Ravishingly reclusive and recognizably rustic, these are phrases a visitor may use to describe Harbour Grace after a walk in its Registered Heritage District. Passing by the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Colston’s Cove Staircase, or Customs House depicts a community perpetually anchored to the ocean, one that survives on its resources and builds its civic institutions parallel to the shoreline. Residents who lived here over generations knew this was as true as the ocean’s blue hue. It could not have been imagined during those times that much of the twentieth century in Harbour Grace would be defined by soaring through the skies. While the saga of the Handley Page “Atlantic” in June 1919 unlocked aviation enthusiasm in Harbour Grace, it was the construction of North America’s first civilian airport in August 1927 that opened the floodgates.
Fred Koehler, a representative of the Stinson Aircraft Corporation of Detroit, found himself exploring Newfoundland in the early summer of 1927, seeking a plot of land that could be transformed into a fully-functioning transatlantic airport. The Waco Oil Company sought to sponsor a groundbreaking transatlantic flight, cashing in on the publicity and relevance of the endeavour following Charles Lindberg’s record-making solo transatlantic flight May past. Upon venturing to Harbour Grace, Koehler met John L. Oke, an aviation enthusiast with close connections to the town’s public officials. Oke subsequently led Koehler to a naturally elongated plain parallel to the town. It is easy to imagine a skeptical Koehler, having explored Harbour Grace for days already, and therefore presumably discouraged, wincing his way down the dirt path as pebbles dug into his leather shoes and loose dust barraged his eyes. Koehler must have expected a grown-over, bumpy piece of land in a difficult-to-access location, not suitable for his corporation’s aircrafts, or the Waco Oil Company’s money. However, the elongated plain was free from obstruction, properly situated between the harbour and Lady Lake, the sight of the annual Harbour Grace Regatta, the second oldest continuous sporting event in North America, and had an instantly recognizable bluff on its lower east side.
With exhilarating eagerness, Koehler organized a meeting with town officials, potential investors, aviation enthusiasts, and landscaping experts to determine the viability of the aforementioned plain to become the new transatlantic aviation hub of North America. On July 25, 1927, in a historic moment at the Harbour Grace Town Hall, a committee of 21 members was appointed to act as the “Harbour Grace Airport Trust Company,” all of whom agreed that the elongated plain would become the official “Harbour Grace Airport.” Each member contributed financing on a non-profit-sharing, non-interest-bearing basis. The officers of the committee elected were Magistrate John Casey, President, H. Herman Archibald, Vice-President, Ernest Simmonds, Secretary-Treasurer.
Almost immediately, financial contributions poured in, ambitions of a transatlantic or around the world flight abounded. A contribution was made by Koehler on behalf of Stinson Aircraft Corporation and Waco Oil Company, while the Newfoundland Government allocated a grant and the machinery required to clear the plain. The services of T.A. Hall, Government Engineer and R.H.K. Cochius of the Highroads Commission were made available for technical advice as well. Reminiscent of the laborious and grueling work that was needed to build the makeshift aerodrome years earlier for the Handley Page “Atlantic,” construction of the Harbour Grace Airport in July and August of 1927 was a communal challenge. Back-breaking quantities of debris, from rocks to lumber to mounds of bush, were hauled away by horses and carts. Townsfolk formed human-chains, passing each rock or piece of lumber down the line until straining themselves to hoist it aboard a cart. Leveling the plain was done with manual shoveling and raking, labourers repeatedly kicked the metal slabs into the dirt, shifted packed earth, and smoothed over bumps. All this took place under the constant assault of the summer heat which seemingly desired to wrestle away any energy one possessed like a cod wrestling away from a line.
Once completed, the Harbour Grace Airport became the go-to airport for glory seeking aviators for years to come. Most notably, Amelia Earhart chose the Harbour Grace Airport to be the departure location for her now-celebrated 1932 transatlantic flight, during which she became the first solo female to fly across the Atlantic ocean non-stop. Aside from the flights, the Harbour Grace Airport hosted a Royal Canadian Navy high-frequency direction finding station during the second world war. This proved extremely successful in intercepting enemy messages and providing information on enemy submarines. It also assisted in safeguarding many convoys whose escorts avoided or intercepted enemy ships.
Today, the Harbour Grace Airport is no longer used for transatlantic flights, which, considering contemporary aviation technology, is not surprising. However it retains its legacy of glory through those it inspires to soar to new heights. Whether it is the Air Cadets building self-confidence while using it for flight training, or tourists envisioning themselves on the same ground their aviation heroes once stood, the Harbour Grace Airport continues to symbolize the trailblazing spirit of Harbour Grace’s history. It is quite demonstrable that the community “took off” with the construction of the Harbour Grace Airport.
Authored By: Francis Finlayson
Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1
Parsons, B. and B. Bowman
1983 The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.