Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977



Lloyd Mercer

You get a job, that was the big thing, then life took its course.  That’s simply the story of Lloyd Isaac Mercer, now 66 of Gander, the latter being coincidental.  Yet, Gander took on a proportion for him beyond a fondest dream.

Mr. Mercer came first, then war.  War made Gander but in the process Mr. Mercer made his contribution too.  In fact, Gander grew around men like him

One of a family of 11 children, he was born at Bay Roberts, where his father was employed as a cable technician with Western Union.  At 17 he finished school, joining his father at western Union,  to apprentice as a machinist.  Sometimes he would double as a messenger boy, bringing him in contact with world newsL Mercer correspondents covering historic aviation flights stopping over at Harbour Grace.

His job continued for six  years, following which economic depression struck Newfoundland.  At Western Union 40 men were laid off, including the young Mr. Mercer. 

For something to do he took up fishing, going as a planter and share man to Holton, Labrador.  “There was not much money but it was a game for us,” he recalled, telling how he had enjoyed the experience.

After spending two summers fishing, he was at home for a year when he heard of a place popping up called Gander.  Eighteen men from Bay Roberts were hired by the Department of Highways which was administering Gander, to come to the air station to work in construction.  Among them was Mr. Mercer.  He arrived at Gander March 6, 1937.

His only interest at the time, he said , was to obtain a job.  He didn’t care where it would be so it just turned out that it was Gander.  He began working as a laborer, first cutting brush and digging ditches.  At nearby Benton there were four stone crushers, which fed stone by the rail carload for construction at Gander.  There were five trains a day, so after a month he made a switch, going to Benton to push a wheelbarrow.  His pay was 25 cents an hour.  His work day was 10 hours.  His work week was six days.  His room and board amounted to $16.50 a month.  He cleared $47.50 a month. 

He worked there for 22 months by which time the Department had stored sufficient stone.  The men engaged were then laid off, including Mr. Mercer.  He returned to Bay Roberts.

In 1939 he looked to Labrador again, this time going to fishing Ships Harbour.  On their return later in the year aboard the old coastal vessel Kyle, war was already casting an ominous shadow, even on this side of the Atlantic.  They crossed the Strait of Belle Isle in a blackout.  Shortly after arriving home, he decided to come back to Gander.  It was November 1939. 

By then and with the war, things, needless to add, had changed rather dramatically.  “you could take your choice of a job,” he said and of the demand for manpower.  By comparison, in the scope of work; the first time he was at Gander he saw the first two tractors to come for use.  These were brought in from Coaker’s Farm near Bonavista.  Shovel operators were brought in from the mines at Bell Island.

With Atlas Construction, Mr. Mercer learned to operate a tractor, which he did for two weeks but that was not what he really wanted.  Having an initial background in technical work, he leaned on the idea of becoming an electrician, so he kept an eye on an electrical contractor, Bedard and Gerard.  Time soon came when they wanted men and when Mr. Mercer approached them he was taken on as a helper to an electrician.  He would earn 30 cents an hour.  This was to change later but the Commission of Government at the time would only allow a Newfoundlander to earn a maximum of 40 cents an hour.  Similar workers from Canada, however, were earning one dollar an hour or more.

“I fitted in good there,” Mr. Mercer said of Bedard and Gerard.  With time, of course, came knowledge and ability in the trade and in 1942 he was transferred to the marine base at Botwood as a foreman.  At Botwood, where he stayed for two years, he worked for one continuous stretch for as long as 69 hours.  He was there when British war leader, Winston Churchill landed in a flying boat, which was refueled.  Churchill, who was enroute to Quebec, stayed overnight, with a banquet given in his honour.  Also at Botwood, Mr. Mercer witnessed the crash in the harbour of an American Overseas Airways plane, which claimed the lives of military personnel. 

When Mr. Mercer came back to Gander he went to work for the RCAF, winding electrical motors in the main but his work took in a cross section of activities since the RCAF had responsibility for mechanical work, snow ploughing and runway lighting, to name some of them. Smudge pot lighting replaced electrical field lighting, it not being up to universal standard. 

He worked for the RCAF until October, 1945.  The war was over so the RCAF pulled out.  Mr. Mercer was the last civilian to be laid off by the RCAF.  He went to work the next day with Civil Aviation as the first civilian employee with this arm of the Newfoundland Commission of Government, which was to administer Gander.  He was taken on naturally as an electrician.

Once confederation came, in 1949, he automatically became a federal civil servant of Canada and an employee of the Department of Transport, which took over administration of the airport at Gander.  Fifteen years ago he was made a supervisor 12 (highest grade), in charge of the electrical system for the DOT at Gander.  As a department head, he was responsible for all electrical maintenance.  He retired July 10 last year having been recognized by the department for 35 years of service.

Retirement was the moment that took him back.  When he first came to Gander he had lived in a tent and until such time as a bunkhouse was built.  The terrain in the Gander area was mostly scrub since the area had been burned over 20 years previous.  Initial aviation operations were located in an area which now separates the railway station from Eastern Provincial Airways’ premises.  There were eight houses on Chestnut St.  He helped to refuel the first plane bound for Europe.    The plane was to be ferried across but disappeared in a snowstorm in the Atlantic before reaching its destination. 

“I had no conception whatsoever,” he said of what Gander would turn out to be but as early as 1937 there was a feeling war was coming.  Only when a role for Gander was more firmly established did he see a future, “and it worked out for me.”

In 1959 when the new town of Gander was incorporated, he was among the first councilors elected.  He served four years then got out but has since come back.  In a second round, he is now completing a four year term. 

Metcalfe is one of the original streets at Gander and it is seemingly fitting that one of the first residents there was Mr. Mercer. 

He has been left with the feeling of having grown up with Gander he said.  The span took him from a tent to Metcalfe. 


researched by Carol Walsh


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