Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977


Everett Milley

E Milley

Gander airport had its first beginnings in late 1936 when brush cutting for the original runways began.  Heavy construction really got moving in the spring of 1937 and construction crews moved in.  Everett Milley, Gander’s first postmaster, moved here in 1938.  He recalls that by the time he moved here only a short section of one of the runways had been completed.  Mr. Milley came to Gander from Western Bay where he had also worked as a postmaster and telegraph operator

railway stationThe telegraph business and post office work, from the time the first construction crew landed in Gander from 1935-38 was handled by the Newfoundland Railway.  The post office, which measured approximately 10’ x 12’, was located near where the present railway station stands on the airport.

At the time Mr. Milley came to Gander there were approximately eight or nine hundred men employed on the construction of the airport.  Building an airport in those days was a far greater task than it is today because they had no heavy equipment and most of the work was done by pick, shovel and wheelbarrow

There were no streets on Gander, accommodation for the construction workers consisted of construction shacks, cookhouses, and one small staff house which was mainly used by the engineering and supervisory staff

How was Gander chosen as the land base site?  Well, the B.O.A.C. came to Newfoundland to find a good place for a land base.  Engineers from the United Kingdom and from the Newfoundland Department of Public Works were directed to the Gander site by the old Newfoundland Railway employees.  At that time Gander was known as “Hattie’s Camp,” it took its name from a sawmill operation, named Hattie who operated a sawmill many years previous to 1936, in the general location of the present railway station.  Mr. Milley said that when he came to Gander that site was nothing but a pile of sawdust.  When the brush cutters moved in all the mail which came was addressed to “Hattie’s Camp”.  Later Hatties Camp took the name of the Newfoundland Airport; this was the official name until 1942 when the nomenclature board changed the name to Gander.  This name was chosen for the simple reason that the airport was built on the banks of Gander Lake which drained by Gander River into Gander Bay.

In those days there was no telephone system across Newfoundland and all point to point communications were handled by the old Newfoundland Department of Post and Telegraphs.

During the summer of 1938 the pace of construction of the airport increased.  By the end of the ’38 construction season much of the original runways had taken shape and or were paved.

The first aircraft to land at Gander was a “Fairchild” piloted by Capt. Doug Fraser of St. John’s, Newfoundland on January 11, 1938.  A picture of Capt. Fraser and his plane along with the propeller of the Fairchild can be seen in the Newfoundland Airport Club at Gander today.

Construction of Gander’s first administration building which was commenced in 1937 was completed in the fall of 1938 and in November of that year the airport manager, Sqd. Leader Patterson of the RAF moved in from Botwood with his complete administration staff, wireless division, meteorological branch and other airport facilities.  Incidentally, Gander’s first chief Meteorologist was Mr. Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, who subsequently became head of the Canadian Meteorological department.

With the opening of the Administration building the permanent public services also moved in, including the Post and Telegraph Office, the opening of this building marked the first major change from construction to a more settled or civilian type of living for Gander.  Permanent homes had been constructed simultaneously with the construction of the Administration building on what was known as Chestnut Avenue.

Some form of roads began to take shape around the perimeter of the runways and transportation, at least during the summer months, was more simplified, however, during the winter the main mode of transportation used by many people going to and from work were skis and it was not an unusual sight to see the airport manager and those of the Administration staff, who lived outside of the building winding their way to work in this manner.

In addition to office space the Administration building provided accommodation for all of the unmarried staff.  The building housed dining facilities, a theatre, recreation room and a cocktail lounge.  The building was also the first home of the Newfoundland Airport club, which was the first club of its kind to retail alcoholic beverages in Newfoundland.

Entertainment as is known today was practically non-existent in Gander then so they had to make their own fun, but of course, then there was little time for fun because we had to work six days a week and some of us had to work Sundays as well.  “Overtime” was unknown in those times.  They worked on an average of 65 hour weeks so there really wasn’t very much time for entertainment.  The Newfoundland Airport Club and related entertainment facilities provided in the Administration Building were the only indoor entertainment available to the forty or fifty residents who worked in the building and to a slightly lesser extent the married permanent residents of Gander or Newfoundland Airport as it was known at the time.

Since all residents of the building were male, mixed social functions were limited; however, occasional dinner and dance parties were arranged.  There were no highways across Newfoundland at that time and the old Newfoundland railway was utilized by special train, freight train, or otherwise to bring in groups of female guests from Grand Falls, Botwood and other nearby towns.  “Needless to say,” Mr. Milley said, “these socials were avidly looked forward to by the lonely male residents of Gander.

During the summer and winter there was no lack of outdoor recreational activities.  Every stream, pond and lake abounded with large mud and sea trout and even the most seemingly exaggerated fish story told today by the early residents of Gander might well be authentic.  Skiing was a popular winter sport and the ski run on Gander Lake hill, even with our limited population in those days probably had greater use than it does today.  Hockey, too, had already become a popular sport and the winter of 1939 saw the formation of Gander’s first hockey team.  “True, we did not win any Provincial ‘laurels’, said Mr. Milley, “and we probably spent as much time shoveling snow from the outdoor ice surface as we did skating, however, what was lacking in facilities was made up in interest and competition.

In the spring of ’39 it seems a concerted attempt was made to complete the runways in as short a time as possible, probably influenced by the worsening war situation in Europe.  Newfoundland airport had now been developed to the point where would be Trans Atlantic flyers using land planes were seeking permission to utilize Gander as a hopping off place.  On May 16, 1939 Pilot Backman, an American, after whom Backman Place is named, attempted the first Atlantic crossing from Newfoundland Airport (Gander) using a small, single engine, Monocoup.  He left Gander at 10 a.m. on May 16 and was never heard of afterwards.

During the summer of 1939 a number of planes from Newfoundland, Canada and the USA were seen at Gander.  These were what might be termed local North American flights between Gander and Canadian and American mainland points.  Included in these were Dupont, the American Financier, a number of meteorological upper air flights and two flight refueling aircraft from Yapton, England.  These two aircraft were carrying out some of the earliest flight refueling experiments in aviation history.  Using two converted bombers from the Royal Air Force which were dismantled and chartered in England and shipped by sea to Montreal, they were assembled and flown to Gander where the flight refueling experiments were carried out.  It was commonly said that Captain Johnson and Flight Lieutenant Atkinson, in the absence of any established flight plan facilities which were, of course, non-existent of those days, used the Newfoundland railway across Newfoundland a guide to locating the airport on their initial flight in.  “Many of the old Gander residents,” stated Mr. Tilley, “had their first flight with Captain Johnson in his flight refueling aircraft“

Flight refueling experiments continued at Gander until the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939.Gander Airport, as it was originally laid out was completed, complete with Administration Building, Control Tower, hangar and all other necessary operational facilities by August, 1939.  Approximately one month later war broke out in Europe.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Gander became a very important staging post for Trans Atlantic flying.  The population of the airport mushroomed overnight and at war’s peak reportedly reached the 15,000 mark.  Hangars, military buildings, and accommodations of all types sprang up almost overnight and colorful military uniforms of every allied nation were common in the area.  It was not unusual to see Russian flyers drinking Newfoundland Screech with Australians, New Zealanders and Americans.

With the arrival of the military forces and the vast increase in wartime activity, service facilities of all kinds had to be rapidly expanded.  This was particularly true of telegraph and post office services, which multiplied a thousand fold.  The post office which one year before had been a two man operation, had within a few months, sprouted four branch offices and the land line telegraph traffic alone amounted to thousands of items daily.

Construction and development continued at Gander up and to war’s end, when the military facilities were taken over by Newfoundland Civil Aviation division and in 1946 when commercial flying on the Atlantic was inaugurated, the facilities were used for civil aviation purposes.


researched by Carol Walsh

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