The quest to find a Victorian-era rink buried beneath the Public Gardens

With its manicured lawns and fragrant flowers, it's hard to find a spot more serene than the Halifax Public Gardens. But take a look below the surface and there's a lot going on.

Archeological work is underway for clues to a covered rink that operated for 30 years in the 1800s

A corner of the rink, Halifax by Henry Buckton Laurence (1870). (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

With its manicured lawns and fragrant flowers, the Halifax Public Gardens is the epitome of serenity.

But take a look below the surface and there's a lot going on.

"It's a much more dynamic environment underneath the ground than you would expect," said archeologist Jonathan Fowler, his hands resting on a special machine he's using to find the ruins of a Victorian-era rink built in the heart of Halifax in the 1860s.

Jonathan Fowler, an associate professor at Saint Mary's University, is spending his summer surveying a large section of the Halifax Public Gardens. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The large wooden structure was 55 metres long by 18 metres wide, which is smaller than the typical NHL-size ice surface that clocks in at about 61 metres long by 26 metres wide.

The rink at the Public Garden is believed to be British North America's first permanent covered skating rink and it operated for 30 years before it was torn down.

This summer, Fowler is surveying a site at the edge of the gardens near South Park Street, using electromagnetic equipment, which sends out radio waves that bounce back when something is discovered.

"So buried structures down there, like stone, foundations, brick ... this will cause an anomaly, a feature to show up in the data and if we do it carefully, we should be able to map the outlines of buried structures," said Fowler.

The rink featured lighting that was powered by fuel and there were washrooms there, so Fowler is on the lookout for any piping and plumbing that might remain.

While it's hard to see in this archival photo, the white roof of the covered rink is just visible in the centre, behind the building. (Nova Scotia Archives)

The rink was members-only at a time when that section of the Public Gardens wasn't so public.

"This would have been a more select group, kind of higher socioeconomic stratum of society, that would have had access to this, sort of the elite of Victorian Halifax," said Fowler.

Back in those days, it was a hub of social activity, with ice skating in the winter and roller skating in the summer.

This electromagnetic survey equipment allows Fowler to scan the soil without digging up the gardens. (Emma Smith/CBC)

A few maps, photographs and architectural drawings remain, but Fowler said other than that, very little is known.

Thanks to a $1,000 bursary, he'll be able to do the work this summer and bring his students from Saint Mary's University to the site in the fall.

"We're hoping that our data will better resolve the picture of what's there, it'll tell us how much of it remains intact and what its status is as a heritage resource," he said.

The rink was housed in a large wooden building at the edge of the Public Gardens near South Park Street. (Emma Smith/CBC)

At this point, there are no plans to dig up the ruins if they're found, a decision that will ultimately be up to the Halifax Regional Municipality, said Fowler.

Heidi Boutilier, a supervisor at the Public Gardens, said given it's a National Historic Site, special precautions are taken.

"We're going to protect the Public Gardens. We're not going to be doing anything rash or rushed, if we do anything at all," she said.

Fowler said the work he's doing now isn't invasive.

"We're being careful. We're not running all over the place, but we'll do what we need to do to get the data and then we'll back off," he said.

Janet and Jock Murray awarded Fowler with the Suellen Murray Educational Bursary this year. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Fowler's work is funded by Janet and Jock Murray, who set up a bursary for their daughter Suellen, who died four years ago.

She loved the public gardens, Janet Murray said.

"It's going to be good to know more about it, and more about the people who lived in the city and what they did and how they enjoyed their Sunday and Saturday afternoons," she said.

Despite growing up in Halifax and visiting the Public Gardens often, the Victorian rink was a piece of history Murray only learned when she met Fowler.

"I think the history of Halifax is incredible and we don't know it and we are not aware, and what we really need is a museum of the history of Halifax because there are little things like this that are very exciting and very interesting," she said.

The Murrays hope Haligonians young and old learn something new from this project. (Emma Smith/CBC)

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