Queen Mary 2 docks in Halifax as Cunard Line celebrates 175 years

The Queen Mary 2 docks in Halifax on Friday as it recreates the Cunard Line's first transatlantic crossing, made by the Britannia 175 years ago.

Transatlantic 175 celebrates company's 1st crossing from England to North America

You can find Samuel Cunard's name scattered around Halifax.

There's a street named after him, as well as a centre — and don't forget the statue on the Halifax waterfront.

The Halifax shipping magnate's name will be heard many times as Cunard Line's flagship ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2, docks in Halifax on Friday morning.

The ship is recreating the company's first transatlantic crossing, made by the Britannia 175 years ago. It left Liverpool in the U.K. on July 4 and will head to Boston and New York after its Halifax call.

In honour of the anniversary, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is launching a temporary exhibit called Cunard 175: Engine for Change on Friday.

An ocean railway

Cunard was born on Halifax's Brunswick Street in 1787. He worked for his father in the timber and coal business before turning his eye toward the sea.

In 1840, Cunard's Britannia established the first year-round scheduled Atlantic Ocean steamship service, running from Halifax to Liverpool, U.K.

He expanded the company into a shipping giant, and in the process, revolutionized the way people travelled. Cunard envisioned "an ocean railway," proving people could travel quickly and on schedule.

Roger Marsters, the curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, says he hopes the exhibit will connect the dots between the Halifax entrepreneur and the "glamourous" ocean liners still sailing today.

"They can see why it was that the world-famous Cunard Line emerged here in Halifax. It wasn't an accident," he said.

"You can see Cunard's influence in the fact that Halifax still is a port with global connections, even if it is centred in container ports in Fairview."

The company was almost killed by transatlantic jet travel in the last century, but went on to own some of the largest ocean liners in the world.

"It's quite a remarkable achievement because it's not just that the Cunard company still exists, but they are still operating liner service between Europe and North America, which is a remarkable thing given all the technological changes in the past century," said Marsters.

A 'profoundly preposterous box'

The company now owns much more luxurious ships than its first steam ships — Charles Dickens described his cabin aboard the Britannia in 1842 as a "profoundly preposterous box."

"He did not like it. He said that his cabin was like a coffin with windows," said museum interpreter Derek Harrison.

It's that kind of history the museum hopes to bring alive with its new exhibit. It features ship models, stories and the chance to play with the old walkie-talkie type pipes sailors used on ships.

As part of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's retrospective on Samuel Cunard, Derek Harrison is helping run a pop-up exhibit called "Cunard's desk," which aims to teach children about the famed Haligonian. (CBC)

Museum guests can also touch and smell the commodities Cunard had a hand in, including whale bones, tea and rum.

Harrison is also running a letter writing station for children, since mail was crucial to Cunard's business. Cunard once had the exclusive royal contract to deliver mail from Europe to Halifax and Boston.

"It's central to his success," Harrison said. "He was a major part of the city's history and I think this exhibit will bring that to light."

Marsters says Cunard's legacy goes behind the ships that still cross the Atlantic.

"That ability to grasp the opportunities that the small and Maritime world affords us, I think, is an area in which Cunard's legacy is very much alive," he said. "His legacy is an inspiration."

In honour of the anniversary, the Queen Mary 2 will tour the harbour at 8 p.m. on Friday, escorted by Theodore Tugboat, HMCS Montreal and the water cannon tugboat, the Atlantic Oak. The boat then continues its commemorative sailing to Boston.

The museum will offer free admission starting at 4:30 p.m. on July 10 for the exhibit reception opening. The exhibit runs until November.


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