THE BATTLE OF LONG GULL POND
I turn off the Trans-Canada Highway onto Highway 460 because one of the places high on my list to visit is the town of Stephenville.
But before I arrive there I come to yet another stop - this time at the Stephenville Truck Centre.
During my journey over the Trans-Labrador Highway I spent a great deal of my time talking about the road graders up there. They are of course all modern self-powered units these days, but here there was a prehistoric grader parked up at the side of the road. And while I wouldn't say that it was in exhibition quality, it was still interesting to see it.
I was wondering what the motive power might have been. Horses was my first guess but when I was at the Industrial Museum at Stellartown, Nova Scotia, a few days later, I saw a photo of one of them being pulled by a very early caterpillar tractor.
And just think how the design could be improved by fitting a roller at the rear end instead of a pair of wheels.
You can see exactly what my interest in Stephenville might be, simply by looking at this photograph. Yes, there's quite an enormous airfield here at the town. Actually, it's probably more correct to say that there is a town here at the airfield because it was certainly in that order that things took place in this part of the world. The airfield came first and the town followed it.
And look on top of the ridge in the distance. You know what that is because if you were with me along the Labrador coast at St Lewis you will have seen one before.
Well done, that man! It is indeed a PINETREE - one of the stations for the radar network that the Americans built just after the war and which became obsolete almost immediately as it could not pick up high-speed low-flying air traffic at a far-enough range to mount an effective challenge
For the benefit of the purists, of which there are bound to be many, the story about the base being here first isn't strictly correct. There has been some kind of settlement along here for a great length of time but there were just a couple of hundred people living here, making a living from the sea and also, quite surprisingly for Newfoundland, from the land as well. Mind you, with the area situated as it is in some kind of bowl on three sides, sheltered from the cold northern and easterly winds, and with the sea on the fourth side - the south-west - I would be tempted to have a go at agriculture around here too.
Anyway, be that as it may, there's no doubt that it was the airfield that caused the population explosion in the area.
The oil storage tanks well hidden in the undergrowth and the older ones painted in camouflage paint that you saw in the above photograph will give you an immediate clue as to what this is all about.
And if that isn't enough to make you have an educated guess, then the object in this photograph certainly will. It is without doubt an airfield of some kind of major military significance.
And so now that I have set the scene, I bet that you are all dying for me to tell you the story of Stephenville and its airfield.
And so having guessed that it had its origins in military matters, the first thing that probably springs to mind is the Royal Canadian Air Force. But back in the days when this was built, Newfoundland was not part of the Canadian Confederation at all, but a British Dominion in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
"Surely not the RAF?" I hear you remark, and you would be quite right there as well. It wasn't a Royal Air Force base.
Back in the dark and distant days of 1940, the British were in desperate trouble. Their armies had been thrown unceremoniously out of Europe but they had suffered the ignominity of leaving all of their weapons and equipment behind. One wag went as far as to say that the largest supplier of trucks to the German armed forces in 1940 was the British Army.
So practically defenseless and totally unarmed (we've heard stories of the British Home Guard drilling with pitchforks and with knives tied to broom-handles - they were true) the British had to look around the world for arms and equipment at a price that they could afford to pay.
The Americans had a mountain of equipment left over from World War I which was clearly obsolete, but nevertheless better than nothing at all, and they also had an enormous number of factories working at well under capacity. The British sent a Purchasing Commission to the USA to see how all of this could be utilised in their efforts to re-arm.
"We must be the great arsenal of democracy" had said Roosevelt on 29th December 1940.
The Americans quickly emptied the pockets of the British Government, and so Roosevelt proposed the "Lend-Lease" Agreement in which the Americans would "lend" the British what they needed. This was not without financial strings either and in the end, with their gold reserves totally exhausted the British were left with no option but to barter away their assets.
The Americans had 50 old four-funnel destroyers that were long out-of-date and did not even have the range to cross the Atlantic under wartime battle conditions but needs must when the Devil drives and the British puchased them in exchange for some 99-year leases on land in the British Empire that the Americans could use to build air and naval bases for their own policy of military expansion.
And so what you are looking at is what was known as the Ernest Harmon Airforce Base, for Stephenville was one of these American air bases on British Empire soil.
What was going through the minds of the Americans was that with the collapse of Denmark and France in May and June 1940, the Germans could install themselves in Greenland and on the French possession of St Pierre et Miquelon, just off the coast of Newfoundland (somewhere else quite high on my list of places to visit) with no opposition at all and threaten the eastern coast of the USA.
The Germans did attempt to establish some kind of base on Greenland, as it happens, but were not successful, and it is a little-known fact that for a short period during the war they had a weather station operating on the coast of Labrador.
Construction began in April 1941 and the personnel together with their wives and families flooded into the area, creating something of a boom-town atmosphere in this part of Newfoundland. The population at one time was over 10,000. The base was used as a transport depot for cargo planes and also as a refuelling base (you can see now the importance of the fuel tanks) for American planes flying the Atlantic
With the heightening of tension in the Cold War, the airfield was used as a base for the flying tankers that refuelled the American nuclear-armed bombers that flew over Greenland and Northern Canada waiting to pounce upon suitable Russian targets, should any ever present themselves for attack
But the prosperity that the air base brought didn't last all that long. Nuclear submarines took over the role of the bombers and the in-flight refuelling tankers became redundant. And as they were no longer required, neither was the base and in 1966 the Americans pulled out. It was handed back to the British Government who handed it over to the Canadian Government (Newfoundland and Labrador having become the tenth province in 1949) who in turn handed it over to the Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Although there is some kind of civilian air service here, to all intents and purposes the airfield is abandoned. There are derelict buildings and all of that kind of thing all over the place. It's all rather like the situation at Goose Bay in Labrador that we visited a week or two ago.
In normal circumstances you can gauge the importance of a place by looking around at the junk that's been left behind when things move on, especially in an isolated area like this where the costs of moving stuff for resale or recycling far outweigh the value of the asset concerned. These airliner steps are a classic example of this and tell rather a poignant story of when Stephenville was really the place to be.
In the centre of the town, mounted on a plinth on what I suppose would have been an abandoned lot we do have, of course, the traditional American fighter aeroplane from the Cold War era.
It's clearly seen much better days of course, and could do with a good clean and polish. It could also do with a plaque telling the interested visitor (such as Yours Truly) exactly what kind of plane it might be. My aircraft recognition went out of the window when they stopped fitting them with propellors. If you know what it is, please .
We do actually have a plaque on the site as you can see, but what this actually tells us is something about the events that went on here in the 25 years that the airfield was open, and nothing at all about the plane.
Now if they were going to mount a plane to symbolise the significance of the airfield, then why not a KC-97 tanker or even a B-52 bomber? One of those on a plinth here in Stephenville would be exciting, to say the least, and it would certainly be more appropriate.
Apart from our fighter plane of course, there's very little now to suggest that the Americans were here in such numbers, and you do have to scratch around for some kind of solid evidence.
In fact, the solid evidence is all around you because the effort and expenditure that the Americans put into developing this area was prodigious, to say the least. And things like the golf course that we saw earler, and many other recreational facilities in the town, owe their existence to the American forces.
It is also a little-known fact that Stepehenville had one of the very first coin-operated launderettes in Canada, ahead of many other cities with a much-bigger population.
And so from my vantage point out along the coast from where the view over the town is excellent, what can I tell you about the town today?
Firstly, and most importantly, this is where the local nick is. The kind of thing that I need to know on my travels so that my friends (note the plural - I do have two friends) know where to send the food parcels and the cake with the file secreted in it.
Secondly, there is a modern hospital here. That's another thing that I need to know on my travels as well.
It's also the headquarters of the College of the North Atlantic
It's also the location of what became something of a scandal during the late 1950s - the Battle of Long Gull Pond.
One of the military personnel at the base had his eye on a parcel of vacant land not too far out of the town and decided that it would make an excellent site for tourist facilities. On his discharge from the military, he came back to Stephenville, went through all of the negotiations with the owners, and purchased it.
Of course, just like in any isolated rural community (although the Stephenville of the late 1950s would be surprised to hear itself so descibed) the idea of a foreigner coming into the area and planning to make commercial use of a piece of abandoned and unwanted land did not go down too well with the locals, no matter how much money a tourist venue such as that which he was proposing would bring into the area.
Consequently, in what can only be described by a casual observer such as Yours Truly as a "bizarre series of home-town decisions", and anyone who has ever observed referees at Old Trafford when Manure Knighted are playing at home will know exactly what I mean, a whole series of obstructions was put in his way until he was forced out of his property.
The sequel to this decision today is that, would you believe, there has still been no substantial development on this plot, and I for one am not surprised. By now the importance of the area has passed by, the area is in something of an economic depression and no-one living here has that kind of money to invest. And which foreigner will invest any kind of substantial sum of money in the town once he has heard stories such as this?
I didn't really have time to go for a major exploration of the harbour area - something that I will have to do at another time, I suppose, if they let me back in after what I have just written. But I did set my foot upon it all the same.
This is Little Port Harmon, named after the air base (and not the other way around) and so I imagine that it was part of the harbour facilities for when the air base was operational - for the unloading of fuel and supplies maybe, I really have no idea.
I took another route back to the Trans-Canada Highway and found myself at the appropriately-named Stephenville Crossing. This is actually the head of St George's Bay and there's a causeway out across it to the other side.
It's quite picturesque here and if it wasn't for the pine trees it would be the nearest thing yet to a one of these holiday villages along the Costa Stella in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Over there in the distance at the foot of the Long Range Mountains is the Trans-Canada Highway and that's where I am heading.