This is the fifth in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.
Biking happens at the right combination of speed, effort, and scope for me to do some interesting thinking about places. Being raised in a Canadian historiographical canon, I suppose it’s a cousin to Harold Innis’ “dirt research,” although as Josh Howe mentioned, there are still steep climbs ahead for us in integrating the knowledge of “doing there” as disciplinary practice. In terms of memory and place, I am not sure about relating this construction of place to Pierre Nora, because while the process contends with discontinuous or disrupted pasts, it is equally indebted to vibrant continuities and a critical relationship with the public commemorative landscape. I do know that I can’t get to this relationship with a place by walking (usually too slow for the scope) or driving (too fast and superficial).
Biking is perfect.
There are lots of points along my bike commute where we can locate significant events in the history and present of Halifax. My route includes Beechville, a historic African Nova Scotian community; the old rail and streetcar connections for the city (with their associated car-centric modern forgetting); and some of the water, salt and fresh, that has defined human relationships with Kjipuktuk, the Great Harbour, for time immemorial. As a public historian, I enjoy saying hello to the city’s landmarks current, lost, and debatable. I ride by the Public Gardens and the Commons, the Citadel, the prior site of the “Morris” house that didn’t quite belong to the right Morris, and Peace and Friendship Park where stood the statue that was supposed to be Cornwallis, but wasn’t. I often indulge in a detour to ride directly alongside the harbour, where vast container ships lumber along under the guns of Fort Charlotte. Fishing boats set out from Eastern Passage, not far from the graves of a pair of Nova Scotian seamen who succumbed to smallpox at the quarantine station on Lawlor’s Island in 1901.
My commute finishes at the heart of much of my historical research: Pier 21 and the Ocean Terminals. I work in the latest incarnation of the waterfront sheds, exploring immigration history for the Canadian Museum of Immigration. Although the whole ride, and the many connections above, could unfold a much longer story, I’m going to pick a few things directly connected to the Ocean Terminals construction to illustrate how experiencing the remaking of the place from my bike has altered how I think about history.
Claire Campbell’s introduction to this series pointed out how sensitive we can be to topography from the saddle, and it’s true. You know intuitively that something in the land has changed, that something is not natural, as soon as you ride through the Ocean Terminals area. The road is flat, and absolutely nothing in Halifax is naturally flat. If you follow Marginal Road, you can pick up the dips down to the level of the Ocean Terminals fill at either end, and sense the natural shoreline of the harbour. The evidence of change begs the question: what was here before? What lay on the slope of the shoreline before it was graded, filled, leveled, and inscribed with train sidings and freight piers?
Well, lots of things: Steele’s Pond and Greenbank, at least one brook, a lumber yard, homes, the historical garrison of the Royal Engineers, some of Joe Howe’s favourite stomping grounds in Point Pleasant Park, and more. Destroying these was and remains as much a part of the cost of the Ocean Terminals as the nineteen million dollars or so expended for construction. Riding a bike over the transition points from the natural slopes of the city to the filled terminal site indicates the substantial scales of change and loss, an aspect of the place that is not acknowledged much in the public memory of the city.
Riding the city also highlights for me the relationship of the site with the past and current disruptions in the city space created by the rail cut made to serve the Ocean Terminals. I cross the cut as I make my way through one of the dangerous gaps in the city’s active transportation grid between the wonderful Chain of Lakes Trail and the current peninsular cycling infrastructure. The rail cut and the associated expropriation of lands from Bedford right through to the heart of the South End provoked a lot of anger in the city. The Sisters of Charity litigated the encroachment on their property at what is now Mount Saint Vincent University for more than a decade before finally settling for a fraction of the compensation they had sought. Sir Sandford Fleming warned that the Northwest Arm would be polluted by sewage after the rail and infrastructure changes. More recently, the city was notably disrupted by the need to overhaul the Quinpool Road railway bridge – and the resulting traffic was a strong incentive to keep on biking rather than get stuck amid a bunch of smoking wheelboxes! The cut itself has also been suggested as a future active transportation way, although the city will likely run more or less parallel to it rather than actually in the cut.
One of the last views I have on my commute to work is the awkward tail end of historic shed 21, hanging out between the renovated shed 20 and Pier 21 National Historic Site, the shed that was mostly rebuilt by NSCAD and the Canadian Museum of Immigration. The stub of brick at the north end of shed 21 was the old immigration hospital, where the resident nurse had her apartment, and where immigrants and detained travelers waited out medical conditions that prevented further travel. The most common occupants were kids and expectant or just-delivered moms with new teacup humans, and it wasn’t unusual to have a bunch of little ones with chicken pox stuffed away in one of the rooms after they all licked each other on the ship over.
The hospital, of course, is a reminder now of implication of public health and quarantine / infectious disease control as a permanent and long-standing aspect of entry controls into the country: most people arriving had to have proof of up-to-date vaccinations, and any hint of contagion was generally met with strict controls. Nowadays, as we watch a modern vaccination campaign unfold around the world, I can’t help but recall one of the deaths at the site. At Pier 21 in 1937, a child died of measles, a disease that has since been substantially controlled through public vaccination. One of the things that we lose sight of at times is the scope of Canada’s ocean immigration facilities – their size, the variety and complexity of the attendant functions, and so on. Riding past the hospital end of the pier, by the doors and windows of the customs annex, up by where the post was handled, past where department of agriculture inspectors wondered about odd plants coming in, and between two historical locations for the ports police … the scope and scale of the site reinforces a healthy respect for the divergence and diversity of human experiences of the place, but also underscores the convergence of a remarkable array of resources in realizing and policing Canada’s desirable immigrants.
Biking makes it possible to touch these pasts in quick succession while retaining a physical sense of their place. It’s a great way for a historian to feel and move with the trajectories of historical landscapes – up this hill, along this road, down this grade, across this ridge. Perhaps we have trouble integrating this kind of knowledge in our disciplinary presentation now, but the ride still gives us questions and linkages that otherwise might not have been apparent.
Steven Schwinghamer is a historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration. He is the co-author of Pier 21: A History. #bikehfx.
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