Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 23, 1986


Roland Pinsent

Probably no one arrived more in pioneer fashion than Roland George Pinsent, when he turned up in this area to help build an airport. Known affectionately as “Ro” he is now 84 and leaves behind that particular willpower and job-scouting spirit that intensely epitominized his times.

When he first came it was on foot from Glenwood, reaching there by canoe from Gander Bay.  The area, which was to become known as Gander, was a wooded mud hole.  Around hardy and ambitious men like him one of the world’s earliest projects in scientific aviation would be etched. 

R Pinsent

But don’t imagine him as an outport fisherman.  That is something he never was.  He has more of a background as an American cowboy but he does have a noted history with the Newfoundland logging and newsprint industry.

 A native of Ladle Cove, Notre Dame Bay, he received schooling the equivalent of Grade Six, then at 15 went logging at Millertown for the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Co., which owned the newsprint mill at Grand Falls. “I never fished in my life,” he recalled.

 Two years later he left for Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, wanting a change and from Sarnia he sailed on the lake boats for six months, following which he entered the United States, in further exploits.

Excited by any prospect that offered, he jobbed around and over time in the United States would work on cattle ranches in Nebraska and Nevada; at a car body plant in Detroit and for the Pacific Railway out of Torrington, Wyoming.

 Movies were yet to come into their own and give cowboys a glamorous image but Mr. Pinsent said much of his ranch work was horseback riding, although his job was simply referred to as general ranch work.

 It was during his stint in the U.S. that he set out for construction as a means of obtaining a trade.  This would be of great significance to him in years to come at Gander.  At Torrington he went to school learning about heavy construction machinery which he operated for the railway working for it for four years.

 Then, like many a young man at that time, he was suddenly struck down in his exploits.  Economic depression struck the U.S. and he was laid off.

 It was 1932 and there was nothing else to do but return to Newfoundland.  He came back to Millertown after been gone from Newfoundland for 11 years.  For the next four years he logged again, although the construction urge was at the back of his mind.

 He was able to do something about this urge on June 21, 1936, which time would record as a noted day in his life. With talk of an airport being constructed at Hattie’s Camp, he was  back temporarily at Ladle Cove, when he decided to set out and find out just what was going on.

 Once walking to Gander Bay, he took a canoe up Gander River to Glenwood, then resume his walk to Hattie’s Camp, as the area was known, where the airport would be built.

 As to a mode of transportation,  there wasn’t much choice, since the only official access in and out of Hattie’s Camp area was by train which operated once a week.  He had some other reason, though, to travel by way of the  Gander River, a popular spot for salmon anglers.  One of the members of commission of government was vacationing there, so Mr. Pinsent sought him out at Fourth Pond and introduced himself.  He told the commissioner of his credentials as a heavy equipment operator and the commissioner allowed that this would be the kind of men needed for constructing the airport, particular at the beginning.

 When Mr. Pinsent did get to Hattie’s Camp he noticed there being three tractors on flat cars.  Apart from that there were 16 or 17 men cutting brush and they lived out of canvas tents but the work of providing tarpaper shacks had also started.

 Mr. Pinsent had no problem landing a job.  In fact, it was more or less waiting for him as things turned out.  He was hired as a heavy equipment operator and the first thing he had to do was unload the three tractors, then operate them.

 He was employed by the Newfoundland government at the rate of 40 cents an hour but the general rate for some of the other workers was twenty-five cents.  Asking how his wages compared with what he earned in the States he said as a foreman with the railway his income went from 60 cents to $1 over a period of time.

 In the spring of 1937, he entered the field as heavy machine instructor so as to teach other men how to operate.  For the first winter there were about 50 or 60 men engaged in construction of the airport, after breaking soil in the previous June.

 Most of the operation was merely maintenance during the winter months, with much of the work involving getting  ice from Deadman’s Pond to store in sawdust for use in preserving perishable eating supplies and involving the cutting of firewood, as well as shoveling snow.  “It was an improvement  over Millertown,” he remarked, when asked whether he liked the work.

 In 1937 things really started to shape up as the year progressed and no fewer than some 500 men were employed.  Two stone-crushing plants were built for runway construction and construction of a major administration building had started.  By the end of the year, the runways were well under way as were the administration building, staff house, mess hall and bunk houses.

 In 1938 Mr. Pinsent was appointed superintendent over all heavy construction equipment, having 60 men working under his direction.  By 1939 “everything was complete – the base was finished,” he said of Gander Airport.  He was laid off.

 A residential street, Chestnut, was put in in 1937 and either by late that year or early next, families started moving in.  Mr. Pinsent, in 1934, had married the former Maud Peckford of Ladle Cove (they have one son and four daughters) and she resided at Ladle Cove until 1940, when the family took up residence at Glovertown.  They moved to Gander in 1946.

 Mr. Pinsent saw September of 1939 as the finishing point for the base and fringe development.  There were three runways, administration building, homes for families, a staffhouse, power plant and firehall, he summed up.  All persons in construction were laid off.

 Mr. Pinsent was put on loan by the Newfoundland Government to Atlas Construction  Co., which began building hotels and the air terminal.  This was for the military, for the war was advancing, and by 1940 some 5,000 people worked at Gander for Atlas.

 Mr. Pinsent was engaged as a rigging foreman, splicing cables and also operating heavy equipment.  This he did until 1940 when the RCAF took over all machinery maintenance and snow clearing of the base.  He was made superintendent with 265 men, including 12 foremen , under his charge.

 In 1946 he went back  with Civil Aviation, as the Newfoundland Government  involvement was known, and took a job as superintendent of public works, including the runways.  He was there until Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, when he was transferred to the Department of  Transport as supervisor of construction.  His final job was that of inspector in 1957, when he resigned to go into private business.

 By now his span of time had taken the area from a one-time camp, known as Hattie’s, to not only a modern airport but also a modern community, for the new town of Gander had started.

 His memories are immense for he is so much a part of the area itself and now, needless to add, he loves the place he once hated.

 “I’d never thought I’d spend 50 years in this mud hole,” he smiled.  In development his mark is everywhere.  Capt. Doug Fraser, who piloted the first plane to land at Gander, had a small hangar at Norris Arm.  Mr. Pinsent worked on that hangar, repairing it.  He knows first hand that where trees once covered mud an airport and town stand.  A lonely wilderness there was no official transportation out but by train.  There wasn’t even a road connecting Glenwood, which did not come until the  1950s.  He remembers, too, how pass permits  were required before passengers were allowed off   the train at Gander because of Security reasons.

 Most of all, though, he remembers the mud.  He said that so bad were conditions that cut-off  iron barrels were placed at doorways in the early days so that workers could wash their boots.  His only consolation was that he preferred the situation to that of working in the lumber woods where accommodations were horrible.

 Finally, when asked of the finished  product, he reflected on Gander “when I helped kick the rabbits out of here I never thought so much could be done by the hands of man in so short a time.


researched by Carol Walsh


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