Tidal Wave of Tourism
Enough already! Let me say at the outset that I really hated Titanic, the movie. "A woman's heart is deeper that the ocean." Couldn't James Cameron spend some of his budget on a screenwriter? What I wanted to know was the real history of Titanic. So I found the man who knows where all the bodies are buried. Literally.
For the past eighteen years, Bill Cleary has been a cemetarian, watching over headstones here in Halifax. He begins his tour by leading me to a small Jewish cemetery next door.
And there they are: ten plain black granite headstones. Only two have names. The rest are identified with numbers. The stones all read: Died April 15, 1912. Another nineteen Titanic victims are buried in the Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery elsewhere in the city. But the largest number - 121 - can be found next door at Fairview Lawn. Bill Cleary leads me back down the muddy path. He says the Jewish cemetery is only open officially for funerals and stone unveilings.
One of the busloads of tourists has already arrived. Past the brand new black and white sign that reads Titanic, a tourguide recites her litany of Titanic tragedies to an eager audience who gather round. Bill Cleary say the line, which owned the Titanic, paid for the burial plots and the basic square gravemarkers, but here and there are a few fancier headstones. On one, Titanic survivor Bruce Ismael pays tribute to his cabin boy.
Tourists wander among the graves, reading the headstones and snapping pictures. Caroline Dox from Toronto tries to explain the enduring appeal of the Titanic.
Titanic tourists aren't just Canadians. Xiao Tong came all the way from China. In fact, I found only one grumpy Titanic tourist, nine-year-old Alex Williams from New Jersey. David White from Medway, Massachusetts was here on a mission.
And therein lies the best story of all. DiCaprio played Jack Dawson in the movie - a fictional character. But there was a John Dawson who shoveled coal into the massive boilers and went down with the ship. Native Haligonians Joan Walker say the grave inscribed "J Dawson" has become the most popular spot in town.
A newspaper story debunked the DiCaprio connect, but the "J Dawson" grave is still covered with flowers and notes like this one decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow. "J Dawson," it reads, with the "J" turned around backwards, "I am sorry that you died. From Luanne."
Halifax has a special connection to the Titanic. Gerry Lunn, curator of the visitor services at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic says the White Star Line chartered ships from Halifax Harbor to search for bodies at the disaster site, 650 miles away.
Three hundred and twenty-eight bodies were recovered by Canadian ships. Many were so badly deteriorated they had to be buried at sea. Twelve-hundred others were never found, carried away by currents and ice. Lunn points out that Halifax is no stranger to tragedy. Just five years after Titanic went down, two ships collided in the harbor. One of them, a World War I munitions ship, blew up, creating the largest man-made explosion until the atomic age. Much of the city was destroyed. More than seventeen-hundred people died. Native Haligonian Bill Murphy says the story of the great explosion is much better know here that that of Titanic.
Another explosion at the munitions dump in 1945 caused much less damage to the city. But Haligonian Dave Cole says he doesn't think all these disasters mean his city is cursed.
Exhibits about both tragedies are on display at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. There's even a Titanic deck chair you can rearrange if you are so inclined. And best of all, there's what I call a "real" disaster theme song.
From Halifax, Nova Scotia, I'm Kitty Felde for The Savvy Traveler.
For more information, check out:
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
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