Chances are if you’ve never visited Hemlock Ravine Park, or been there once years ago, you are in the majority of HRM residents. Everyone knows and loves Point Pleasant Park and the Public Gardens, but Hemlock Ravine is their unassuming, lesser-known cousin. Most people (like myself) know very little about the park. Some likely don’t know of its existence, others may know it exists but are unsure exactly where it is.
My knowledge stopped at the heart-shaped pond, and the old white round building off of the Bedford Highway. The round-house has always had a mystique to me since I was a child. Perhaps because it is tucked away on an odd perch along the Bedford Highway. Another factor could have been folklore that a man once went insane in there because he could not find a corner to pee in. The latter being an early lesson in East Coast folklore and comedy from my mother.
Part 1: History
In 1780, Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor, John Wentworth resided on the grounds. Wentworth happens to be the same man who built the current Government House on Barrington Street. In 1794, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent arrived in Halifax to command the garrison. Wentworth then lent the estate to him, where he and his French mistress, Julie St. Laurent lived.
Edward turned the grounds into heavily landscaped pleasure gardens, built ornamental temples, waterfalls, a grotto and a pond (originally larger than the current one, and oval-shaped). The retreat was the social center of the colony for the local elite, and activities included garden parties, picnics, concerts, and winter skating parties on the pond after sleigh rides from Halifax.
In 1800, Edward and St. Laurent left Halifax, and the grounds were turned over to Governor Wentworth, who moved out shortly, and the grounds fell into disrepair but remained popular with locals for its natural beauty and ideal setting for a country picnic. When Prince Arthur (Prince Edward’s Grandson) arrived in Halifax in 1869, he re-shaped the pond into its current heart shape, in dedication to the 27 years that Prince Edward and Julie St. Laurent spent together.
By the 1950s, all that remained of the original estate was the muddy pond, and one decorative temple; the round music rotunda.
Part 3: Nature
The city of Halifax has owned the 200-acre grounds since 1977. Literally and figuratively, the biggest treasures in the park are the towering 300-year-old Hemlock trees that grow along the banks of the Ravine. The Eastern Hemlock tree can live up to 450 years and aside from their large size, they can be identified by their droopy, feathery, dark green, flat needle foliage in flat sprays of branches and their unusually small cones.
Large hemlocks were once common throughout Nova Scotia, but extensive logging greatly reduced their numbers and all but eliminated old stands. Hemlocks are considered a softwood but are actually incredibly hard. Natives made a poultice (a medicinal, warm compress) from the inner bark, and early settlers made hemlock tea to induce sweating (not to be confused with the poison that Socrates drank, which is from an un-related herb).
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