Fort Needham and the Defence of Halifax and the Naval Yards
Fort Needham’s military history began with the American Revolution. In 1775, Commanding Royal Engineer, Colonel William Spry recognized the advantages of this hilltop, with its unobstructed views, to protect the naval dockyards and the backside of the city from overland attacks. He expropriated the upper 9 acres of James Pedley’s farm and built a pentagonal earthen redoubt on the hilltop where the tennis courts now exist. A blockhouse was later built 400m to the north of the redoubt.
Fort Needham was manned during the American and French Revolutions, Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, the Fort was decommissioned and the buildings were left to deteriorate, finally blowing down in a windstorm in 1825. Vestiges of the earthen ditch and berms remained visible until the 1950’s.
By the 1880’s Fort Needham was no longer important for defence purposes but the property was still retained by the military and used by the regiments stationed at the Wellington Barracks for training and recreation. The site was leased for cattle grazing and also became a popular spot for polo at the end of the 19th Century.
WWI and the Halifax Explosion – December 6th, 1917
During the First World War, Halifax played an important role in the war efforts. The newly formed Royal Canadian Navy was supplemented with the return of the British Navy which made Halifax their North American base of operations during the war. The Bedford Basin was used to marshal the supply ships destined for the trans-Atlantic convoys to Europe.
In the early morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the narrows of the Halifax Harbour, the inbound Mont Blanc, a French ship loaded with munitions, and the outbound Imo, a Belgian relief ship filled with supplies. Fort Needham Hill was a great vantage point for many to watch the commotion in the harbour. The Mont Blanc caught on fire and drifted toward the Halifax shore. It exploded near Pier 6 at the foot of Richmond Street. The wave of the blast rolled up the hill levelling everything in its wake. There are accounts of the force of the blast and the following tidal wave carrying people to the top of the hill.
The Halifax Memorial Bell Tower
The Halifax Relief Commission built the park as a memorial to those who suffered loss in the Explosion and there is a dedication plaque in the area that was once the rose garden. But, it wasn’t until 1984 that a befitting memorial was built to recognize the catastrophe. A citizen’s group raised money for the $400,000 memorial carillon that now sits on the hilltop. The tower looks straight down Richmond Street towards the harbour where Pier 6 was located, the point of the explosion. The Memorial Bell Tower houses the bells donated to the Kaye Street United Memorial Church in memory of the members of the Orr Family who died in the Explosion. Each year on the morning of December 6, there is a gathering to remember the catastrophe and observe a moment of silence which is followed by the playing of the bells.
Fort Needham Becomes a Memorial Park
In the aftermath of the Explosion, the federal and provincial governments created the Halifax Relief Commission to care for victims and oversee the reconstruction of the devastated area. In 1918 they hired prominent town planner, Thomas Adams to develop a plan to rebuild the Richmond area. The most notable outcome of his plan is the Hydrostone District which is classified today as a National Historic Site. Fort Needham Hill played prominently in Adam’s plan for the redevelopment of the Richmond District as a scenic hilltop public park. He recognized the natural beauty of the geography of Needham Hill, and had aspirations for it to be “‘splendid enough to rival Point Pleasant Park.”