This Day in History – April 1st

By Dan Rankin

1873 – The White Star steamer RMS Atlantic sinks off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing over 500 people – In early April over 100 years ago, a White Star ocean liner bound for New York sunk off the coast of Canada’s Atlantic provinces, and hundreds of people drowned. This may sound like an account of the infamous Titanic disaster, but it is also an accurate description of the fate of the RMS Atlantic. The White Star Line was first founded in Liverpool, England in 1845, and acquired its first steamship in 1863. The company went bankrupt and, in 1868, White Star was bought by the wealthy Thomas Ismay, whose son Joseph survived the Titanic’s maiden voyage. The ill-fated Atlantic was one of White Star’s original six “Oceanic” class liners, which, beginning in 1871, operated between New York and Liverpool. It was over 400 feet in length, and could carry over 1,100 passengers. In 1873, the Atlantic was en route for New York on its 19th voyage when, low on coal and in the middle of a vicious storm, the crew decided to divert course to Halifax to make port. However, attempting to enter Halifax Harbour the ship drifted miles off course due to poor visibility and, around 3:00 am on this date in 1873, struck rocks and sank in shallow waters off the coast of Nova Scotia. Though they were quite close to shore, most of the people on board drowned. All 156 women on board died, as did all but one of the 189 children. Around 540 people died in all, leaving only 371 survivors. A Canadian inquiry into the disaster blamed the captain and crew for committing serious navigational errors, and apparently failing to notice a nearby lighthouse, although a British Board of Trade investigation cleared the company. The sinking of the Atlantic was, at the time, the worst North Atlantic civilian maritime disaster of the 19th Century, and remained the worst disaster for the White Star Line until the sinking of the Titanic 39 years later. Artifacts from the wreck, which still lies, heavily fragmented, less than 60 feet below the surface near Halifax, can be seen in the city’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

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1891 – The Wrigley Company is founded in Chicago – In early 1891, entrepreneur William Wrigley, Jr. arrived in the city of Chicago from Philadelphia with $32 to his name and an idea to start a “scouring soap” (kitchen cleaner) business. He started the Wrigley Company on this date in 1891, selling items including his soap and baking powder. The following year, to promote the business, he began packaging chewing gum along with the baking powder… and it wasn’t long before the idea of selling chewing gum became far more promising for him. In 1926, Wrigley, who was by then majority owner of the Chicago Cubs, renamed their home field Wrigley Field. By the time he died in 1932, leaving the business to his son Philip, the company had already released their popular flavours Juicy Fruit, Spearmint and Doublemint. Under the tenure of Philip’s son William Wrigley III, who was CEO from 1961 to 1999, the company rapidly expanded into new countries. In 1974, the very first product ever to be scanned with a UPC (Universal Product Code) bar code was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit. Today, Wrigley’s gum is sold in over 180 countries and is by far the largest manufacturer and marketer of chewing gum in the world. Coincidentally, another major American corporation also has a connection to April 1. In the garage of Paul and Clara Jobs’ Los Altos, California home on this date in 1976, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne formed Apple Inc. Their original product was a computer motherboard, lacking a monitor or keyboard, called the Apple I. Apple Computer Inc. was incorporated in January 1977, after Wayne had sold his shares of the company back to Jobs and Wozniak for the depressingly low figure of $800.

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1957 – A BCC documentary focuses on Switzerland’s spaghetti farming industry – On this date in 1957, BBC television viewers were treated to a short three-minute newsreel documentary describing the lives of Switzerland’s spaghetti farmers. “The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer,” said well-respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. “There’s always the chance of a late frost, which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets.” Black-and-white footage showed several women plucking strands of spaghetti off a number of trees, that they then left in the sun to dry. “Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry,” he continued. “Many of you, I’m sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley.” He also commented on how 1957 was sure to be a bumper year for the farmers, due to the disappearance of the “Spaghetti Weevil.” It was, of course, an April Fool’s prank, and possibly the first time such a prank was aired on television. Some viewers sent letters critical of the BBC for airing the gag during what was supposed to be a serious factual program, but others expressed an interest in growing their own spaghetti bush. At the time, spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in the UK and considered something of a delicacy. The short clip can be found on YouTube.

1999 – Nunavut becomes Canada’s third territory – In 1976, as part of the land claims negotiations between a national Inuit organiization and the federal government, they first discussed dividing the Northwest Territories to provide a separate territory for the Inuit people. On April 14, 1982, a plebiscite on division was held throughout the Northwest Territories, with a majority of the residents voting in favour of it. The land claims agreement was completed in September 1992 and ratified by nearly 85 percent of the voters in what would become Nunavut in a referendum. On July 9, 1993, Canadian Parliament passed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act, paving the way for the establishment of Nunavut Territory on this date in 1999. It was the first major change to Canada’s political map since the incorporation of the new province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949, and instantly made Nunavut Canada’s largest, northernmost and least populous territory. Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut. Its capital, Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) is located on Baffin Island, and is the territory’s largest community, with a population of about 6,700. Nunavut’s total population of almost 32,000 is just a little larger than that of Stratford, but spread over a land area of over 1.8 million square km – roughly the size of Western Europe. If Nunavut itself were a country, it would rank 15th in area. Nunavut is also home to the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, Alert, which has a population of rotating military and scientific personnel, usually of around 5. Some notable residents include NHL player Jordin Tootoo, who grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and Juno Award-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, from Cambridge Bay.

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