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Samuel Cunard's 175th business anniversary celebrated

05/22/2015 06:05 EDT | Updated 05/22/2016 05:59 EDT
A Halifax businessman who dreamed of "owning the North Atlantic" is being celebrated today on the 175th anniversary of his first effort to claim the ocean for his shipping line.  

Samuel Cunard was born on Halifax's Brunswick Street in 1787. As a young man, he worked for his father in the timber business and watched that expand into whale, coal and iron — and then shipping.

In 1830, he broke new ground by running the first steam-powered ferries between Halifax and Dartmouth across Halifax Harbour.

Cunard's expansion into the brand-new technology of steam was a visionary move, says Richard MacMichael, the coordinator of visitor services and interpretive programming at Nova Scotia's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

"Cunard is convinced steam is here to stay. The great thing to watch is Cunard's progress from 1830 to 1839; his ambition explodes from crossing Halifax harbour to owning the North Atlantic," he says.

He grew quite wealthy by the 1830s and turned his attention to the Cunard Line.

The Merchant Prince

MacMichael said the famous company nearly had a different name. "The family was originally Quakers from Pennsylvania. When they arrived in Canada, they were named Cunders, but that got massaged by the guys at customs, so Cunard it was," he says.

In 1840, Cunard's Britannia established the first year-round scheduled Atlantic Ocean steamship service, running from Halifax to Liverpool, U.K.

The Haligonian known as the Merchant Prince set his company up to dominate the North Atlantic for a century. 

Cunard kept working at home, hiring Irish and Scottish stonemasons to Nova Scotia to build a modern-day wonder: the Shubenacadie Canal. The water route connected the Halifax Harbour to the Bay of Fundy.

Like any business leader, he occasionally lost his golden touch.

"He sought to revive whaling in Halifax and outfitting ships that traveled to the South Pacific in search of whales and whale oil. His voyages were mediocre successes at best," says Roger Marsters, the curator of marine history for the museum.

Troop ships

Its Cunard exhibit on the Halifax waterfront is a big draw. It features company and family artifacts, along with scale models of the many ships from the Cunard line.

Cunard's troop ships served the country long after his death in 1865, taking soldiers to fight on the First and Second World War.

Few celebrations are planned in his hometown of Halifax, where it took 150 years for the city to erect a statue to him. But the people of Liverpool are planning are seven-week celebration of Cunard. The Cunard line is celebrating the anniversary on every cruise in 2015.

They also created a short video telling the Cunard Line story in two minutes.

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