Harbour Grace Takes Off

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. 


Title Page of the Harbour Grace Airport Trust Register.

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. 

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Telegraph Noting the Newly Available Transatlantic Airport in Harbour Grace, 1927

Shoveling dirt

The Type of Labour Needed to Construct the Airport.

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. 

Airport Sign

Sign at the Gates of the Harbour Grace Airport

Airport Radio Station 1941-45

WWII Radio Frequency Monitoring Station, 1941-45

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. 

Harbour Grace Airport Today

Harbour Grace Airport Today

Airport Plaque

Commemorative Plaque

Authored By: Francis Finlayson



Harbour Grace Airstrip

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.
Rowe, P.


History of the Old Customs House: Origins of the Museum Association


The Conception Bay Museum Association Inc. was founded in 1970 for the purpose of preserving local history and assisting in the tourism potential in Conception Bay, one of the most beautiful and historic areas of the province. Opening a regional museum in Harbour Grace’s old Customs House and developing a ‘Historic Trail,’ from Brigus to Placentia, were the first steps of the committee’s five-year tourism plan for the region. In addition to the Conception Bay Museum, other sites on the Avalon peninsula provided the basic framework for the proposed ‘Historic Trail,’ such as Castle Hill National Historic Park in Placentia, the Heart’s Content Cable Office, the Fisherman’s Museum at Hibb’s Cove, Gull Gallery in Clarke’s Beach, and numerous other federal and provincial historic sites. Other plans included restoring the fortifications at Carbonear Island and establishing a sealing museum at Brigus.

In spring 1973, the Committee on National Museum Policy granted National Exhibition Status to the proposed museum inside the old Customs House and provided financial assistance to prepare the building for various travelling exhibits. The building, owned by the provincial government, was given over to the control of the Conception Bay Museum Association to obtain funding and exhibition status. The provincial government completely rewired the building for the restoration, and the National Museum Policy Board in Ottawa offered $31,960 in 1973-74 for restoration and renovation; display and display equipment; lighting and display lighting; humidification and dehumidification systems; a new heating system; curator’s salary; and office supplies. With this funding, the committee set out to find a fulltime curator to oversee the renovations, set up the displays and promote the organization’s mandate. The committee soon found its ideal curatorial team: Jerome Lee—the son of Martin (“Mac”) Lee, vice-president and one of the driving forces behind plans for the Conception Bay Museum—and his wife Pamela Barton.


Jerome Lee and Pamela Barton-Lee, ca. 1974.

Originally born in Placentia, Newfoundland, and Mississauga, Ontario, respectively, Jerome and Pamela first met at Glendon College, York University, and soon fell in love. In Toronto Pamela lived with eight other people in a cooperative setup, working to support herself at the Steak-n-Burger and volunteering with disabled children at Bloorview School. Jerome worked in a house established to help Atlantic Canadians having trouble in the big city. Together they travelled extensively in Europe, where they attended the University of Marseille, France. Upon returning to Toronto, Jerome enrolled for a year at Ryerson, studying photography, and Pamela took courses in Journalism.

The couple were offered the chance to move to Jerome’s home province in 1973, and on April 14, the two were married in a small ceremony in their living room. After celebrating they packed their Dodge camper van and headed for Newfoundland.

The couple and the committee’s volunteers soon got to work renovating the old Customs House and its neighbouring grounds. Pamela was largely responsible for the exterior plans of the museum and landscaping. These plans included fixing the two 1854 gas lamps to the entrance of the museum and installing the early iron water tanks in the park for the 1974 season. In the next phase of development, Pamela and the committee planned to construct a stone wall around the grounds, continue landscaping, erect several historic markers, and develop a walkway to nearby Colston’s Cove, where John Guy landed salt in 1612.

Jerome was engaged in overseeing the details of the interior renovations and organizing displays for the planned May 1974 opening. The completed museum was to feature refinished birch and the restoration of its grand mahogany staircase. Jerome’s friend Ron Smith, an interior decorator visiting from Toronto, helped paint the interior its blue and ivory colour scheme.

In the February 7, 1974, issue of The Compass, Conception Bay’s regional newspaper, Jerome outlined the plans for the museum: “The ground floor of the building is funded by the federal government’s National Museums as a National Exhibition Centre. The two rooms of that floor are being converted into galleries with complete environmental control: temperature, humidity and lighting. The walls are panels covered with Irish linen. They will provide a neutral backdrop for exhibits which will come from all over Canada. The travelling exhibits will cover a large range of subjects, including Science and Technology, History and the Arts. The National Exhibition Centre will give people in this area a chance to see some samples of the other cultures of the other nine provinces.

“The two rooms on the second floor will be reserved for local exhibits. Private collectors in the Conception Bay area will use the museum facilities to display their collections to the public. Local residents and tourists will have the chance to see any valuable articles from the past. At opening the exhibit on the second floor will be ‘Sealing in Conception Bay.’

“We are also hoping that the second-floor space will be used by local artists for contemporary arts and crafts displays. History can, perhaps, be brought to life if it is seen in relation to present day activity and contemporary art can also gain from the historical perspective.”

The young couple wanted the community to have a personal involvement with the museum, to feel they had an important role in its success. At the heart of their vision for the museum was to engage youth and the community through both education and culture. They hoped to conduct classes in both photography and crafting during the winter months, outside of the seasonal tourism industry.

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Pamela Barton-Lee wrote a regular column for The Compass newspaper during her time in Conception Bay.

During the renovations, the two lived in Carbonear, where Pamela began work as a receptionist at The Compass. There she wrote her “MScellany” column, which focused on local, national and international women’s issues. The column was a warming dialogue with women in the area, urging them to shed some of their traditional, restraining customs.

In April 1974, Jerome and Pamela headed to Toronto on a mixed business and pleasure trip. Jerome’s friend Ron went with them. In Halifax, the three stayed with Jerome’s sister Dianne on the drive through. After eating breakfast with Dianne and saying their goodbyes, the three continued their journey on a foggy day in Nova Scotia.

Tragically, at around 11 a.m., their van collided with a parked truck—whose axle had broken the previous night—outside of Amherst, Nova Scotia, killing the three passengers. Pamela was in a coma for nine hours at Amherst Hospital before passing away. Jerome was 26, Pamela 24.

Funeral services for Pamela, Jerome and Ron were held on Tuesday, April 9, in Harbour Grace. The ecumenical service, representing the faiths of the decreased—Anglican, United and Roman Catholic—was held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, just down the road from their planned museum. The young couple were laid in a common grave at the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Harbour Grace. They would have been married a year only five days later.

Despite this tragedy and monumental setback, the committee pressed on with their plans for the museum opening, doing their best to implement Jerome and Pamela’s vision for the building. Instrumental in this work were Jerome’s parents, Mac and Marie Lee, who stepped in and completed the project exactly as their son and daughter-in-law had planned.

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A headline in The Compass advertising the museum’s opening, 1974.

On Friday, May 17, 200 delegates from the Canadian Museum Association’s 29th conference, held in St. John’s, came to Harbour Grace for the opening of the Customs House as a National Exhibition Centre. The four busloads of people were treated to a seafood luncheon and reception at the Harbour Grace Legion prior to the dedication ceremonies. At the reception, Mayor Ted Pike welcome the delegation and Bill Parsons, vice-president of the Conception Bay Museum Association, spoke on behalf of committee president Gordon Simmons. Parsons remarked on how pleased they were to host a national delegation and complete their first milestone: to have the old Customs House designated as Harbour Grace’s first museum. Parsons singled out Mac Lee and Gordon Simmons for their initiative and desire to see the building open for spring 1974. He also expressed his condolences to Mac and his wife Marie on the loss of their son Jerome and daughter-in-law Pamela.

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Robert Broadland reveals the National Exhibition Centre plaque, May 17, 1974.

At the old Customs House, Robert Broadland, member of the Consultative Committee on National Museum Policy, revealed the designation plaque on the building’s exterior. “I hope to God that the wind doesn’t take this away,” he said, laughing. Inside, Newfoundland artist George Noseworthy’s fifteen “rhythmics” were displayed on the first floor, with Stephen Racine’s Indigenous photography exhibit from Canada’s west coast, on loan from Ottawa’s National Museum of Man, on the second. In a letter of thanks to the Conception Bay Museum Association, Barbara Riley, an attendee from Ottawa, noted how “difficult it was to get everyone back on the buses…some delegates would have stayed taking pictures of Harbour Grace until the sun went down.” The new National Exhibition Centre hosted over 4,000 people during its opening season in 1974.

Though the National Exhibition Centre successfully opened in the old Customs House, the committee’s plans for local history exhibits were delayed until the 1975 season. In January 1975, the Local Initiatives Program (LIP), a federal funding initiative, granted $16,096 for six workers to upgrade the old Customs House, in preparation for a summer 1975 opening; and the National Museum Policy Board in Ottawa again offered the Association a sizable grant of $26,000 for 1974-75.


G.A. Frecker opens the Conception Bay Museum to visitors, June 14, 1975.

On Saturday, June 14, 1975, after five years of diligent work, the Conception Bay Museum opened its doors to the general public. Finally, the local history of Conception Bay would have a permanent showcase in Harbour Grace. New Association chairman Judge Rupert Bartlett and Mayor Ted Pike welcomed the gathered crowd. On hand for the opening was Dr. George Alain Frecker, then Chancellor of Memorial University and former Minister of Provincial Affairs in Premier Joseph Smallwood’s government. In his political role, Frecker offered early moral and active support to Gordon Simmons and Mac Lee, believing the region’s past was indeed worth celebrating. Although it was a happy occasion, Frecker spoke of Jerome and Pamela’s leading role, drawing a strong emotional reaction from those who knew the young couple.


Harold Horwood reveals his plaque, detailing the history of Peter Easton, June 14, 1975.

Well known writer and Confederation architect Harold Horwood was also in attendance. Horwood unveiled a plaque—his composition—detailing the legacy of “arch-pirate” Peter Easton in Harbour Grace. On the grounds, hoisted by students from St. Francis High School, a replica of Easton’s black pirate flag flew, alongside the flags of Conception Bay’s famous mercantile houses—the Munns, Ridleys, Jobs, Rorkes, and Bowrings. Jerome’s grandmother, Bride O’Keefe, sewed the flags for the occasion.

Inside, exhibits on local history were finally displayed to the public. On the second floor, the seal fishery exhibit envisioned by Jerome was proudly displayed, with items on loan from the Newfoundland Fur and Hide Co. For photography enthusiasts, the third floor displayed old archival pictures of Harbour Grace, taken long before the devastating 1944 fire, which forever altered the prominent downtown area of the community. During the 1975 summer season the local boy scout and girl guides clubs graciously volunteered their time to work as onsite interpreters.

Today, the Museum strives to implement the vision of its early founders, particularly Pamela and Jerome’s community-centred approach. As such, the Conception Bay Museum showcases the wider Baccalieu Trail region but recognizes the importance of Harbour Grace as its home base, where its biggest supporters lie. The aim for this building is not simply a museum but a cultural hub for the community, a place for locals to feel proud.

In recent years, with the help of committed volunteers, talented coordinators, and engaged student employees, the Museum has expanded its horizons. New programming has included book launches and signings; popular Halloween Haunted Hike fundraisers and heritage walks; a regularly updated website, database, and electronic archive; concerts at the church hall; scavenger hunts for children; and pub quiz nights. Television features on CBC’s Still Standing, UNIS TV’s Hors Circuits II, and in Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism marketing are recent highlights of the institution’s continued growth and regional importance. And in fall 2018, after partnering with the municipality and the provincial government, the Museum Board restored the Colston’s Cove Stairs, one of Pamela and Jerome’s first plans for the outside grounds.

Much has changed in the long 150-year history of this building and its 50 years as a museum. However, the building’s various historical uses showcase its longevity and importance in Harbour Grace. If volunteer enthusiasm is any indication—the Board of Directors currently welcomes 20 members—the Conception Bay Museum should be around for another 50 years yet.

Selected Founder Profiles

Martin (“Mac”) Lee


Born in Harbour Grace, Mac Lee left his hometown for the United States at the age of 15. He returned to Newfoundland in the early 1940s, working at the Argentia naval base in the department of public works, where he remained until returning to Harbour Grace in 1974.

Always very involved in public affairs, he was a founding member of the Placentia Area Public Library and the Placentia Area Historical Society. In addition, he was an active member of the Newfoundland Historical Society and Newfoundland & Labrador Historic Trust, of which he was awarded lifetime membership in 1973, in recognition of his services.

Though based in southeast Placentia for most of his later life, Mac was devoted to documenting and preserving the heritage of his hometown and region. He was a founding member and vice-president of the Conception Bay Museum Association; assisted with establishing the Bristol’s Hope Historical Society; and helped access funding to restore the historic St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Notably, Mac and his wife Marie took on the mantle of their son Jerome and daughter-in-law Pamela after their passing. Mac is often noted as the driving force behind the museum’s early success, despite tragic personal setbacks.

In 1974 he won an award from the American Association for State and Local History, for his “resourcefulness and devoted contribution to the preservation of Newfoundland history.” Presenting the award, Historic Trust president Shane O’Dea said, “There is virtually no one in Newfoundland who has been so devoted to the development of a sense of Newfoundland history and culture.” In 1976 Heritage Canada presented Mac with a prestigious award for his lifetime achievements and diligent work with the Conception Bay Museum Association.

Mac Lee passed away at St. John’s General Hospital on Tuesday, December 21, 1976.

“He was not an acquisitive man. He was truly the unbounded ‘free spirit’ whose affection and loyalty for this rock were as deep as any oak’s. He wanted fiercely that this rock and its inhabitants be better. And in many ways, because of him, we are and will be.

“The history that Mac Lee read, researched and preserved lives on. But what shines out through it all is the man himself. And that is the greatest heritage he gave us.” – Monsignor J.M. O’Brien, 1976

William (“Bill”) Parsons


Born in Harbour Grace in 1907, Bill Parsons moved to St. John’s to work in a bank during the 1920s. In 1929 he returned in time for some of the first transatlantic flights, working as a stringer for the Associated Press (AP). Bill would send AP the flight crew’s time of arrival and departure, the type of plane, weather conditions, and any other pertinent information. His father, photographer Reuben T. Parsons, documented every arrival using a large-view camera with glass plates. However, the plates were too fragile for transportation to AP’s Boston office; so Bill took his own pictures on smaller Kodak film. The films were then rushed to Whitbourne, put aboard an express train ,and five days later would be in Boston for the papers. Many of the original photos taken by Bill and Reuben—including Reuben’s old pictures of Harbour Grace street scenes—still grace the Museum today.

For eight years he worked at the Newfoundland Trawling Co., located at the old Terra Nova Shoes site, and rose to the position of manager. In 1947 he left Harbour Grace again to work as a civilian at the American Air Force base in Goose Bay, Labrador, and returned to his hometown permanently in 1958. 

After retiring, Bill taught basic navigation, or coastal pilotage, at St. Francis High School and was an early member of the Conception Bay Museum Association. In 1974 he joined Mac Lee as joint vice-president, eventually becoming the Association’s director. 

Bill’s leadership and firsthand knowledge of important Harbour Grace events helped guide the Museum through its early years. He played an important role in gathering information and designing the Museum’s most popular room, the second floor ‘Aviation Room,’ with its collection of photographs—many of them Bill’s own—artifacts and primary documents, such as the Harbour Grace Aviation Trust Co.’s logbook. Robinson-Blackmore published his research and memories of the heyday of transatlantic aviation, The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, co-authored with Bill Bowman, in 1983.

Gordon Simmons


“I came to Harbour Grace as a young man to teach at St. Francis in 1965. Over the next thirteen years the town and Conception Bay North became an anchor in my life. I developed a great interest in the history of the town and, where I could, I tried to incorporate that history in subjects I was assigned to teach. And then I met Mac Lee, then living in the Lee house on Harvey Street. It would take considerable time to describe this extraordinary man, particularly to those who had never met him. It was through Mac that I met Gordon Simmons.

 If one wanted to describe the essence of Gordon Simmons, one need only read John Henry Newman’s essay on ‘The Definition of a Gentleman,’ which wonderfully describes Gordon. He was quiet in demeanor but always with a smile, kind word and gentle wit. He was a devoted reader, a collector of historical information and a promoter of Harbour Grace’s rich heritage. He was a dear friend of Mac’s yet in many ways the antithesis of the outgoing and restless Mr. Lee. They were a perfect duo to undertake, along with many others, the establishment of the Conception Bay Museum. It was Gordon who asked me to be a member of the committee, as young and as uninformed as I was. Just being asked by Gordon Simmons was privilege enough for me.

Though not the official secretary, rather the Chairperson, Gordon brought a studied commitment to the undertaking. He kept meticulous notes and preserved relevant historical material. (I don’t know what was the disposition of his personal papers; as well, I’m not sure what may still reside at the Museum.) He also encouraged me to consider initiating a Junior Historical group at the school to meet with older citizens of the area and record through audio-tape and written word their recollections on important elements of community history. (Sadly, those reports, however meagre and tentative, and once held in the school library, were lost in the fire of April 1973.)”

– Gerard “Ged” Blackmore, former Association member

The author would like to dedicate this piece to Dianne Lee, for kind words and encouragement. 

The Handley Page “Atlantic” at Sea Level

A symbol of man’s conquering of his earthly nature could be no better represented than by a man-made contraption soaring high above the ground, traversing whole oceans and unearthing the awe of all types of people. The British “Daily Mail” publication sought to make this a reality in the spring of 1919, offering £10,000 for any crew that could successfully complete a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in British-built, British manned, heavier-than-air machine. After the failed attempt by Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve in May 1919, the path was clear for British Rear Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, a decorated RAF pilot from the first world war, and Major H.G Brackley to lead their crew on the daunting flight across the Atlantic, and claim the coveted prize.

Upon the crew’s arrival in Harbour Grace in June of 1919, the excitement was palpable. One can imagine a community that survived for all its previous generations on the abundance of worldly resources such as cod, seal, and lumber would be eager to witness the initiation of a new era, one spent exploring the skies. Kerr and Brackley determined that, given its proximity to Europe and favourable jet streams, Harbour Grace would best facilitate the treacherous Atlantic crossing. Indeed, once the land now known as “Saint Francis Field” was selected to be the crew’s point of departure, the community was unrelenting in its accommodations. Like firemen battling a raging blaze, farmers and fishermen alike uprooted sturdy fences, hacked through loose timber, disposed of awkwardly bulky rocks, and towed away entire houses to make space for the fabled flying machine. Reflecting the zeal with which the community was imbued due to this opportunity, almost no attention was paid to the fact that many families had owned and developed property on that field.


House Relocation for Handley Page Atlantic

House being relocated to make space for the Handley Page “Atlantic.”

Chosen to make the transatlantic flight was a model of the largest biplane in the world, the Handley-Page V/1500 bomber, this one appropriately called “Atlantic.” The plane was transported to Harbour Grace by sea, then by train, packaged in 105 crates that residents often joked could be used as houses, given their enormity. Weighing 14 tons and with a wingspan of 126 feet, the Handley Page “Atlantic” was massive. The hulking plane sitting on the makeshift aerodrome became known as “Handley Page on the Sea,” given its location parallel to Water Street and proximity to the sea. Not only was the Handley Page “Atlantic” sitting close to sea level on the aerodrome, but the residents of Harbour Grace would soon be the first to witness it traverse the skies from far below, at sea level.

Handley Page Atlantic

The Enormous Handley Page “Atlantic.”

The Handley Page On the Sea

The Handley Page “Atlantic” Taking off for its Trial Flight.

On June 10, the local Daily Star reported: “The horny handed fishermen-farmers watched with intense interest the huge bird-like machine passing gracefully overhead. Women and children left their dwellings, abandoned their work, and made their way to vantage points and watched the flying machine until lost to sight.” This was the Handley Page “Atlantic” on a trial flight to St. John’s and back, to test its fueling and cooling systems. The Daily Star also reported that the weather was perfect for viewing the plane from below, with clear skies and the sun beaming down onto Conception Bay. The experienced fishermen, hands damp from cleaning cod fillets, clothes rank with the stench of salt water, looked up to see the Handley Page “Atlantic” seemingly floating on the wind, just as their boats had done on the water for generations. The trial flight to St. John’s lasted approximately 25 minutes and was a success, however due to a deficiency in the engine cooling system, the crew of the “Atlantic” had to delay their flight across the Atlantic until new parts could be shipped to Harbour Grace from the United Kingdom.

Atlantic Over Hr. Grace

The Handley Page “Atlantic” over Harbour Grace.

It was this delay that ultimately sealed the fate of the Handley Page “Atlantic” crew and finished the Daily Mail’s transatlantic flight contest, as on June 14, 1919, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur W. Brown took off from Lester’s field in St. John’s and arrived in Clifton, Ireland, 16 hours and 12 minutes later. Journalists scrambled to confirm the landing, with many asking for hours whether the rumours of success were true. Once Alcock and Brown were confirmed to have reached Ireland, sentiments of jubilation emerged from across the Atlantic, with one journalist saying “Well, it must be something for a man in Ireland today to be able to say “Yesterday, when I was in America.”” With the residents of Harbour Grace disappointed given all they had done to facilitate the Handley Page “Atlantic” flight, Admiral Kerr sought to attempt the transatlantic flight regardless, but was ultimately convinced to tour the United States with the plane instead.

Alcock and Brown Cross Atlantic

New York Times Report on Alcock and Brown Successfully Completing their Transatlantic Flight.

On July 5, 1919 many in the community of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia were awakened by what was described as a “UFO.” In reality, it was the deafening rumbling of the engines on the Handley Page “Atlantic,” which was seeking to make an emergency landing in the middle of its journey to the United States. Fuel was running low due to strong headwinds and the crew of the “Atlantic” chose Parrsboro because it was the only community nearby with visible electric power. The locals frantically jumped in their Model Ts and sped to the local racetrack to light up a landing strip. It was the only flat piece of land without any trees. Sitting there in the cool summer morning, locals waited patiently for the Handley Page “Atlantic” to land. When it did, it collided with a barbed wire fence, ripping the fuselage and denting the propellers. This extensive damage required months to repair, during which Parrsboro experienced a surge in tourism, people determined to see an airplane for the first time traveled there in droves. According to locals, the roads were lined with cars; hotels and restaurants flourished, and news reporters were “everywhere.”

Handley Page Atlantic Downed in Nova Scotia

The Handley Page “Atlantic” after crashing in Parrsboro, NS. Residents look on in Model T Ford vehicles.

In October of 1919, the Handley Page “Atlantic” finally concluded its journey, reaching the United States and delivering the first ever air-mail parcel from Nova Scotia to the United States in the process. Due to additional damage, the US tour was cancelled, and the “Atlantic” was dismantled before being shipped back to the United Kingdom. Today, pieces of the Handley Page “Atlantic” are in various museums. At the Ottawa House By the Sea museum in Parrsboro for example, an original Handley Page “Atlantic” propeller boss, and the navigator’s seat, were presented during community festivities in July 2019. For more information on the unique story of the Handley Page “Atlantic,” visit the Conception Bay Museum.

Navigator Seat at Ottawa House Museum By the Sea

The Navigator’s Seat from the Handley Page “Atlantic.”

Ottawa House Museum

The Ottawa House By the Sea museum in Parrsboro, NS.


Authored by: Francis Finlayson



Boland, G. “Parrsboro’s connection to the Handley Page ‘Atlantic’,” Historic Nova Scotia, accessed June 29, 2020, https://historicnovascotia.ca/items/show/109.

Léger, K. “1919: A Year of Flying Firsts,” Halifax Public Libraries, Local History Blog https://www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/blogs/post/1919-a-year-of-flying-firsts/

Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative, http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/daily_star

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.

Will, G. “2008 The Big Hop: The North Atlantic Air Race.” Boulder Publications: PCSP.

We’ve Made the Cornerstone Award Longlist


We’re delighted to announce that the Conception Bay Museum (Customs House) has been longlisted for the National Trust for Canada & Ecclesiastical Insurance’s Cornerstone Award, in the ‘Resilient Places’ category.

This award recognizes Canadian places or landscapes that illustrate extraordinary resilience, significance, and benefit to a community over a sustained period of time, with a successful track record of 10 years or more.

To be longlisted for this award on the 150th anniversary of our building’s construction (1870) and the 50th anniversary of our Museum Association’s founding (1970) is an honour.

We’ll update our followers on the final results, to be announced at the National Trust for Canada’s annual conference.

View a listing of past award recipients here.

Tangible Ireland Presentation: The Southern Cross in Harbour Grace

The following was prepared by Matthew for the 90th Anniversary of the Southern Cross‘s flight from Portmarnock, Ireland, to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, for a virtual celebration hosted by Oakland’s Tangible Ireland branch on Sunday, May 31, 2020. The visual slideshow for this presentation can be viewed here.

Southern Cross 1

Figure 1: Southern Cross at Harbour Grace, June 25, 1930.

After leaving Portmarnock, Ireland, on June 24, 1930, at 12:57 NT, Capt. Charles Kingsford Smith (pilot), Capt. Everett Van Dyke (co-pilot), Capt. J.D. Saul (navigator), and J.W. Stannish (radio operator) hoped for agreeable weather and smooth flying to Roosevelt Field, New York, their anticipated destination for their east-west transatlantic flight in the Southern Cross. Heading for Cape Race, Newfoundland, on the Avalon peninsula’s southern extremity, the quartet anticipated turning southwest, flying down the coast of Maine, and landing at New York sometime around 11 a.m. NT on Wednesday, June 25.

The team sent hourly radio messages, updating operators and the public of their journey. At 2:45 a.m. NT, the first message reported them leaving the Irish coast. At 5:00 p.m. NT, Kingsford Smith noted their travelling speed—80 mph—and complained about the weather: “Everything going fine. Wish we could get out of this beastly fog. We feel closed in so much.”

However, the fog didn’t abate, and a change of direction was in store for the Southern Cross: a stop in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, whose airfield, constructed in 1927 for the landing of the Waco Oil’s Pride of Detroit, would soon launch this rural centre into aviation lore. The Harbour Grace airport was operated by the Harbour Grace Airport Trust Co., an incorporated body of local citizens, and hosted 20 transatlantic flights in a nine-year period.

With their compass out of order and gas supplied dwindled, Kingsford Smith and crew notified Harbour Grace they’d be landing at the strip in the early hours of Wednesday, June 25. At 8:25 a.m. NT, the Southern Cross touched down safely on the coastal dirt strip—a perfect landing after 32 hours in the air.

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Figure 2: Southern Cross at Harbour Grace, June 25, 1930. Crow Hill in background.

News spread quickly of their safe arrival—another successful transatlantic flight for the history books. The crew reported excellent weather until nearing Cape Race—that blasted fog!—and were in light, easy spirits, despite being deafened by the plane’s roaring engines. The crew thanked their lucky stars for sound radio advice from the stations at Cape Race and Belle Isle and the coastal steamers which kept them notified of their position. The crew spent the night at Harbour Grace, lodging at the Cochrane House—the site of many overnighters and warm meals for transatlantic aviators—to enjoy their triumph and rest from their tribulations.

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Figure 3: Cochrane House (also known as the ‘Cochrane Hotel’ and ‘Archibald’s Hotel’), pictured right, ca. 1930. This old hotel hosted numerous transatlantic aviators from 1927-36 and burned on August 17, 1944, during the third ‘Great Fire’ in the community. 

At daybreak on Thursday, June 26, Kingsford Smith and crew ate breakfast at the Cochrane House and headed to the strip with four vacuum bottles of coffee, boiled eggs, and sandwiches for the trip. Their next destination? Where they first intended to land: Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. After taxiing 150 yards up the strip, the crew left Harbour Grace, heading in a northwesterly direction. After a safe landing in New York, the crew received the traditional hero’s welcome—a joyous crowd, greets from City Hall, and guests of honour in President Hoover’s White House.

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Figure 4: Southern Cross at Harbour Grace, June 25, 1930.

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Figure 5: Southern Cross at Harbour Grace, June 25, 1930.

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Southern Cross taxiing at Harbour Grace, June 1930.

View the logbook entries (pages 35 & 36) in high quality here

COVID-19 Update from the Board of Directors

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions for public safety, the Board of Directors of the Conception Bay Museum has had to make the decision to suspend daily museum visits and public events, such as hikes, for early summer. It would be very difficult to maintain distancing and follow health guidelines in our museum space or with many people on a hike. Research projects and other work will be ongoing throughout the summer, as we prepare for our next season as determined by the Dept. of Public Health.

We look forward to any new lifting of restrictions in the future so we can resume normal operations of the museum. We will keep the public posted.

Thank you for your interest and stay safe,

Board of Directors
Conception Bay Museum, Harbour Grace 

Photo of the Day: Sealers with View of Cathedral, ca. 1880s


Pictured: Two sealers with gaffs and rifles, walking on the pack ice at Harbour Grace, ca. 1880s. The first Immaculate Conception Cathedral is visible; the Cathedral burned in 1889. The cursive description on bottom reads: “Ice view – Cathedral in Back Ground” [sic]. Photo courtesy David Myrden.

Special thanks to David, who mailed this photo to our Communications Officer all the way from British Columbia.

View the picture in 1200 dpi here.

Colouring Sheet Challenge: Old Customs House

Stuck inside and looking for something to do? Here’s a colouring sheet, courtesy of director Jerome McCarthy, who sketched our museum in the 1990s. Our building, the old Customs House, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and our Museum Association turns 50! Send us your completed colouring sheets on Facebook – we’ll post them on here!
Download the colouring sheet here.
Thank you to Jerome for releasing this sketch for public consumption. Also, thanks to Heritage NL & the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust for the fun idea!