Step back into history using Halifax Public Libraries’ collection of vintage postcards. This collection of 500 postcards gives a glimpse into the past of Halifax and surrounding areas.
Halifax Public Libraries staff members have delved into our Local History collections to learn more about the scenes depicted in selected postcards. Take a trip down memory lane with these journeys into familiar and forgotten Nova Scotian scenes. We look forward to sharing more postcards here with you and on our social media channels, so check back again soon for updates!
Find the write-up you're looking for faster:
- Bircham House/Birchdale Hotel
- Cow Bay Beach
- Dartmouth Ferry
- Halifax Common
- Halifax Ladies’ College
- Halifax Memorial Library
- Halifax Public Gardens Bandstand
- Halifax Shopping Centre
- Old Town Clock
- Picturesque Corner
- Prince's Lodge
Halifax Memorial Library
Written by Amy LeMoine
The history of the Spring Garden Road Memorial Library tells the story of public library service in Halifax. Before its opening date on November 12, 1951, library services in Halifax were lacking. The Citizen’s Free Library had begun sharing books since 1864 and, in 1890, was located inside City Hall. Over the years, Haligonians clamoured for a public library that was more spacious and open to everyone.
After World War II, it was determined that a new library building would be built that would also form a war memorial. The three-storey limestone building was designed by renowned local architect Leslie R. Fairn and was built on top of Grafton Park. The war memorial artifacts added over the years included the Books of Remembrance, a Silver Cross, and flags.
The library boasted 20,000 books when it first opened and housed a children’s library, reading room, and cataloguing department. The first librarian was Mary Cameron. Library membership was free but cost 10 cents for a registration card. Late fees were two cents per day.
By 1955 the space was already deemed inadequate, with more books than shelf space. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that an addition to the building was built, adding 13,000 square feet to the library. This new section gave the library an elevator, new nonfiction stacks, and a new program room.
Once again, the library was full again just a decade later, and the demand for more space grew. Over the next 20 years, debates ranged on how to increase the space—from the addition of a new annex to a completely new building. It was eventually decided in 2008 to construct a new Central Library, and on August 30, 2014, the library closed to prepare to open the new library.
For over 60 years, the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library provided books, reference services, youth activities, programs for all ages, and a welcome refuge for all in the heart of downtown. As of 2023, the future of this site and Grafton Park, on which it sits, remains uncertain.
Written by Jamie
Anyone who drives along the Bedford Highway has probably seen this beautiful building on their journey. Did you know that it has been there for over 200 years? It is known as the Music Room, aka the Round House, or the rotunda. This is the last of a once great and sprawling estate that covered a large area in the Rockingham/Birch Cove community that became known as Prince’s Lodge.
Prince’s Lodge was originally built by Sir John Wentworth and included a villa, library, gardens, servants’ quarters, stables, and barns, all of which are long gone. Eventually, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, started staying here with his mistress, Madame de Saint-Laurent, while stationed as garrison commander starting in 1794. Over the next several years, he completely transformed the Lodge, which included the building of the Music Room. Also notable, he played a major role in the building of the Clock Tower at Citadel Hill and St. George’s Round Church.
The Music Room was built right on the edge of the basin so it could be seen from the lodge. Interestingly, no musical performances happened inside the building—they were performed outside on the lawn, where guests could enjoy the scenery. Here, Prince Edward’s regimental band played for him and invited guests. His post in Halifax only lasted a few years, and eventually, Prince’s Lodge was abandoned altogether. By the late 1800s, it was mostly in ruins. Many years later, it became a popular destination because of its backstory and unique layout.
The Music Room has remained a curiosity and attraction all through the 20th Century, and fortunately, stood the test of time with a variety of owners. The trees have grown up around it, but it currently looks much like it did in 1796, complete with all of its pillars, dome roof, and golden ball on top. The government purchased it in 1959 and has been responsible for it ever since.
The Old Town Clock
Written by Dandan
The Old Town Clock, located on the east slope of Citadel Hill, began keeping time for the garrison on October 20, 1803. Initially ordered by Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1800 as a timepiece to regulate the garrison, it has served the residents of Halifax for almost two centuries and has become a universally recognized symbol of Halifax.
In the early years, the clock building was used as a guardroom. James Deckmann was appointed the first "keeper of the government clocks." At other times, the building served various roles as an armoury and as a temporary hospital.
In the 1960s, Dennis Gill lived part of his youth with his family in the clock. His father worked for the parks service as the clock caretaker, and he and his family lived inside the clock. The base is a small bungalow with a cellar below and a tower above. Dennis remembered that when they first moved there, the clock was heated with coal. On many occasions, his dad had to wake up in the night and shut everything down because the whole clock would be filled with smoke owing to the very unreliable furnace. He reminisced about his childhood in the clock and the wonderful feeling of security when they lived there.
Today, The Old Town Clock continues to tick away the minutes and hours, although the Georgian Building, which served roles over the years, has been altered a couple of times and majorly restored in 1960. It is maintained and operated by Parks Canada, whose staff wind the clock twice a week to minimize stress on the mechanism.
Picturesque Corner, Herring Cove, N.S.
Written by Joanna Veale
A lovely little house sitting to the side of a lovely little bridge. Where is this "picturesque corner?"
Both the house and bridge were located in Herring Cove at the head of the cove, on the road now named Powers Drive. A building has existed in about the very same spot, at least as far back as 1845. A map from 1864 shows the property was owned by M. Power, and it was later owned by members of the Power family up until the mid-twentieth century. According to photographs, the house appears to have stood at least until 1949, but no longer exists today. The wood and stone bridge that crossed the brook draining Powers Pond into Herring Cove has been replaced by a plainer concrete structure.
The property backs onto the old St. Paul's Catholic Cemetery, now largely abandoned. A stone in the cemetery marks the burial of Michael Power, possibly the same M. Power of 1864. The 1891 Census lists Michael as a fisherman. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had eight children at home, four of whom were sons in their twenties. Like their father, all were listed as fishermen. As of the 1901 Census (five years before the postcard photograph was taken), Elizabeth was widowed, and all her children remained at home. All six of her sons had become fishermen.
The fisheries had been a mainstay for the community of Herring Cove since its beginnings. Only in more recent times has that shifted; the last working fisherman retired in 2018.
Herring Cove was originally known by the Mikmaw as "Moolipchugechk," meaning narrow and deep chasm or valley. It was later known as Dunk Cove after George Montagu-Dunk, the 2nd Earl of Halifax (and namesake of Halifax), and finally as Herring Cove, either because of the bounty of herring in the waters or for the surname of past residents.
Bircham House/Birchdale Hotel
Written by Dandan Xu
The Bircham House, later known as the Birchdale Hotel, was located at the bottom of Coburg Road and overlooked the stunning Northwest Arm. Robert Morrow Jr. inherited the property from his father and, with his wife Helen, built the house on the land. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the lavishly designed house had some unique features, including a saltwater aquarium in the basement where Morrow, a man with a keen interest in natural history, kept live fish for his studies.
In 1906, F.W. Bowes purchased the Bircham property, along with its neighbour, Bloomingdale, with the intention of creating a tourist hotel by combining the two. Bowes, who was a former director of Carleton House on Argyle Street and a former news editor of the Halifax Chronicle, named his new hotel Birchdale, taking elements from both Bircham and Bloomingdale. He transformed the Bircham house into a hotel, adding two new wings to the building. The Birchdale Hotel had many amenities, including a ballroom, a large library, and even its own newspaper, the Birchdale Bugle. Its prime waterfront location allowed guests to enjoy boating on the Northwest Arm and was a popular destination for tourists in the summer and for locals year-round.
After its time as a hotel, the Birchdale building was sold to Dalhousie University, where it was briefly used as a residence for men. King's College then took over the Birchdale when the school relocated from Windsor to Halifax in 1923. Over the years, the building served many purposes, including a grand house, hotel, and university residence. However, by the early 1930s, it was demolished, bringing its story to a close.
Ballard, J. M. A. (2018). Historic house names of Nova Scotia. Nimbus Publishing.
Dawson, T. (2011, March). The many chapels of King’s College” The Griffin, 36(1), 3-5.
Places: Halifax, Halifax Co.: Houses: Birchdale: formerly Robert Morrow’s “Bircham” lately residence of King’s College, Coburg Road. (1931). [Photograph and caption]. Nova Scotia Archives Photographic Collection. https://archives.novascotia.ca/photocollection/archives/?ID=6696
Regan, J. W. (1978). Sketches and traditions of the Northwest Arm: Illustrated and with panoramic folder of the Arm (first printing 1908). Hounslow Press.
Student government history: No. 26. (1974, September 26). The Dalhousie Gazette, 107(3), 2. https://findingaids.library.dal.ca/the-dalhousie-gazette-volume-107-issue-3
Watts, H., & Raymond, M. (2003). Halifax’s Northwest Arm. Formac Publishing Company.
Halifax Shopping Centre
Written by Jamie Drew
The Halifax Shopping Centre is one of the most important shopping destinations that Nova Scotia has to offer. Throughout the years, it has weathered many storms--financial woes, community opposition around multiple expansions, and changing consumer habits. Yet to this day, it has managed to remain relevant and continues to draw many customers. It is both retro and forward-thinking, creating a shopping “experience”, unlike the offerings of big box stores, outlet stores, or online shopping.
When the Shopping Centre first opened its doors in 1962, the world was a different place, and the “shopping mall” was still a relatively new concept. Malls have been around since the 50s, but nothing like this existed on the East Coast. Since its very conception, it was advertised as the “Market Place of the Maritimes.” Modern shoppers found the space appealing with its bright, accessible, fully enclosed climate-controlled environment, where one could do all of their shopping. It cost $9 million dollars to build and housed 50 shops and “ample parking for thousands of cars daily.” At the time, there was nothing quite like it. The mall reigned supreme for 10 years before the Mic Mac Mall in Dartmouth became its biggest rival. In its humble beginnings, the Centre had many big-name stores, including Eatons, Sobeys, Lawtons, and Birks jewellers to name a few.
As this postcard from 1968 shows, shopping here was meant to be an alluring experience for all the senses where one could get away from their normal routine. It was also promoted as an events center with a stage for charitable, social, athletic, cultural, and promotional events beyond the regular shopping hours. As the years passed, there were beauty and baby pageants, trade fairs, celebrity appearances, visits with Santa, craft markets, and antique shows. After a number of recent renovations and expansions, it has once again found its place in the modern world with a focus on more high-end retailers and a completely revamped food court.
Halifax Ladies’ College
Written by Marisa Moreira
This imposing mansion once stood at the corner of Pleasant (now Barrington), Harvey, and Morris Streets and contributed significantly to the broader education of young women in Nova Scotia.
Originally built for Richard John Uniacke Jr.’s wife in 1821, the house was later inhabited by the Duffus family. In 1887, the property was purchased by the recently-created Halifax Ladies’ College in association with the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Immediately after it was established, Halifax Ladies’ College became affiliated with the Halifax Conservatory of Music, Victoria School of Art and Design, and later with Dalhousie University.
The college focused on teaching social skills and cultural norms for young women who were not pursuing a career, and also as a preparatory school for those that were looking for a profession. This elite school included classrooms, a science laboratory, an art studio, a gymnasium, and residential accommodations for about 100 students. Languages, math, and sciences were part of the general education. Sports were well-loved, and music, art or domestic science was the curriculum of choice for girls attending the school.
A notable alumni of Halifax Ladies’ College was Lucy Maud Montgomery. While attending classes at Dalhousie University in 1895-96, Montgomery boarded at the Ladies’ College residence; she enjoyed the proximity to Point Pleasant Park, where she loved to stroll.
In 1917, the school building was severely damaged by the Halifax Explosion but was quickly repaired to be used as an improvised treatment centre. Students and teachers played an important role in relief work.
Another outstanding event for the College was when the school received the visit of Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales. An autographed picture of the prince was published in the Halifax Ladies’ College Yearbook, the “Olla Podrida,” in 1921.
With student numbers declining during the Great Depression, the College started entering in debt. In 1939, the building and property on Barrington Street were expropriated, and it became a hostel for YMCA servicemen. After briefly relocating to Young Avenue, the college moved to Oxford Street. In 1979, the Halifax Ladies’ College became a coeducational day school, and the following year the name of the institution was officially changed to Armbrae Academy.
The original Halifax Ladies’ College building was demolished in 1963 and replaced by the Thompson Building.
-MacLeod, S. (1973). A History of the Halifax Ladies’ College, Established 1887.
-McGuigan, P. T. (2007). Historic South End Halifax.
-General Information - About Armbrae. (n.d.). https://armbrae.ns.ca/about.html
Halifax Public Gardens Bandstand
To celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and her 50 years on the throne, the iconic bandstand was added to the Halifax Public Gardens in 1887. A grand concert and fireworks display was held in the same year to mark its opening. Funded by City Council and designed by architect Henry Frederick Busch, this fanciful architectural piece vies for attention with its intricate detailing and bold use of colour. The gingerbread decoration on the rails, painted in red, yellow, blue, white and green, cheerfully echoes the exuberant colours and exemplifies Victorian design. The stairway and surrounding balustrade, as well as the columns supporting the roof, are also richly ornamented. The bandstand is surrounded by thirty-two beds of flowering annuals, configured in circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles. The flowerbeds were laid out as early as 1876.
The bandstand remained unaltered until the 1960s when its original copper-clad, wooden roof was replaced with fibreglass. Sadly, some of the finer decorative details of the former roof were removed at this time. Luckily, Busch's design remains little changed, and the bandstand continues to be a Halifax icon. The structure has suffered deterioration over time. Hopefully, a third phase of the Gardens' restoration will restore this Victorian treasure to its former glory.
Being both ornamental and practical, the bandstand is the heart of the Gardens. It has become a favourite informal meeting place where visitors can take their ease on the benches or enjoy leisurely musical strolls in the park when the band is playing, and dusk begins to fall in the Gardens during the warm summer evenings.
Written by Amy LeMoine
Greenbank was a small, tight-knit community that was located in the South End of Halifax in the early 20th century. The neighbourhood was next to Point Pleasant Park, at the south end of Pleasant Street (now Barrington Street) and alongside the Harbour. This small section of town comprised a few dirt roads and between 30-40 homes.
Greenbank was originally built in 1915 by the Intercolonial Railway as a “shantytown” to house workers who were building the railway and port. A few years later, some refugees from the Halifax Explosion settled there. Most of the homes were described as shacks as they were constructed of wood and had tar and gravel roofs. Some Haligonians even referred to the community as “Tar Paper Alley.” The neighbourhood had no running water, electricity, or sewer system, and residents had to walk along the train tracks and dirt roads to reach the rest of Halifax.
Despite the poverty in this area, the community was like family to each other, and they enjoyed a happy life. A small store served as the community focal point, as there was no school or church. Residents enjoyed fishing in the Harbour, swimming at Black Rock Beach in the summer, and skating on Steele’s Pond in the winter. The expansive Point Pleasant Park was their backyard. Many residents worked for the railway or at the nearby docks.
Greenbank lasted until 1956, when the land was sold to develop the container pier, and the homes were torn down. The names of the streets that were lost were Clarence, Owen, Plover, and View Streets.
Today the area is covered by the Shipping container port and the apartment building Ogilive on the Park. Despite the years that have passed, the Greenbankers still gather for occasional reunions that are sponsored by resident Bill Mont.
-McGuigan, P. T. (2007). Historic South End Halifax. Nimbus.
-Napier, J. (8 September, 1986). The Greenbankers: They meet again to swap memories. Mail Star.
-Edwards, T. (September 1997). Halifax past: Greenbank. Southender Magazine.
Cow Bay Beach
The image in this postcard is familiar. Given its name, “Cow Bay Beach,” one can presume this beach in Cow Bay is Rainbow Haven Beach, but "one of the largest beaches in North America?" A closer look reveals a cautionary tale of our use and abuse of the natural environment.
Silver Sands Beach, as it is known today, was called Cow Bay Beach until the 1920s. Located directly to the east of Eastern Passage, it was the closest beach to Halifax. It boasted white sands and a picnic area along the adjacent lake. Indeed, it was considered the place to go for a picnic. At the height of its popularity, the beach also had a pavilion, a dance hall, and various canteens. As it was close to the city, people would travel by horse and wagon, even steamboat, to visit in the days before automobiles. Once automobiles were common, the beach only became more popular.
Cow Bay Beach was also promoted internationally for its beauty, particularly to tourists from the northeastern United States. The beach retained its fame from about the 1860s through to the 1960s.
Unfortunately for beach-goers and nature lovers alike, the beach sand and gravel were also popular as construction materials. A construction company began to remove sand and stone from the beach in the mid-1950s. The company claimed it was removing materials in areas unpopular with beachgoers and picnickers, and that wave action over the winter months would restore the lost sand and gravel. Much of the material removed was used in construction projects across Halifax and areas, including the runways at Shearwater and for container piers in Halifax's harbour. Public opposition to the project was strong and did lead to legislation against the removal of beach materials. Unfortunately, these actions were not enough to save the beach--wave action did not replace the sand, and the beach was reduced to a rocky shoal.
In the late 1950s, a series of concrete animals sculpted by New Brunswick folk artist Winston Bronnum decorated the beach. Among them were a turtle, an alligator, and a moose. Today only the 12-foot moose statue remains.
Today, the beach remains a rocky shadow of its former glory and the source of much contention. The beach is a municipal park, but access has been blocked by an adjacent private landowner. A series of court battles have ensued and continue up to the present.
-Boileau, J. (2007). Historic Eastern Passage: Including Imperoyal, Shearwater, South East Passage, Cow Bay, McNab's Island, Lawlor's Island, and Devil's Island. Nimbus Publishing.
-Bousquet, T. (2018, June 25). Silver Sands: The Best Halifax-Area beach we ever destroyed. Halifax Examiner. https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/uncategorized/silver-sands-the-best-halifax-area-beach-we-ever-destroyed/, opens a new window
-Hudak, M. L. (2014). Cow Bay's Ocean Playground: The shifting landscape of Silver Sands Beach, 1860s - Present. [Master's thesis, Saint Mary's University]. Retrieved from https://library2.smu.ca/xmlui/handle/01/25865, opens a new window
-Taylor, R. B. and D. Frobel. Historical changes in Cow Bay Beach, Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia (2008). Retrieved from https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.821378/publication.html, opens a new window.
-Woodford, Zane (March 2, 2023). Halifax goes back to court over Silver Sands Beach access in Cow Bay. Halifax Examiner. Retrieved from https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/government/city-hall/halifax-goes-back-to-court-over-silver-sands-beach-access-in-cow-bay/, opens a new window
The Halifax Common has been part of the city’s landscape for 260 years. In 1763, King George III permanently granted the land to the people of Halifax. “Commons” were a British tradition – space set aside for the public to use freely to pasture livestock or gather firewood. In Canada, the Halifax Common was the first of its kind, and the Common of 1763 looked very different from what we see today. The original Common measured about 95 hectares – picture the area between Cunard Street and South Street, with Robie Street marking the western border and North Park Street, Ahern Avenue, Bell Road and South Park Street to the east. The land at the time was marshy, with small scrubby trees, rocky fields, and a brook running through it.
Over the years, the Halifax Common has hosted many activities and events. The North Common’s close proximity to the Citadel made it an ideal location for military drills and exercises. Horse racing brought crowds to the Common from 1768-1771 (until the drinking, gambling and fighting that accompanied the races led to their cancellation), again from 1825-1845 (along with food and alcohol, music, dancing and card-playing), and finally in the form of harness racing from the 1940s to the 1960s. When the circus came to town, the North Common was a perfect venue. In 1876, P.T. Barnum’s famous circus visited town; it featured exotic animals, hundreds of horses, and performances like a high diving act. Thousands of participants attended, and 500 men were required to set up the tents and pavilions.
On a sad note, the Common held emergency housing to shelter people whose homes were lost to the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Later, it served as the location for visits from the Royal Family and the Pope in the 1980s, Grand Prix auto racing in the 1990s, Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney concerts in the 2000s, and the Membertou 400 powwow in 2010.
The fountain seen in this postcard was built in 1966 as part of a beautification project and still decorates the North Common today.
-Boutilier, A. D. (2015). The Citadel on stage: British military theatre, sports, and recreation in colonial Halifax. New World Publishing.
-Cameron, P. (2013). Celebrate the Common 250. Friends of the Halifax Common.
-Collins, L. (1990, October 12). The Commons: Boundaries recall local history. Halifax Chronicle Herald, B6.
-City of Halifax. (1988?). The Halifax Common: Canada’s oldest park [Pamphlet].
-City of Halifax. (1992). Halifax Common background report.
-DeLory, B. (2011). Three centuries of public art: historic Halifax Municipality. New World Publishing.
-Guildford, M. (2003, March 2). Common ground. Halifax Chronicle Herald, C8.
-Littlefair-Wallace, S. (2013, October 3-9). A Common cause. The Coast, 5.
-Nunn, B. (2004). 59 stories: Nova Scotia’s curious connections to the remarkable, the world-famous and the strange. Nimbus.
The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry is the oldest operating saltwater ferry in North America and the second oldest in the world; the ferry has operated between the Halifax and Dartmouth terminals for 271 years since its establishment in 1752. When the ferry first began operation, it only ran from sunrise to sunset, and only twice on Sundays, once to take people to church services in Halifax and once to bring them back. The adult fare was just 3 cents.
This postcard depicts the country’s first beam engine-powered ferry in Halifax, the Annex II, which was later renamed Halifax. The ship was built in New Baltimore, N.Y., in 1878 and sold to Halifax for $25,000, which today would be about $833,414. It used a beam engine for power, which is a type of vertical piston cylinder water pump-powered steam engine.
The new ship was a wondrous site to behold, and crowds of people flocked to the docks to welcome its arrival in Halifax on an early evening in July 1890. Unfortunately, jubilation turned to tragedy when the crowd rushed out onto the small gangway in their excitement. In the rush, many people fell into the cold waters of the harbour. Immediate action was taken by the ferry crew to rescue the people in the water, but in the chaos, logs were tossed into the water to act as floatation devices and some people were knocked unconscious. Rescue boats and torches finally arrived and were able to save 24 people that night. However, six people perished.
In the following spring, the ship was renamed the Halifax after a new hull was installed. It remained in service until December 1909, when it was set on fire by an arsonist at the Dartmouth dock.
This was the worst ferry accident to occur in Halifax, and since then, there have been only a few minor incidents, like a riot on the ferry after a concert in 1980 and a few cases of people falling overboard. The last reported accident was in 2019, and the swift actions of the ferry crew resulted in a rescue within five minutes. The Halifax transit ferry crews are well trained in water rescue procedures and often can be seen practicing their skills in the Halifax Harbour.
Today, the ferry service between Halifax and Dartmouth terminals makes approximately 100 round trips daily with more than 6,000 passengers. There are three ferry terminals and five vessels currently in service.
-Boon, J. (2016). Viola Desmond wins Halifax ferry naming contest. The Coast.
-Dingwell, R. (2017). Vincent Coleman and Rita Joe win Halifax ferry naming contest. The Coast.
-Grayson, S. (1982). Old marine engines. International Marine Pub. Co.
-Jerrett, A. (2019). Ferry passenger rescued from Halifax Harbour after falling overboard. CTV News Atlantic. https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/ferry-passenger-rescued-from-halifax-harbour-after-falling-overboard-1.4632330, opens a new window
-Payzant, J. (2002). We love to ride the ferry: 250 years of Halifax-Dartmouth ferry crossings. Nimbus Publishing.
-Payzant, J.M., & Payzant, L.J. (1979). Like a weaver’s shuttle: A history of the Halifax-Dartmouth ferries. Nimbus Publishing.
-Woodbury, R. (2013). Ferry tales. Halifax Magazine, 13(3).