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 as 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 221,000 square feet for freight 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 took over the second floor of the shed at Pier 21 to house the assembly hall for immigrants as well as medical and detention quarters. Adjacent to the Pier 21 shed was a two story brick annex building connected to the shed by an overhead walkway. The annex contained immigration offices, customs, a railway booking office and telegraph office as well as offices for immigration charities and a restaurant where immigrants could get meals before their long train journeys to the west. Railway passenger platforms on both sides of the annex served five long passenger and express tracks which served Pier 21. Large special immigrant passenger trains made up of dozens of colonist cars would take passengers from Halifax to new homes across Canada. A second overhead walkway crossed the tracks to connect the Pier 21 terminal to the Halifax, Nova Scotia railway station where more affluent travelers could board regularly scheduled trains such as the Ocean Limited.[4]


New arrivals at Pier 21 in 1952

Pier 21 opened on March 28, 1928 as the Holland America liner SS Nieuw Amsterdam (I) 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 became a cruise ship destination during the Depression as giant liners were employed in summer recreational cruises from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia during slack periods of Trans-Atlantic crossings. Pier 21 hosted the largest White Star liners such as the RMS Olympic and Majestic[5] as well as the Cunard liners RMS Berengaria, RMS Mauretania, RMS Aquitania and Red Star Liners Belgenland.[6]

World War II[edit]

Letitia as a hospital ship arriving at Pier 21

The war brought immigration to a complete halt but Pier 21 quickly became a major embarkation port for troop ships. Canadians and other Allied forces boarded hundreds of converted ocean liners ranging from the giants RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth to smaller liners such as RMS Ascania. 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. Most of the over 90,000 aviators who came to Canada as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were landed at Pier 21. Over 2,000 child evacuees from the United Kingdom arrived at Pier 21 during the war, fleeing the Blitz. Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands arrived at Pier 21 amidst ceremony aboard the Dutch cruiser HNLMS Sumatra in 1940 after the invasion of the Netherlands, en route to wartime refuge in Ottawa. Winston Churchill passed through Pier 21 four times, traveling in 1943 and 1944 to the Quebec Conference and the Washington Conference. During the latter trip he led a sing-along of O Canada and The Maple Leaf Forever at the Pier 21 railway platform where hundreds had gathered to see him.[7] Enormous amounts of gold bullion were secretly shipped through Pier 21 during the war to banks in Ottawa and Montreal to safeguard currency reserves of beleaguered European nations. Britain alone shipped over 2.5 billion in gold reserves in 50 different shipments codenamed variously as "margarine" or "peanuts" from 1939 to 1941.[8] 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.[9]


The Pier 21 complex in 2014 with a cruise ship docked at the former immigration shed and assembly hall. The immigration annex can be seen in the foreground, connected by an overhead walkway, through which immigrants walked from customs to the trains that took them across Canada.

Following the war brides, several major waves of immigrants arrived at Pier 21 beginning with the Displaced Person refugees from across Europe, including many Holocaust survivors. These refugees were followed by large numbers of post war economic immigrants from several European countries such Britain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. The 1950s marked the peak years of immigration arrivals. A large two-story addition was built onto the immigration annex building in the 1950s to handle the heavy traffic of postwar European immigration. The Hungarian Uprising in 1956 brought another group of refugees to Pier 21, although some of this wave were now arriving by aircraft. The 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 more often in its final years to handle overflown from airport immigration offices.[10] The last major 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.[11] Pier 21 closed its doors in March 1971. The last ship to bring immigrants to Pier 21 in 1971 was the SS Nieuw Amsterdam (II) which ironically bore the same name as the first ship to bring immigrants to the Pier in 1928. The empty immigration shed was used for storage, cargo handling and seamanship instruction 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. The growth of the cruise ship industry in the 1980s led to return of large passenger ships to the Pier 21 wharves but only for short recreational visits. Some of the former immigration terminal areas in Shed 20 and 22 was converted in stages to cruise ship passenger reception and retail spaces.

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.[12] 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.[13] 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. '^ "Cruising to Canada", Canada's Ocean Playground' The Tourism Industry in Nova Scotia, 1870-1970, Nova Scotia Archives
  7. ^ Wiliam Naftel, Halifax at War: Searchlights, Squadrons and Submarines 1939-1945, Halifax: Formac Publishing (2008), p. 113
  8. ^ Naftel, p. 106
  9. ^ "Pier 21 is Gutted by 12 hour Fire", An East Coast port, Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
  10. ^ Pier 21
  11. ^ Thompson, van de Wiel, p. 120
  12. ^ Pier 21. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
  13. ^ "Garrison Today", Garrison Brewing Company

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