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The Immigrants: The Story of a Photograph

A group of men, women and some children are gathered in the deck of a boat.

One of the visual icons of immigration to North America are photographs of newly-arrived immigrants, dockside just after their arrival.

Thank you to Back in Time Photos for this image.

This photograph of immigrants arriving at Pier 2 in Halifax just before the First World War is one of my favourite examples of this genre of photography. We recently featured this image in a new panel about Pier 2 in our permanent exhibit. The people, their ship and the date are unknown. Nevertheless, the photograph is a compelling piece of history, in part thanks to the immigrants’ evocative expressions. They appear to be from Eastern Europe and have arrived at Pier 2 in Halifax during Canada’s peak years of immigration in 1913-14. The group gives us a wonderful range of faces and possible emotional readings around the moment of arrival. The older men in the centre present us with serious and dignified faces, in amusing contrast to the goofy looks of the teenage boys behind them. The women on the right appear much happier, no doubt relieved to be safe in harbour after a cold, and probably boisterous, crossing of the North Atlantic. The exception is one woman with a colourful shawl who regards us with a haunted look of uncertainty. My favourite face is the little girl on the far left with her hands on her hips and a look that indicates she is ready to take on all that awaits in the new continent.

The photograph is by Harry Cochrane (1886-1970), a little-known, but talented photographer in early 20th Century Halifax. The photograph belongs to the Back in Time Photo Collection in Halifax who rescued Cochrane’s glass plate negatives from a Halifax basement. Cochrane was himself an immigrant, born in Manchester, England. He immigrated with his family, first to Rhode Island and then in 1895 to Halifax. He became a well-known musician in Halifax, an orchestra leader and a sought-after pianist for silent movie theatres. He was also interested in photography and took hundreds of carefully composed photographs of Halifax people and landscapes.

This photograph is undated but the location is at Pier 2 which was the immigration terminal in Halifax from the 1880s until the First World War. Located just north of the present Halifax Casino, Pier 2 was replaced by Pier 21 in 1928. The photograph was taken during a period of construction as can be seen by the towers of the two pile-drivers behind the immigrants. This suggests the image dates from 1914, when Pier 2 was given a major rebuild. The heavy coats and hands in pockets suggest the winter of 1913-1914. The immigrants are on the foreward well-deck of a steamship. Judging by the cramped positioning of the booms and railings, this was one of the smaller liners of the era. Sadly, the lifeboat and life ring bear no inscription. How Harry Cochrane managed to talk himself aboard the ship with his camera and tripod is also an interesting question.

It would be great to add to our knowledge of this photograph, so if you recognize an ancestor among these faces, we would love to hear from you!