A Working Waterfront: Water and Public Memory in Halifax

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This post is part of #AltASEH2020, a special series published by NiCHE based on research and presentations that could not be presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To contribute your own work to this series, visit this link. And don’t forget to donate to the ASEH Conference Recovery Fund.

This is based on what was to be my contribution to a ‘kitchen party’ at the American Society of Environmental History meeting in Ottawa (RIP), talking about environmental restoration in Atlantic Canada. If you are interested in sharing your own ASEH presentation in a virtual conference as #AltASEH2020 via NiCHE and H-Environment, please do!

The latter decades of the twentieth century in Atlantic Canada seemed to offer only a cascade of stories of environmental anxiety and collapse in a region that hadn’t extricated itself from extraction. Coal mines on Cape Breton were shuttered in the 1960s; the groundfishery – which had attracted European fishers for five hundred years – was closed in 1992; the disastrous “tar ponds” in Sydney, Nova Scotia constituted the largest hazardous waste site in Canadian history.

But as Richard Judd noted in Second Nature: An Environmental History of New England, the longue durée of the northeast shows a “series of oscillations” of disruption and recovery.[i] The Halifax harbourfront offers a story of partial reclamation, particularly in terms of how people connect and reconnect with the shore. 

My current research is on cities in Atlantic Canada (Halifax, Charlottetown, Saint John, and St. John’s) and their relationship to water from the eighteenth century. It was inspired in part by Andrew Lipman’s description of living in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, when the storm surge and flooding “exposed the island’s long-lost face, as the high waterline traced the contours of the seventeenth-century coastline.” While we haven’t really considered the urban landscapes in Atlantic Canada’s environmental history, with rising sea levels coastal cities like Halifax have become a focal point in discussions about climate change.[ii]

Hurricane Dorian meets the Halifax boardwalk, 7 September 2019. Courtesy Halifax Today.

In Halifax – which enjoys a good storm as much as any place I’ve lived – there’s a particular schadenfreudesque relish in watching fall storms take aim at the upscale condominium projects occupying the prime spots on the waterfront.

 Queen’s Marque under construction, 2018. 

King’s Wharf was battered by Hurricane Dorian, and construction at Queen’s Marque has already had to contend with rising sea levels. (The original tag line for the Queen’s Marque project was “rising with the tide of history,” which now seems a bit on the nose.)

Detail, “A plan of the peninsula upon which the Town of Halifax is situated, shewing the harbour, the naval yard, and the several works constructed for their defence. Surveyed in the year 1784 by Captain Charles Blaskowitz under the direction of Lt. Col. Morse, Chief Engineer in America.” Library & Archives Canada.

One thing to appreciate about Halifax is that nowhere on the peninsula are you more than two kilometres from the sea. Its spine tilts you into water from every angle, and the length of the peninsula is riven with arterial freshwater.  

A sample of runs and pockets of freshwater in 1870s Halifax. H.W. Hopkins, City Atlas of Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Actual Surveys and Records (1878). David Ramsey Map Collection.

So one question of ‘restoration’ would be the dilemmas of freshwater – namely and literally Freshwater Brook, which is the largest waterway on the peninsula, but also only one of many freshwater sources that have either been buried under concrete or, more hopefully, left as little pockets of green spaces – more in deference to subterranean flooding than anything else.

The main channel of Freshwater Brook as of 1878. H.W. Hopkins, City Atlas of Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Actual Surveys and Records (1878). David Ramsey Map Collection.

On the other side of the harbour, in the under-appreciated sister city and self-tagged “city of lakes,” Dartmouth, Sawmill Creek is one of the few daylighting projects I’m aware of moving forward in Canada.  

Downtown Dartmouth with Saw Mill River (diagonal) running from Lake Banook to the harbour, circa 1950. Halifax Regional Municipality Archives.

We also need to think about restoring our relationship to saltwater and tidal lines after (or, well, in) the era of fossil-fueled industrialization. So here’s the story of Sackville Landing.

Sackville Landing, looking west up Sackville Street from the harbour.

You may recognize the site from The Wave (1988)a Halifamous landmark which, we’d ask, please don’t climb It’s also where the historic CSS Acadia and the HMCS Sackville  are docked in the summer. There’s a provincial visitors centre and the Maritime Museum’s playground, and it gets a lot of foot traffic along the “harbourwalk,” a four-kilometre boardwalk which is one of the city’s greatest assets. 

But, like the rest of the downtown core between Gerrish and South Streets, it used to be a working waterfront. 

Aerial of Halifax and Dartmouth with Imperoyal at the top centre/right, 1942. Nova Scotia Archives.

The romantic image of spars and schooners aside, Halifax has been a major fuel depot since the mid-nineteenth century. The dockyard served as a coaling station for the North American squadron of the Royal Navy, the Intercolonial Railway delivered coal from the mines of Pictou and Cumberland, and offices for coal and oil companies lined Lower Water Street. Irving Oil built a refinery and company town across the harbour at Imperoyal during the First World War, as well as occupying wharfs at both ends of the central commercial district of Halifax proper.[iii]

171-175 Lower Water Street, looking through the Irving arch up Sackville Street. City of Halifax Engineering and Works Department, circa 1957. HRMA.
The Imperial Oil tanks (green) on an Insurance Plan of the City of Halifax (Underwriters’ Survey Bureau, 1965).

Demolition of older brick buildings began in 1957 after a major fire, but the Irving wharf buildings, oil tanks, and arch (a characteristic feature of the nineteenth century waterfront) remained until the early 1980s

View of the Irving wharf, tanks, and arch, Halifax Police Department, 1967. HRMA. No opportunities for soft-serve ice cream or rum cake yet.

Even as industrial occupants slowly migrated out of downtown, they left little by way of inviting space and instead, empty gravel lots. According to Stephen Archibald, “There was no reason for people to go to this end of the waterfront.”

But the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a particular energy dedicated to heritage preservation in Halifax. The proposal for Harbour Drive, which would have bulldozed a thoroughfare along Lower and Upper Water Street, was defeated. Parks Canada took up the torch and renovated the “Historic Properties,” seven nineteenth-century warehouses, in one of the agency’s first major urban projects.[iv] At the foot of Sackville Street, the removal of the Irving tanks coincided with the rehousing of the Maritime Museum (1982) in two adjacent shipping properties. Historic Properties and the Maritime Museum became must-sees on any visit to the city.

The Historic Properties, Halifax.

Sackville Landing became one of the successful string of projects from the Waterfront Development Corporation (now DevelopNS), including the adjacent “Salt Yard” (best known for its beer garden, because, Halifax) and Salter “beach.” Now the gaze down the hill along Sackville Street carries out to blue-green glass, the harbour, and the Canadian flag. In the summer, especially, the boardwalk is crowded with people walking along, next to the water, watching the ships and the waves. It’s glorious.

But while I adore the Halifax waterfront – it is where my heart goes even from central Pennsylvania – the environmental historian in me is just a little disquieted. For one, that older energy and concern for historic fabric seems to be struggling to counterweight major infill developments, like the enormous Nova Centre, in the downtown core. It feels like an oscillation, a resurgence of the megaproject at the expense of the saltbox. (One of the concerns about Queen’s Marque is how much the public can access their waterfront around a private development.)

Second, Halifax is still a petroleum port – the infrastructure has simply concentrated in other segments of the harbour, whether at CFB Halifax or the Imperial waterfront in Dartmouth. Unlike the age of sail, there is no memory or presence of this period of the city’s history in the downtown, perhaps because it is at once too valuable, too current, and too distant.

Except in one way. Petroleum is preserved in the waterfront itself. Even with the developments of the past few decades – the Seaport Market, Pier 21 National Historic Site – and more to come, there is still a criminal amount of asphalt: a petroleum byproduct that invites us down to the water in our cars … filled with gas. These parking lots are the ghost footprints of the older industrial buildings. Is it possible to keep humans near the water without one or the other? Can we separate oil and water?

Aerial view of the waterfront from Sackville Landing (at the top – The Wave is top centre) south to Bishop’s Landing.


[i] Richard Judd, Second Nature: An Environmental History of New England (UNEP, 2014), 12. 
[ii] Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015), x; Stephen Mosley, “Coastal Cities and Environmental Change,” Environment & History 20:4 (2014).
On Atlantic Canada, see, for example, all three collections of the past decade: The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, eds. Claire Campbell, Edward MacDonald, and Brian Payne (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020); Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, eds. Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irene Novacezk (Island Studies Press/McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016); and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada, eds. Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray (Acadiensis Press, 2013). None of these feature much (if any) material pertaining to the region’s cities.
 [iii] Imperial Oil would “MAKE HALIFAX THE GREATEST OIL DISTRIBUTING POINT ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC COAST,” said the Halifax Herald with some enthusiasm in 1917. “The Tremendous Works on Halifax  Harbour,” Halifax Herald (31 December 1917), 23. All-caps in the original. Irving was a relative latecomer to the downtown harbour (1936), but remained the most prominent reminder of the fuel history with tanks until 1982 (email communication with Carolyn Gilbert, Waterfront Development Corporation, 25 May 2018).
[iv] The façade of the Imperial Oil building on Upper Water Street was kept in the 2012 “Waterside Centre,” by the same group behind Queen’s Marque. On Historic Properties, see: Susan Buggey, “The Halifax Waterfront Buildings: A Restoration Project” (Ottawa: National and Historic Sites Service, 1972); Halifax Planning Department, Halifax Waterfront Development Area Plan (Halifax Planning Department, 1976); Canada’s Historic Places, “Halifax Waterfront Buildings National Historic Site of Canada,” Statement of Significance; Claire Renwick, “City Building and Architectural Renewal: A Historical Study of Five Buildings in Halifax, Nova Scotia,” (M.A. Concordia University, 2010).

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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