Author Archives: Halifacts Admin

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The Five Fishermen: A restaurant, a school… a morgue?

The Five Fishermen may be one of Halifax’s most esteemed restaurants today, but what do you know about its history?

Well, the building was first used as a schoolhouse after it was built in the early 1800s, becoming the first school in the country to offer free education. It was then bought over by Anna Leonowens and became the Halifax Victorian School of Art – or, more famously, the beginning of NSCAD.

Once Leonowens decided to move the art school to a new location, the building was taken over by Snow and Sons and was transformed into a mortuary where, years later, victims’ bodies from both the Titanic and the Halifax Explosion were kept.

 If you ever wondered why they say the Five Fishermen is haunted, now you might have an idea…

The Argyle Street building is pictured here during disaster relief, with dozens of coffins piled up outside its doors.  (Photo:

The Argyle Street building is pictured here during disaster relief, with dozens of coffins piled up outside its doors.


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Harry Houdini honed his craft in Halifax

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Harry Houdini was an international legend.

Performing illusionist acts such as escaping from a straight-jacket underwater and surviving being buried alive were just a couple of the death-defying footprints he left behind in his legacy.

But, who would have thought Houdini had a connection to Halifax, Nova Scotia?


Houdini didn’t simply visit the province, he lived here for a month in 1896 as a young, aspiring illusionist. At 22 years old, Halifax and Dartmouth were crucial to his success as a world-famous magician.

His first headlining performance outside of the United States was performed in Dartmouth, and his first-ever jail break was performed at Halifax City Hall.

The City Hall (built between 1887 and 1890) at that time had an area that served as a jail.


In fact, just recently, in 2013, there was a Houdini séance (an organized attempt to communicate with spirits) held on the anniversary of his death.

Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 at age 52 and promised his wife that he would communicate with her from the afterlife.

Special thanks to local author, Bruce MacNab, for connecting all of the dots in Houdini’s Halifax history.


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Angus L. Macdonald was a total badass

All Haligonians are familiar with the Macdonald bridge — but how much do you know about the man behind the name? There are many reasons to be proud of our two-time Premier.

Angus L.” was raised in a family of 14 children and grew up to pay his own way through university at StFX. He played rugby, won academic awards, edited the school newspaper, and became the class valedictorian — but not before taking a break from his degree to fight in the First World War.

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“Angus L.” in his Sunday best. Photo credit: StFX University Library archives

While fighting on the front lines, Macdonald stepped up to the plate to lead his fellow soldiers when all of his commanding officers were killed.

He ended up getting shot in the neck by a German sniper, only to recover after 8 months in a British hospital.

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The Angus L. Macdonald bridge under construction in the 1950s.

Premier Macdonald earned the then-popular expression “All’s Well With Angus L”. He took on some of Nova Scotia’s most monumental issues and turned them into success stories. During his time in office, he was responsible for the construction of over $100 million in new roads, bridges, and extended electrical transmission lines throughout the province. All the while, dealing with the mass economic issues of the Great Depression by putting Nova Scotians to work on these projects.

Next time you’re on your morning commute across Halifax’s famous bridge, tip your hat to its namesake — he’s certainly earned it.

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Halifacts on air!

The folks over at Global Halifax were kind enough to feature us on their Morning News today, and we had a great time chatting with Paul about Halifacts.

Check out the interview if you missed it!

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Halifax was home to North America’s first professional zoo

As a resident of Halifax, how far would you imagine you’d need to go to see tigers, leopards, or a polar bear? Once upon a time, a Halifax zoo called Downs’ Zoological Gardens hosted these animals and many more.

Downs’ Zoological Gardens was in operation between 1847 and 1867 and then again between 1869 and 1872. The zoo was owned and operated by a man named Andrew Downs. Originally, the zoo covered two hectares of hilly land near where Joseph Howe Drive is today (near Morningside Drive). By the early 1860s, the zoo covered 40 hectares (almost half a square kilometre). There were walking paths throughout the zoo that led to picnic areas, statues, an artificial lake, and most notably, the Glass House.


The zoo’s owner/operator, Andrew Downs, sits on the railing in front of the Glass House (photo credit: Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada)

The Glass House contained a greenhouse and aquarium as well as a museum of stuffed animals. It was a very popular site amongst all of the attractions at the zoo.

The Downs’ Zoological Gardens was so popular that that there were two ferries operating on the Northwest Arm that would ship guests to see the zoo. The ferries were called the Neptune and the Micmac.

The zoo had become so popular by the 1860s that representatives from the American Smithsonian Museum had recommended Andrew Downs set up a condensed version of his zoo at New York’s Central Park.

The zoo temporarily shut down while Downs moved to New York, and although it was reopened in 1869, it closed in 1872 due to financial hardship.

Thanks to Mike Macdonald, fan of Halifacts, for suggesting that we look into this piece of Halifax history. Feel free to send along your suggestions too!


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McNabs Island: A long-lost ocean playground

To many Haligonians, McNabs Island represents the military history of our city. Those who visit the island follow long dirt paths from one historic fort to another. But what many of us might not realize is that McNabs Island was once home to Canada’s self-proclaimed “Largest and Cleanest Carnival Midway,” owned and operated by none other than Bill Lynch:

The man who would go on to own and operate Canada’s biggest carnival in the 1940s.

Bill Lynch

The man, the myth, the legend himself.

Before Bill Lynch became famous for his carnivals  — that were eventually brought to the mainland in 1925 — he learned about the industry by working for one of the two pleasure grounds that occupied MacNabs around the year 1900.

Bill’s father, Matthew, was a lightkeeper on the island from 1902-1932, and at one time (many years later), the only 3 houses on the island were all owned by the Lynch family.


The view today. (Photo: Friends of McNabs Island Society)

McNabs was home to a steam-powered carousel and a ferris wheel, among other rides and attractions. The island would host thousands of visitors every summer, arriving in boats by the dozens.

As a couple of Halifax history geeks who have recently canoed out to the island (start from Eastern Passage, it’s way easier), we can’t imagine how amazing it would be to experience McNabs as the playful utopia it was in the early 1900s.

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Prisons of Halifax’s past

These days, if you’re convicted of a crime around here, you’re likely put in the paddy wagon and sent off to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside, or Truro’s Nova Institution for Women — but what was the one-stop shop for criminals decades, or even hundreds of years ago in Halifax?

Well, given our city’s rich history and lengthy timeline, there were, in fact, three main prisons that opened and closed over the years.

The most recently-closed down was Rockhead Prison, which  opened in 1854 and shut its doors over a century later. It was built near the corner of Leeds and Novalea (then Gottingen) in North End Halifax.

The old Rockhead Prison, which sat at the far side of the city's north end. (Photo: Stephen Archibald)

The old Rockhead Prison, which sat at the far side of the city’s north end. (Photo: Stephen Archibald)

The Northwest Arm Penitentiary (or, the Nova Scotia Penitentiary) was built in 1844, right outside of Point Pleasant Park in the city’s far south end, and operated for 36 years when it was replaced by Dorchester Penitentiary (New Brunswick) in 1880. After that, the building served several different purposes, but was later demolished in 1948.

Rumour has it,  rock and rubble from this prison was used to build parts of Saint Mary’s University, just around the corner.

The Northwest Arm Penitentiary, right on the edge of Point Pleasant Park. (Photo: Nova Scotia Museum)

The Northwest Arm Penitentiary, right on the edge of Point Pleasant Park. (Photo: Nova Scotia Museum)

And thirdly, Melville Island Prison – which is now the Armdale Yacht Club – has a captive history of POWs dating back to the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s as well as the War of 1812. This site also held refugees escaping slavery in the US, as well as quarantined patients and various other prisoners over the years.

Directly across from the prison (er – yacht club), is the aptly-named, “Deadman’s Island,” where hundreds of soldiers and prisoners’ bodies now lie in unmarked graves.

A before and after shot of Melville Island Prison, which is now Armdale Yacht Club

A before and after shot of Melville Island Prison, which is now Armdale Yacht Club.


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Brian Ahern: The Man Behind the Music

Many Haligonians would recognize the names and faces of Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, or Roy Orbison — but would you recognize Halifax’s own Brian Ahern if you bumped into him on Argyle Street? The Haligonian has been a producer for all three previously named music legends, and many more.

Brian Ahern and Keith Richards

Brian Ahern and Keith Richards

Born and raised in Halifax, Brian began playing guitar at a very young age. He attended St. Mary’s University and played varsity football while regularly performing his music. He eventually moved to Toronto where he began working with legendary artists such Ronnie Hawkins and Gordon Lightfoot.

Ahern produced the single “Home From the Forest” for Lightfoot which hit #1 on the Canadian charts.

While in Toronto, Ahern began mailing letters to Anne Murray, trying to convince her to come to Toronto. She eventually left her job as a Physical Education Teacher in New Brunswick and made the move to record her first record.

Ten albums and countless awards later, Anne Murray inducted Brian Ahern into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Perhaps the most unique factor in Brian Ahern’s success was his mobile recording brainchild: the Enactron Truck. It was a 42-foot long semi-trailer truck turned into a recording studio. This was the machine that allowed Ahern to produce music for countless music legends from George Jones to Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), on top of everyone previously mentioned. Here is a full list of the artists he’s worked with.

Ahern with Mark Knoplfer of the Dire Straits outside of the Enactron Truck

Ahern with Mark Knoplfer of the Dire Straits outside of the Enactron Truck

Oh, and by the way — in 1977 he married country legend Emmylou Harris at his home in Halifax. They later divorced after having a daughter together.

Ahern with his then wife Emmylou Harris, a country music legend who has won 13 Grammys

Ahern with his then wife Emmylou Harris, a country music legend who has won 13 Grammys

It’s no secret that Haligonians take pride in their musical culture, and the musicians we claim as our own — but let’s not forget that our musical roots are well rounded, and we’ve got plenty to be proud of behind the scenes as well.

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Halifax’s old, mysterious network of underground tunnels

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Just when we hear there’s an underground river hidden beneath the streets of downtown Dartmouth, the same week it’s reported that mysterious century-old bundles of clothes have been found in one of Halifax’s oldest and most historic homes — our city does, in fact, continue to surprise us.

Check this out:

Not much is known about it, but there is a secret network of tunnels that runs below the streets of downtown Halifax.


It’s said that they link the harbour to Citadel Hill, with a known opening in the floorboards of the Halifax Club on Hollis Street.

Caption reads: "Halifax journalist Barbara Hinds is shown exploring the tunnel under Prince Street on September 13, 1976. Photo courtesy: Lee Wamboldt"

Caption reads: “Halifax journalist Barbara Hinds is shown exploring the tunnel under Prince Street on September 13, 1976. Photo courtesy: Lee Wamboldt”

It remains pretty mysterious as to what the tunnels were (or are) used for, or how many of them truly still exist, but many think they served a militaristic purpose.

Take a look at this YouTube video (courtesy of the Halifax Commoner) to get a better idea.


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Sable Island: The Graveyard of the Atlantic

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Though barely any Haligonians ever get to visit the sandy, windy shores of Sable Island, the small 34 kilometre-long sandbar is, in fact, part of HRM, falling under District 13 of the municipality.

The narrow, crescent-shaped, curious and very historic island sits about 175 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia, and is home to about five people year-round.

What makes this teeny, seemingly-insignificant island so fascinating is both its shipwreck history and its natural wildlife.


For hundreds of years, hundreds of ships have crashed into the sandbars surrounding the small island, leaving behind a haunting network of watery graves.

Take a look at this map showing some of the island’s recorded wrecks:

Some pretty somber statistics.

Some pretty somber statistics.


And, remnants of the Andrea Gail – the vessel that tragically fell victim to the elements in the 1991 “Perfect Storm”  — have been found on the shores of Sable, including an empty life boat and an emergency radio beacon, nine days after the crew was last heard from.