Did you know that Halifax’s Public Gardens were home to what is most likely the first covered skating rink in North America? Another fun fact: the Public Gardens also had the first public lawn tennis court in Canada. Given how indoor hockey rinks have become a vital part of the fabric of Canadian towns, both large and small, at this landmark, we’ll hear about one of the Public Gardens’ (likely) firsts: the indoor rink. The rink is, unsurprisingly, another point of nineteenth-century civic pride. According to Halifax writer James Macdonald Oxley, writing in an essay on “Ice Skating in Canada,” the “rink at Halifax...for size, appearance, and convenience is surpassed by none” (p. 414).
The Halifax Skating Rink, just a little smaller than today’s NHL-size rink, operated for about thirty years starting in the 1860s (it was officially opened on January 3, 1863). The rink was fashionable, and its annual skating carnival was a highlight of the high society calendar. In fact, the privately funded rink was members only—a weekly newspaper, the Acadian Recorder, noted that the Gardens’ skating rink was “the greatest favorite of those who could afford it” (p. 3, quoted by Markham, p. 460). Again, we see the Gardens have had a complicated relationship to the notion of “public.”
However, for those who did skate here, there was much fun to be had. Remember those military bands playing on summer evenings in the Gardens? They didn’t rest in the winter, as Oxley explains:
“This dancing on the ice may be seen in its perfection at Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, which, being a garrison city, enjoys the unique privilege of military bands; and the officers, as a rule, becoming enthusiastic skaters, the ladies who grace the fashionable rink by their presence have a grand time of it gliding entrancingly about to the bewitching strains of delightful music, and bringing all their artillery of thrilling eyes, tempting cheeks, and enslaving lips to bear upon the gallant sons of Mars, who often times find the slippery floor more fatal than the tented field” (p. 414).
Oxley is clearly having fun, describing the blossoming romances on the ice and the beaus’ dubious skating skills, and we certainly get a sense of the grand time to be had in this arena. Both in the scene he describes and the language he uses, Oxley is most captivated with the rink as a site of fun and flirtation. He goes on to describe how
“One of the most cheerful sights imaginable is this vast building on a band-night when the snow-white arena is almost hidden beneath a throng of happy skaters, youths and maidens, circling round hand-in-hand, the maiden glowing with pride at her admirer’s dexterity, the youth enraptured by his charmer’s roseate winsomeness. Here doth Cupid bid defiance to the chilling blasts of winter…” (p. 414).
Of course, Cupid’s work at this rink has long been finished and the rink has been gone for over a century. Recently, archaeologist Jonathan Fowler is researching the rink, a piece of our city’s history hidden deep beneath our feet (it’s buried on the Gardens’ South Park boundary about halfway between Sackville Street and Spring Garden Road). Today, similar scenes to the ones Oxley describes are to be found just further north on the Common, on the skating Oval.
Acadian Recorder. January 17, 1863, p. 3. Qtd. in Susan E. Markham’s “The Halifax Common: An Example of Nineteenth Century Leisure Service Delivery.” Proceedings of the Third Canadian Congress on Leisure Research, pp. 453-470. Ed. T.L. Burton. Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta, 1981.
Oxley, James Macdonald. “Ice Skating in Canada.” Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation. Vol. 7, Oct. 1885-March 1886, p. 413-6. archive.org
Smith, Emma. “The Quest to find a Victorian-era Rink Buried Beneath the Public Gardens.” CBC. July 14, 2018.
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