When Halifax writer, Michael Williams, describes “a small, public park that had once been a burial ground” between Citadel Hill and the waterfront, it sounds like he’s talking about the Old Burying Ground, right? In the twenty-first century, it’s the only visible site that fits the bill. But not so fast: evidence suggests that the long-gone Grafton Street Park must be Williams’s graveyard-come-park of choice. After all, Williams strolls through this park on his way to work. Since the Old Burying Ground has gates and fences around it, you have to make a point to visit: you can’t stroll through on your way somewhere else.
Williams then helps bring forward a part of history that is no longer visible but has been in the news in 2019 and 2020. Before the ultra-modern and welcoming new Halifax Central Library was opened in 2014, the Spring Garden Memorial Library (built in 1951) was at the corner of Spring Garden Road and Grafton Street. The old library site is the former location of Williams’s Grafton Street Park; before that the park was a paupers’ graveyard next to the poor house. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are buried on this site, but interestingly not one body was dug up during the construction of the old library (see Cynthia Simpson for more on this, p. 104, 106). Nonetheless, any rehabilitation of the library site will have to be taken with care, as recent public consultations show. Whatever its future, with countless bodies, repeated disruptions of the site, and Halifax’s history intersecting with the modern city, this location seems to be calling out for a ghost or detective story to be written about it.
But let’s get back to our featured author here: Michael Williams. Williams, born in Halifax in 1877, would eventually move to the United States, writing and editing for newspapers in different cities. Williams also joined an artists’ socialist cooperative founded by American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Upton Sinclair, who became a lifelong friend (as Paul Baumann explains).
But Williams’s time in Halifax wasn’t quite so glamorous. He grew up in poverty after his father died at sea. The oldest of six children, he, not unlike a young Charles Dickens, had to quit school to work at a wholesale dry goods warehouse on the harbourfront. This is how Williams describes that time in his memoir, The Book of the High Romance: A Spiritual Autobiography:
“For a period of more than a year, I ceased to write, and read little. Life was subtly, powerfully asserting its claim upon my body, as well as upon that peculiar use it demanded of my spirit. There were times when I felt choked to the point of suffocation within the four granite walls of the warehouse, into which the sunshine and air came only through the few opened windows” (p. 26).
Throughout The Book of High Romance, a memoir steeped in Catholicism, Williams is very attentive to the way different environments affect him. Unsurprisingly, the warehouse was hard on him physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
But there was a silver lining. He grew up in a wooden house at the foot of Citadel Hill on Queen Street, and that meant his walk to the warehouse every day took him right through the Grafton Street Park. The park offered inspiration not available at the warehouse:
“I left school and went to work in the warehouse. On the day I started my new life, while walking through a small, public park that had once been a burial ground, I was brooding over a poem. It was to be about a captain, who, trying to steer his ship through a storm, amid dangerous reefs, is thrust from the helm by a stranger who appears on the deck. My idea was that the stranger was a stowaway, hiding in the hold; a man who knew the perilous waters through which the craft went staggering, and who came to the aid of the captain. But suddenly my idea changed. I seemed to see the figure on the tilted deck, pushing the captain aside. How I thrilled when I observed that beneath the sou’wester worn by the stranger there was visible no face. The apparition was no man! Who then, could he be? Who but death?” (p. 22).
For Williams and L.M. Montgomery (in the previous landmark), graveyard parks are backdrops to everyday lives. Graveyards are part of the commute to work, somewhere to study and meet friends, a green refuge from the noise and dirt of a working port town. These places, so rich in human stories and where past lives and even ghostly apparitions are palpable, are also inspirational. Just as the Old Burying Ground allowed Montgomery and Anne to imagine the defeated Captain James Lawrence’s journey into the Halifax Harbour, the Grafton Street Park inspires Williams and allows him to start writing again, as we’ll see at the next landmark.
Baumann, Paul. “Catholics & Democracy: Michael Williams & the Culture Wars.” Commonweal.org Nov 2, 2004.
Simpson, Cynthia. “The Treatment of Halifax’s Poor House Dead during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Master’s thesis, Saint Mary’s University, August 2011.
Williams, Michael. The Book of the High Romance: A Spiritual Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1918. archive.org
1 Thanks to Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum and Cynthia Simpson for her master’s thesis (“The Treatment of Halifax’s Poor House Dead during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.