Horse-Drawn Sleigh Drives in Nineteenth-Century Halifax

A pageant for onlookers and an afternoon of fun and feasting for a fortunate few, horse-drawn sleigh drives were a popular winter activity for dignitaries, wealthy merchants, and garrison men in Halifax in the nineteenth century.

The beginning of horse-drawn sleigh drives can be traced back to the time of Prince Edward during the last years of the eighteenth century. They died out after he returned to England in 1800. However, sleigh drives were revived in 1821 with the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Kempt, who took pleasure in all outdoor activities. Early in January of that year, the harbour froze over, and as Thomas E. Aikens describes, by the 27th of that month,

the ice had formed a firm bridge between Halifax and Dartmouth, over which a continuous line of sleighs, teams and foot passengers might be seen on market days. Skating and sleighing parties were numerous. The Governor, Sir James Kempt, drove tandem almost to McNab's Island, and the double sleigh of Judge Brenton Halliburton, in passing over a weak spot in the ice, fell through but was rescued without damage to the horses or the ladies in the sleigh.

While the mishap put the damper on sleigh drives for a few years, in the winter of 1826-27, with the formation of a "Sleigh Club" called the Acadian Union Club, sleigh drives became an institution in Halifax. In his 1919 essay on Halifax inns and coffee houses, historian George Mullane contends that the club was created by naval and military officers and headed by Captain Canning of HMS Nieman, who arrived in Halifax early in 1827. Mullane states that membership was numerous and included "The judges and other grave functionaries of the law…the official dignitaries of all degrees; the wealthiest merchants, and, of course, the whole of the garrison. The laws of the club were simple and easily observed. A president and vice-president were elected every week, whose duties were, the first to lead; the latter to bring up the rear of the cortege."

On early Sunday afternoons, the club would rendezvous on the Parade Square. In his nostalgic "Early Reminiscences of Halifax" from 1887, Peter Lynch paints a colourful picture of the scene:

At the head of the club rode the Captain of the day always with a six in hand. After him the Governor with a fine team of four horses, and […] tandems without number, all forming a continuous line of splendid horses, handsome sleighs and gaily dressed people from South Street to the Provincial Building, all entranced by many notes of the mellow horn and the continued shouting of the crowds which lined the street on either side.

With the blast of a bugle the procession drove down Sackville Street and pulled up in front of Miller's Hotel on Granville Street. Lynch describes:

At once the hotel doors were thrown open and the servants of the house together with those of the several [military] messes and others streamed forth in their gay liveries bearing trays laden with cakes, confections and steaming hot negus […], and having distributed their welcome contents amongst the whole party the merry bugle again broke upon the clear frosty air and the whole party in order swept along the streets on their way to Fultz's 12 Mile House.

Fultz's Twelve Mile House wasn't the only destination for sleigh drives. Mullane describes that after departing Miller's Hotel, with "the caracoling of steeds, the waving of plumes, the merry cry of the charioteers, and the mellow tones of the horn or bugle," the pageant would trot briskly to Nine Mile House on the Bedford Road "at the extremity of the Basin," where dinner was ready and waiting. The inn was known for its cuisine: "Hot turkeys, smoking caribou steaks, reindeer tongues, pickled herrings from Digby, bear-hams from Annapolis, cheer brandy, noyau, and Prince Edward Island whiskey." After the guests partook of their favorite delicacies, during which there was much toasting and formal speeches, they were homeward bound. The scenes along the road to Bedford and the Basin were bewitching on bright nights; and arriving "at Dutch Town, the sleighs drew off to their separate destinations." Over the years, many more clubs were established, and sleigh drives became a popular recreational activity for everyone. The sport did not die out until near the end of the century.