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A Reminder of the Past

It’s amazing what Museum Geeks get excited about. I refer to “Museum Geeks” lovingly because they are in fact, experts in their field of study and highly passionate about their work (it is my pleasure to work with many of these fine individuals every day). “Geek” is a compliment and we need more of them in this world! However, I digress. It’s amazing what passionate individuals involved in immigration history get excited about. Recently, the whole museum was abuzz over a piece of charred wood. How did this come about, you might ask? Let me tell you!

The pedway, a connecting ramp between our offices in the Immigration Annex building at 1099 Marginal Road and the main museum across the street at 1055 Marginal Road, was recently renovated.


The pedway under construction. Photo by Ashley MacPherson.

This particular walkway holds historic significance at the Museum, and for many Canadians who passed through it, because it was once the passageway for newcomers to Canada, when Pier 21 operated as an immigration gateway (between the years 1928 and 1971). In the pedway, Customs Officers would check luggage for restricted items before newcomers would board the trains below. Standing in the space today, you can almost hear the clicking of locks and buckles from luggage being inspected. ! Once cleared by the Customs Officers, newcomers would board the trains waiting below and, often, travel across Canada to get to their new homes. There is an excellent model of what the buildings looked like at the time that is currently in the Museum’s main exhibition (I encourage you to come visit to check it out).

Back to the story! For the renovations to the pedway, we were fortunate to work with contractors who shared our passion for preserving the space with respect for its historic value. So it was not a big surprise that when a framer found a piece of charred wood, he notified our team. After a number of conversations and a historical review, we learned that the wood was actually a remnant from the March 5, 1944 fire.

Through further discussions with our historian and the reference of a few newspaper articles from The Chronicle Herald, we determined that the wood in question was from the fire that had started on the second floor of Pier 22 (next to Pier 21) in an area used to fumigate ships’ blankets (gross!). There was a great deal of damage but, as luck would have it, fire-stopping measures put in place two years before the fire had prevented it from engulfing the entire first floor. As repairs were underway, the immigration shed moved to a temporary location and clean-up crews worked to restore it. The charred wood discovered by our contractor was a remnant of that day. The remains of the fire had been built over and long forgotten about, but resurfaced through our renovation project. You never know what you will discover, whether through a physical trace of the past, or through stories and memories of the many individuals who passed through Pier 21, when you work in a national historic site of public memory like the Museum!

Today the pedway is once again used as a main access route between the Immigration Annex and Pier 21 building. Although now we cross it as part of our day-to-day activities at the Museum, it is a fantastic place to stop, look-out and reflect on the experiences of passersby from years ago. This link to the past is a reminder of the importance of the work that we do here — preserving the history and the stories of the newcomers who went on to shape Canada. Sometimes those reminders also come in unexpected ways…like in a charred piece of wood.


The completed pedway. Photo by Ashley MacPherson.