Monday, 27 July 2015

Following in Yuri Gagarin's Canadian Footsteps

Cyrus Eaton and Yuri Gagarin in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, August 5, 1961. image

Pugwash is a village in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, with a population of about 800 people. Located on Northumberland Strait opposite Prince Edward Island and not too far from the New Brunswick border, its main industries are lobster fishing and salt mining. 

Canada Day in Pugwash was the highlight of my recent visit to Nova Scotia, a trip that included several days in Halifax and an excursion to Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, the site of the first airplane flight in Canada. For someone interested in aeronautics and space exploration, what could top Baddeck? Well, Pugwash could.

A friend I was visiting in Canada’s Ocean Playground wanted to take part in the annual July 1 Gathering of the Clans in Pugwash, and I readily agreed to the excursion. A big reason was that Pugwash is the site of the only visit to Canada (or North America) by Yuri Gagarin, the first human to venture into outer space.

While in Pugwash, I enjoyed some great pipe bands at the Gathering of the Clans, and I was also able to gather some information about Gagarin's historic visit to Nova Scotia.

Gagarin’s visit stems from Pugwash’s political claim to fame, which began in the depths of the Cold War. Cyrus Eaton (1883-1979), a millionaire who was born in Pugwash but resided in the United States once he made his fortune there, set up the first of a series of conferences of intellectuals and scientists in Pugwash in 1957 to discuss issues arising out of the existence of nuclear weapons.

The Pugwash conferences were more warmly embraced by the leadership of the Soviet Union than the United States, and so not long after Gagarin made his historic space flight aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to dispatch Gagarin to Pugwash. 

Immediately after his flight, Gagarin had been feted in Red Square in Moscow and in other capitals of Soviet-aligned countries in Eastern Europe. In July, Gagarin visited Great Britain and met the Queen, and late that month he headed for Cuba and Brazil. On Saturday, August 5, 1961, Gagarin arrived from Brazil at Halifax International Airport, where he was greeted by a crowd of more than 300 people. 

He was immediately driven the 100 miles to Pugwash, passing through villages where curious locals lined the road.  

There was no conference going on at the time, so a program for Gagarin was improvised. He was paraded through the village to a local bandstand where he was entertained by the Amherst Legion Brass Band and the Dunvegan Girls Pipe Band and Dancers, and took in presentations from the Little League, local 4-H clubs and a Red Cross swimming class. Gagarin and Eaton spoke to a crowd estimated at 2,500 people, along with the Soviet ambassador and local dignitaries. A newspaper account called the event “an abbreviated version of the Gathering of the Clans." 

Gagarin also visited Thinkers Lodge, the rambling white wooden house on one of the most spectacular spots in Pugwash that Eaton had donated for the Pugwash conferences, and promised reporters that there would be exciting new Soviet space achievements “very soon.” 

The world’s first spaceman was as good as his word. That evening he went to Eaton’s farm in Deep Cove on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, where he looked forward to a day off from his official duties. But Gagarin was roused early the next morning with news that his backup and friend, Gherman Titov, had been launched into orbit on a 17-orbit, 25-hour flight. Gagarin was granted his wish to return to the Soviet Union, and a few hours later, he was back at Halifax airport, this time with a crowd of nearly 1,000 people to see him off. 

The Illyushin-18 airliner's takeoff was delayed for two hours due to mechanical problems, and Gagarin was cheered by the crowd whenever he appeared during the wait. But in the middle of the afternoon, barely 30 hours after he arrived, he was on his way to Moscow for the celebrations of Titov’s flight.

Although Gagarin would travel widely in the years ahead, he would never return to North America. He died in the crash of his jet aircraft in 1968, and entered the pantheon of Soviet heroes. His popularity has outlived the Soviet Union, and among the many honours he was given during and after his life, his name adorns the trophy that signifies supremacy in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s and eastern Europe’s version of the NHL. 

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs have also outlasted the Cold War. Pugwash’s continuing work to eradicate the threat from nuclear weapons was recognized in 1995 with the Nobel Peace Prize, which was on view in the Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash when I came to visit, along with photos of Gagarin’s visit. 

The Clan Thompson Pipe Band from Stellarton NS marches by Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash NS, at the Gathering of the Clans on July 1, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

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