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Railway Days

Halifax as Railway Terminus: 1854-2013

by Scott Barber

Sampson, oldest locomotive in Canada, now located at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton, Nova Scotia.
Sampson, oldest locomotive in Canada, now located at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton, Nova Scotia.
Herb MacDonald is the author of Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History
Herb MacDonald is the author of Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History

Thanks to ongoing public programs hosted by the Halifax Public Library, Haligonians were able to take a trip through the city's past as a rail terminus. On Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 the Spring Garden branch hosted “Railway Days”, a public talk by noted historian and author Herb MacDonald. The noon hour program program was packed with a standing room only audience of 60 rail enthusiasts and the curious.

Herb MacDonald, whose recent book Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History has been shortlisted for the Writer's Federation of Nova Scotia's Evelyn Richardson Memorial Award in Non-Fiction, gave a talk illustrated with period photographs and documents, followed by the awarding of door prizes donated by VIA rail.

Though originally billed as covering the time from 1854 to 2013, McDonald began his talk by asking the audience to choose: from the 19th Century up to the First World War, or from 1900, up to the present day. The crowd chose the latter period.

MacDonald began with references to the beginnings of rail in Nova Scotia to set the stage, MacDonald drew a fascinating picture of trade, empire and politics that shaped the history of railways in this Maritime province.

With the recent 2013 City Matters survey showing a majority of respondents preferring commuter rail over an expanded ferry service, one might think a rail aficionado such as Herb MacDonald would be gratified, yet MacDonald prefers a mixed transportation solution.

“Despite the fact that I have sympathies for the use of rail, the most obvious, logical, natural highway is three blocks down that way [at Halifax Harbour]”.

MacDonald cites the ferries of the Bosporus Strait (which join the Mediterranean and Black Seas, while dividing the city of Istanbul, Turkey): “They're cheap, they're efficient, a little old-fashioned, but, yeah, they work... If you are going to run efficient, high speed service from the head of the basin to downtown, I would be inclined to think boat, rather than rail.”

He isn't ready to give up on rail though, as he thinks, “It would also make sense to look at the idea of restoring rail connections from the head of the basin...” to Windsor or beyond toward the Valley, as well as northward to Truro.

 

In addition to being a Research Associate at the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University, you'll find Herb MacDonald teaching “The Rise and Demise of Nova Scotia's Iron Roads” at the Seniors College Program of Nova Scotia. Look for him back in the Library programs too, in the coming new year, or have a look at his recent book.

Listen to Herb MacDonald’s “Railway Days” (linked above) now or download for later.

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