A few years ago, I visited Halifax. Among other things, the Nova Scotia capital is known for the Fairview Cemetery, the final resting place of 121 victims of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic.
I was eager to visit the cemetery, not for any macabre reason, but to enhance my knowledge of the Titanic, which sank -- as we are constantly reminded these days -- 100 years ago this weekend, on April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic. The Titanic's demise became official at 2:20 a.m., about three hours after she hit an iceberg that sent this "unsinkable" ship to the bottom of the ocean.
Some of the deceased at Fairview are identified but, sadly, some are in graves of the unknown passengers, with markers that bear only a date and number.
Halifax is the best-known Canadian connection to the Titanic. In Halifax, Haligonians were asked by the White Star Line (the ship's owner) to lead the recovery of the deceased. Of the 130 Canadians on board, 48 survived, and all this year, Halifax has been commemorating the 100th anniversary with Titanic-related events.
However, the Canadian connection to the Titanic stretches beyond Halifax.
Charles Melvin Hays, a flamboyant American businessman and president of the Grand Trunk Railway, had a Canadian home and office in Montreal. He was returning home on the Titanic after attempting to raise capital to complete a railway line from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert.
Alas, Hays, 55, went down with the ship.
While in Europe, he also tried to convince White Star to bring tourists to Canada -- many cruise-ship passengers in those days were being ferried across the ocean in third-class accommodation as immigrants, not tourists. While in Canada, they could travel on his railway.
While Hays was a railway man, he knew as much about ships as trains. In Prince Rupert, he saw a port that could handle cargo from Asia, as well as cruise ship passengers. He knew Prince Rupert's massive, ice-free deepwater port was the perfect setting for the terminus of his railway, pointing out the port was nearly three days closer to Asia then any other on the West Coast.
Arriving cargo and passengers could take his railway from Prince Rupert to Winnipeg, then south to Chicago and eventually to New Orleans.
This visionary businessman, prior to his sailing on the Titanic, was busy convincing Europeans who had never seen Canada, let alone Prince Rupert, to invest in his dreams. As such, Hays was the architect of Prince Rupert and is honoured there today with a street, a statue and a school all in his name.
Hays built the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. The gala opening of the hotel was set for April 25, 1912; after his death, it was delayed to become a non-gala opening in June. He conceived the hotel to be a template for many more "chateaux" across the country, all on his railway line.
The railway line was eventually taken over by the government of Canada and became part of the CNR. While the dreams of Hays took time to manifest themselves, they did happen. Today, Prince Rupert is one of the fastest-growing container terminals in North America and, while only a few cruise ships call there, local committees are currently seeking to rectify that.
If you plan to visit Halifax this year, you will be in the centre of Titanic exhibitions and events. For more information go to novascotia.com/titanic
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