handle the workload.)

Today, the former mortuary is home to Five Fishermen, an upscale seafood restaurant near the waterfront. As they tote mussel-filled plates from the salad bar past the central wine cage, most patrons are unaware that it once was an elevator used to transport the bodies of Titanic victims for burial prep.

Second- and third-class passengers were transported in body bags to the Mayflower Curling Rink. Because those bodies would not be embalmed, they were literally put on ice at the rink until burial, Taylor says.

Today the building houses an Army-Navy surplus store. Owner Erick Corkum hasn't exploited the Titanic connection, though he has considered "maybe doing a T-shirt. But it's a fine line. You don't want to insult someone."
Jock's father, Andrew Hume, was a
music teacher and considered
himself upwardly mobile

Halifax is no stranger to maritime disaster. In 1917, two ships, one loaded with ammunition, collided in the harbour. The explosion flattened the northern end of the city, killing thousands.

Nor are tragedies uncommon off Nova Scotia, one of Canada's stormiest provinces. The Andrea Gail, the doomed fishing vessel at the eye of The Perfect Storm, came to its end 200 miles or so off this coast.

But it is the Titanic tragedy that resonates with many on his tours, Taylor says. "There's an incredible spirit to the Titanic. One hundred years later, people still want to connect."

Making it personal

They do so by learning the stories of those who died. And there's no better place to hear them than at Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Of 150 Titanic victims buried in three Halifax cemeteries, most are here.

They include the clothes presser. The butcher. The assistant boot polisher. The unknown child. There's Luigi Gatti, who ran the ship's a la carte restaurant, and James McGrady, a saloon steward whose body was the last to be recovered.

There is John Law Hume, a violinist in the orchestra. An admirer has left a bouquet of fresh flowers and a poem at his grave on what would have been his 121st birthday.

"People are drawn to him," Taylor says after reading the anonymous heartfelt poem to his tour group. "This young man, 21 years old, who was going to see the world, meet the rich and famous, make a name for himself. And four days after his job on the Titanic started, he's at the bottom of the Atlantic."

Tragedy: This scene from James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic shows the eponymous ship sinking in the seas off Nova Scotia
At Fairview Lawn, third-class passengers are buried next to other third-class passengers; crewmembers' tombstones abut wealthy victims' graves. If they weren't equals in life, they are in death.

"The 100th anniversary is coming up, and you'll be inundated with Titanic stories," Taylor says as he wanders along the straight, white rows of headstones toward the cemetery's exit. "But because you've come here, you've met some of the passengers and the crew."

He pauses and adds, "It's about this time in the tour when I ask if anyone needs grief counselling."



Titanic Treasures, Plus Ship Up for Auction

Living legacy: Mary Costin with her daughter, Johnann, the author's mother
Doomed: The Titanic when she set sail in 1912
Watery tomb: The bow of the Titanic at rest on the bottom of the North Atlantic, about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland
Mammoth achievement: the Titanic being built in a Belfast shipyard. Jock considered it the ultimate accolade to be chosen to play on the maiden voyage
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