The Pit

Merv Sullivan Park in north-end Halifax is often called The Pit by people who may not realize that it was actually a gravel pit! Today it’s a lovely urban park and baseball field.

In its early days it was worked by prisoners at Rockhead Prison, which was just across the street at what is now the corner of Novalea Drive and Leeds Street.

The prison, also called Halifax’s City Prison, opened in 1860 on the Rockhead farm, which was then about two miles outside Halifax on the northern end of the peninsula. The site was 40 acres and the prison held a maximum of 120 inmates. Within two years of its opening, 39 males and 31 females were incarcerated. The prisoners were all sentenced to two years or less.

Inmates were required to do physical labour, which was common in Victorian prisons. Many worked on the prison farm where they grew potatoes and other vegetables to feed the inmates. Some worked in the quarry breaking stone into small pieces so the broken rock could be sold to the City Street Commissioners to be used in road construction. According to the Fairview Historical Society, it wasn’t until 1868 that a mechanical rock crusher was put into operation.

Living conditions for the poor in that era were bad enough that “self-sentencing” at Rockhead Prison was not uncommon – people would voluntarily stay in the prison as inmates during colder months, exchanging physical labour for free room and board. Some prisoners' records noted that they were "allowed to stay for the winter."

The prison closed around September 1969 when inmates were transferred to the new Halifax County Correctional Centre in Sackville. Rockhead Prison was demolished in the 1970s and the area was developed for housing.

In the 1940s the quarry was owned by the Fairview Crushed Stone Company and referred to as the Hennigar Stone Quarry. Fairview Crushed Stone also owned a quarry at what is now a car dealership at 44 Bedford Highway. The company provided aggregate to the city for construction. It's rumoured that stone from the quarry was used in the building of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge which spans Halifax harbour.

The site was later known as the L. W. Allen Ltd. Gravel Pit. In 1967, it was used to stockpile fill (soil and rock) excavated in preparation for the construction of the IWK hospital. In 1968 fill from the Scotia Square construction site was taken to the quarry. The fill may have been used to help reclaim the site since it closed not long after, during the years when the area was developed for housing.

Fortunately, the mining and quarrying industry does not use prison labour today! In fact, we are Nova Scotia’s highest-paying resource industry.