Urban Halifax stream dormant but not gone

Op Ed for the Chronicle Herald by John DeMont.

Ben Wedge, pictured in Victoria Park, has found a correlation between the presence of flourishing trees and the locations of underground water systems in Halifax. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Staff)

Ben Wedge, pictured in Victoria Park, has found a correlation between the presence of flourishing trees and the locations of underground water systems in Halifax. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Staff)

It occurred like so many great insights have at Charlie’s Club on a Wednesday night, with the smell of hops and the click-click-click of pool balls in the north-end Halifax air.

Ben Wedge, born in Summerside, P.E.I., with a mind that is interested in many things, was nursing a Garrison beer and Googling a map of Halifax on his iPad three years ago when he got to wondering about something: why do trees tend to cluster in certain parts of peninsular Halifax, such as Victoria Park? Charlie’s being Charlie’s, somebody sitting nearby who has spent their career in city planning had the answer: “because there used to be a river there.”

And so late last week on Fenwick Street at the side entrance to the Queen Street Sobeys parking lot, there Wedge and I stood. He talked and I used my imagination as the 25-year-old engineer described the river, more like a stream really, running underneath our feet, which back in the 1800s was there in plain sight for everyone to see.

“Where we are standing now used to be a ravine,” he said in his enthusiastic way. “Right over there, where the electrical box is, that was Freshwater Brook.”

Wedge was, in a way, providing a preview of the talk and tour he was scheduled to give last Sunday as part of Jane’s Walks, the city’s annual celebration of the visionary ideas and spirit of Jane Jacobs whose notions of walkability, diversity and mixed-use neighbourhoods are as relevant to urban planning today as they have ever been.

Truth is I didn’t need any kind of a hook to have this conversation.

The idea that a watercourse runs beneath us and that the city has gradually build up around and over it until only those who know where to look are aware of its presence is enough for me.

Wedge, an engineer who makes his daily bread working for an information technology consulting group, has spent the last three years doing the detective work because he was not only intrigued about how the stream has shaped the city’s geography by feeding ponds and nourishing groves of trees, but also its development, since streets and buildings have to work around waterways and the ravines that they form.

“It’s as old as the peninsula, which was carved out some time in the last ice age,” he says when I ask him how long the brook has been around.

More recently, by the mid-1800s, from what he could tell, the brook started where the old Chebucto Road school now stands, probably because it was a low point between a nexus of ridges. (Main streets like Windsor and Oxford tended to be built on ridges.)

Some three kilometres later, it emptied into the harbour. Wonderfully, other than at a few street crossings, every bit of it gurgled and bubbled above ground.

In a Fenwick Street coffee shop, he thumbed through printouts of circa-1870 Halifax city atlases that showed how the brook ran north to south through the Commons. At Egg Pond, now a Halifax skateboard park, folks once swam and boated in the brook’s waters.

On what is now Summer Street, near where the Bengal Lancers riding stable is strategically located, the brook continued into the Public Gardens, where it fed Griffin’s Pond as well as the gardens greenhouses nearby.

From there, it headed south, through what is now Victoria Park — as per the Charlie’s conversation, another beneficiary of brook irrigation —before it cleaves what would become the southwest corner of Holy Cross Cemetery.

Then, it just kept going and going, Wedge said, straight to what is now Fenwick Tower and cut through where the Sobeys parking lot today stands.

It ran across what is now Queen Street — somewhere along the line, a high bridge for pedestrians and horses was built to circumvent it — then turned parallel to the lower section of Victoria Road.

Where Inglis Street meets modern-day Barrington Street, in the late 1880s known as Pleasant Street, Wedge figures the brook was its most expansive, a couple of metres wide and the same dimension deep.

In those days, it would have run underneath the so-called Kissing Bridge, secluded enough for young couples to get a little privacy from the prying eyes of chaperons.

Then, it would have essentially run through the eerie-looking pedestrian tunnel that now connects Barrington to Marginal Road. Beyond that, before the landfill arrived, was nothing but harbour.

Alas, it couldn’t last. By the end of the 19th century, with Halifax entering its period of expansion, we used the brook and all urban streams as sewers.

“They quickly became disgusting, so we capped them,” explained Wedge. Capping furthermore allowed us to build on top of the stream, increasing the amount of land that could be developed in the city’s south end. Most of the development around the Queen Street Sobeys-area exists because of land gained through capping the stream.

But signs of the brook’s presence still linger like a ghost. The elevator in the Museum of Natural History, it is said, sometimes hits water when it descends to the basement.

The basement of Fenwick Tower is known to flood.

Urban legend has it that the first foundations were laid for a business in the area they simply disappeared into the wet bog beneath.

Wedge has met people who swear that when they lived on Smith Street, they could hear a roaring sound. It’s crazy they would tell him, but it was almost like there was a waterfall, underneath the ground there somewhere.