Ingenium Archives “City Series”: Halifax

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Business section and part of Halifax Harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1949

The “City Series” is composed of short articles highlighting selections of historical photos from cities and towns throughout Canada. In today’s installment, we focus on Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia.

Note that the photo essays in the series focus solely on the urban elements represented in our photographic holdings, and are not meant to be a complete historical record. Most of the images featured are part of Ingenium’s CN Images of Canada Collection.

A black and white photograph showing four cannons in the foreground. Mid-ground shows buildings and houses, and the background is a large body of water dotted with ships.

Historic guns (cannons) at the base of Citadel Hill, pointing towards the harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1926

The buildings in this photograph from 1926 have mostly been replaced by the Scotiabank Centre, hotels and modern buildings boasting restaurants and apartments.

Throughout its more than 270-year history, Halifax has been an important site for shipping, immigration, fortification and military embarkation. Officially established as a town by British soldiers and colonists in 1749, Halifax is located in Mi’kma’ki—the traditional territory of the indigenous Mi’kmaw people. The city was built at a strategic summer fishing location for some Mi’kmaq, called Kepe'kek, meaning “at the Narrows.” Conflicts between colonists and Mi’kmaq were common, and the British established fortifications to protect settlers and to guard the natural harbour from the French, positioned at Louisbourg, 170 nautical miles northeast of Halifax, on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.

The buildings surrounding the Halifax Citadel have changed a great deal since the city’s founding, from a series small wooden homes and businesses in the 1700s, to stately brick and stone houses lining Brunswick Street in the mid to late 1800s, to decay and eventual gentrification in the twentieth century.

A black and white photograph taken from a high vantage point, with a cluster of long buildings surrounded by a star-shaped stone wall. In the background, houses and buildings stretch towards a harbour. Docks and large buildings used for immigration processing jut into the water.

Aerial view of the Halifax Citadel and harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1959.

Halifax remained militarily important through the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The fortress on Citadel Hill was rebuilt three times in the 100 years between the 1750s and 1850s, when Fort George, the stone structures that stand today, was completed. Fort George and Citadel Hill are the city’s most famous historical sites. The star-shaped fortress—a common design in Europe—gave the British soldiers a view of the harbour and surrounding settlement. It never saw battle, though it remained a soldiers’ barracks until the end of the Second World War.


Halifax harbour is the closest major port in North America to the European continent, and shipping has long been a vital part of the city’s economy. In the 1800s and 1900s, goods from across Canada were shipped by rail to the port, and loaded into cargo ships.

A black and white photograph showing a man pushing a cart of flour sacks up a plank leading to the deck of a large ship. The ship has the words “Lady Drake” written on the side. In the foreground, the silhouettes of three men prepare more flour sacks for loading onto the vessel.

The CNSS Lady Drake docked at Halifax, with workers loading flour, 1928

Black and white photograph with baskets of fish in the foreground. A ship with the word “Isabel F. Spindler” is docked in the mid-ground, with sails lowered. In the background a much larger ship with the words “Lady Drake” is docked beside a building.

The Grand Banks schooner Isabel F. Spindler at port, with workers unloading baskets of fish. The Lady Drake is anchored behind, 1937

Halifax was also a strategic port for shipping military goods and personnel. During the First World War, the SS Mont-Blanc—a munitions ship loaded with explosives destined for the war in Europe—collided with another vessel in the harbour. The resulting explosion killed nearly 2000 people, and leveled a large stretch of land on the north side of the city. 

A black and white illustration of an ornate three story building with a clock tower. Behind the build is a covered train terminal. Horse-drawn carriages are lined up to take passengers from the station.

Intercolonial Coal Company, Building, Station, 1905, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

The explosion also destroyed the Intercolonial Railway’s North Street train station, pictured here in a 1905 drawing.

The Nova Scotian Hotel

In 1928, Canadian National Railway built the luxurious hotel The Nova Scotian at the south end of the port. Cruise ships and ocean liners arrived at the nearby piers, and the hotel was connected to the railway station via an indoor walkway. The Nova Scotian played host to guests and dignitaries from all over the world, including Queen Elizabeth II.

A black and white photograph featuring a nine-story, ornamental building with a round driveway in the front. A green lawn with statues and walkways is in the foreground.

The Nova Scotian hotel, built by Canadian National Railway in 1928.  Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1939

A black and white photograph of two women and a girl seated in reclining lawn chairs under an umbrella. A waiter dressed in a white uniform is setting tea down on a table. The scene is flanked by rose bushes.

The Rose Garden at The Nova Scotian, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1937

The hotel boasted ballrooms, gardens, a barbershop, opulent dining rooms, and a lovely view of the city from the rooftop garden.

Immigration and Pier 21

Halifax was also an important site for welcoming new immigrants to Canada. Pier 21 served as the port of entry for approximately one million people between 1928 and 1971.

During the Second World War, Pier 21 was an important embarkation point for soldiers, nurses, and other military support staff heading to Europe.

A black and white photograph of a line of soldiers marching in uniform, carrying bags and gear. Train cars are in the background.

Troops marching from train to ship en route overseas, ca. 1940, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

A black and white photograph of an elderly women wearing black, and a small boy sitting beside her. Luggage surrounds them.

Displaced person at Halifax, July 3, 1947, after arriving aboard the U.S. Navy ship General M.B. Stewart, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1947

Following the war, Pier 21 processed close to 100,000 displaced persons as they arrived in Canada. Many had survived the Holocaust.

Downtown and Transit

By the 1890s, Halifax was home to 70,000 people. To serve this growing population, electric tram cars replaced the existing horse-drawn rail cars on major streets. These cars, called Birneys, were painted bright yellow so they would be visible in fog.

A black and white photograph of a trolley car stopped on a city street. Two passengers board the car at the rear.

An electric trolley car boards passengers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1945

A black and white photograph of a streetcar, decorated with a face and a poem. The poem begins: “Good-bye my friends good-bye.”

A decorated Birney Streetcar, bidding farewell as the model was retired, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, March 26, 1949

Photographer: Fred V. Stephens

In 1949, the tram cars were replaced with electric trolley coaches. Many people were sad to see them go, and several were painted with faces and messages of farewell.

We will end this photo journey with a slide show of images of the city.

Stay tuned for our next installment of the City Series which will feature Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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Kristy von Moos

Kristy von Moos is the Digital Content Officer at Ingenium. Kristy has a BA in History and Philosophy from St. Thomas University, and an MA in Public History from Carleton University. She has worked with cultural media, research, and virtual exhibit companies, and enjoys bringing history, education, and technology together.