Pier 21

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Pier 21
Pier 21 2010 1.JPG
Pier 21
Official name: Pier 21 National Historic Site of Canada
Designated 1997

Pier 21 was an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed from 1928 to 1971 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Over one million immigrants came to Canada through Pier 21 and it is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada.[1] The facility is often compared to the landmark American immigration gateway Ellis Island.[2] The immigration terminal facility is now occupied by the Canadian Museum of Immigration, part of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design as well as various retail and studio tenants.


RMS Majestic in Halifax in 1934. Pier 20 to left, Pier 21 to right

Halifax Harbour, along with Quebec City and Victoria, British Columbia were the major ports of entry for immigration to Canada in the steamship era. Pier 2 in Halifax's North End, also known at the "Deepwater Piers", was built in 1880 to process immigrants arriving on ocean liners. It also served as a major terminal for troopships and hospital ships in World War I. However by 1913, the peak year of immigration in Canada, it was clear that the growing size of ocean liners and increase in immigration would require a larger facility. Plans were made for a new integrated ocean liner and railway facility in the South End of Halifax.[3]


Construction was delayed by World War I and the Halifax Explosion. However by 1928 the Halifax Harbour Commission oversaw the completion of ocean terminals, a large complex of freight piers, grain elevators, a new train station and a 600-foot, two-story shed that would be home to Pier 21. The shed with an area of 221,00 square feet was built of steel truss-work with brick walls and wood roofs was divided into Pier 20, 21 and 22 which faced a long sea wall which could handle the biggest liners in operation. The immigration facility was based at Pier 21 which contained the assembly hall for immigrants as well as medical and detention quarters. Adjacent to the Pier 21 shed was a one story brick annex building connected to the shed by an overhead walkway. The annex contained immigration offices, customs, a railway booking office and passenger train sidings for special immigration trains as well as offices for immigration charities and a restaurant where immigrants could get meals before their long train journeys to the west. Another overhead walkway connected the Pier 21 terminal to the Halifax, Nova Scotia railway station.[4]


New arrivals at Pier 21 in 1952

Pier 21 opened on March 28, 1928 as the Holland America liner SS Nieuw Amsterdam became the first ship to bring immigrants to Canada through the new terminal. Pier 21 would serve as a passenger terminal for trans-Atlantic ocean liners from 1928 until 1971. The Pier was the primary point of entry for over one million immigrants and refugees from Europe and elsewhere, as well as the departure point for 496,000 military personal Canadian troops during World War Two. The facility became known informally as the 'Gateway to Canada.'

In its first years of operation, Pier 21 greeted many Dutch and English immigrants as well as workers sponsored by employers. However the Great Depression led to severe restrictions in immigration and arrival numbers fell. Pier 21 did see early use as a cruise ship terminal during the Depression as giant White Star liners such as the RMS Olympic and Majestic were employed in summer recreational cruises from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia during slack periods of Trans-Atlantic crossings.[5]

World War II[edit]

Letitia as a hospital ship arriving at Pier 21

The war brought immigration to a halt but Pier 21 quickly became a major embarkation port for troop ships. Canadians and other Allied forces boarded converted ocean liners such as the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. As the war continued, a special medical embarkation unit was established at Pier 21 to move wounded soldiers from hospital ships to special hospital trains as the hospital ships Lady Nelson and Letitia brought wounded Canadians home. At the war's end the Pier welcomed returning troops followed by war brides. A large fire heavily damaged Pier 21 on March 5, 1944 causing the central portion of the facility to be rebuilt in time to handle returning soldiers and war brides in 1945.[6] A large two-story addition was built onto the immigration annex building in 1958 to handle the heavy traffic of postwar European immigration.


The Pier 21 complex in 2014 with a cruise ship docked at the former immigration shed and assembly hall connected by the overhead walkway to the immigration annex

Following the war brides, several major waves of immigrants arrived at Pier 21 beginning with the Displaced Person refugees from Europe followed by post war economic immigrants from several European countries such Britain, the Netherlands and Italy. The 1950s marked the peak years of immigration arrivals. A decline in ocean liner travel due to the rise of jet airliner travel during the 1960s caused immigration to shift to airports. With few ships calling at Pier 21, the terminal was used in its final years to handle overflown from airport immigration offices.[7] The last group of immigrants were 100 Cuban refugees from the Gander International Airport who were transferred to Pier 21 in 1970 to be accommodated while their refugee claims were processed.[8] Pier 21 closed its doors in March 1971. The facility was used for storage and cargo handling while the Immigration annex was used by customs officials and the Halifax ports police. Artists rented many of the former immigration halls and offices for studio space.

In 1997 the Pier 21 facility was designated a National Historic Site of Canada on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada because of its major role in 20th century immigration in Canada and because it is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada.[9] The Pier 21 Society opened an interpretive centre in part of the former immigration facility in 1999. The society became the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in 2010, occupying an expanded portion of the former immigration facility. The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design's seaport campus took over Pier 21's former medical, detention and accommodation wing in 2011. The garrison brewing company leased a large portion of the immigration annex building in May 2006.[10] A variety of retail shops as well as artists and architect's studios and cultural organizations occupy the remainder of the immigration annex.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Commemorating Our History", Parks Canada Heritage, Collections Canada website
  2. ^ Eliis Island was the major gateway for American immigration during an overlapping period of 1892 to 1954. The quarantine station at Grosse Isle, Quebec (1832-1932) also shares the Canada's Ellis Island comparison.
  3. ^ Alexa Thompson and Debi van de Wiel, Pier 21: An Illustrated History of Canada's gateway Halifax: Nimbus Publishing (2002), p. 15
  4. ^ Thompson, van de Wiel, p. 31
  5. ^ "SS Bismark/RMS Majestic", Monsters of the Sea: The Great Ocean Liners of Time
  6. ^ "Pier 21 is Gutted by 12 hour Fire", An East Coast port, Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
  7. ^ Pier 21
  8. ^ Thompson, van de Wiel, p. 120
  9. ^ Pier 21. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
  10. ^ "Garrison Today", Garrison Brewing Company

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]