The Old Gander Airport & Labrador City

Gander, Horse Islands & Labrador City, Newfoundland and Labrador (Map)

Fall 2014


Searching for flights to Sept-Îles using Aeroplan miles, there were two options. First, there was the boring option of waking up in the morning and leaving Deer Lake, then flying Halifax -> Montreal -> Sept-Îles. This would take about 12 hours where the only place new to me would be my destination of Sept-Îles.

Choosing the other option was a no-brainer. Fly out of Gander in the morning, across to Wabush Labrador for a 5 hour stopover, then down to Sept-Îles?

So if I take the bus to Gander the day before and sleep in the airport, I can have a layover in Wabush and get to see Wabush/Labrador City in far western Labrador?!? A place that I may never see otherwise but always hear about by living in Newfoundland and Labrador?

Um, yes please!

On the way back I would fly into Deer Lake, which meant taking the bus to Gander for my car not to sit at the Gander Airport. Leaving Corner Brook at 11:25 am, the bus stops for everyone to eat dinner when you pull up to Gander around 5 pm. I removed my 70L pack here and sat in the quiet arrivals area through all of the hullabaloo of everyone in the cafeteria. Once the rest of the passengers were back on the bus & gone, the airport grew quiet to the point where I wondered if it was going to close soon.

I didn't want to start my trip with sleeping in the Gander airport, but a single company owns all of the hotels in Gander and runs a racket where none of them charge less than $130/night (with taxes). I find this infuriating in a town that should have at least one aged hotel that's a value option; infuriating enough that I've avoided Gander hotels out of spite for years. Therefore the airport closing might've meant unpacking my camping gear and hiking out into the nearby woods outside the airport.

After having fried pickles and a beer while watching Kershaw take on the Cubs, I went back to the arrivals area and a security guard came over to ask if "I'd be spending the night with them." With hesitation, I responded that I was planning on it & a relief shot through me as he let me know my best bet would be the couches up at the second-story arrivals observation room, where it would be quiet & no one should bother me.

I was taken aback by this helpfulness and friendliness. The Gander Airport was getting points already!

I was also excited to spend 14 hours in Gander's airport because it would give me an opportunity to explore & photograph something that might go away.

The original Gander Airport was built in 1938, but with it being one of the world's busiest airports in the 1950s, it was greatly expanded into one of the largest airports in existence. While it might seem like Gander in central Newfoundland is a weird place to have one of the world's most heavily-used airports, back then you had turbo-prop planes that needed to refuel before continuing on Trans-Atlantic flights. Gander was the place where all of these planes stopped to refuel.

The most remarkable addition at the Gander Airport would happen in 1959, with the Queen - the current one - attending the opening of the new International Departures Lounge.

What makes Gander's airport significant and worth saving is that this lounge was never renovated, but simply maintained and lightly used in recent times. It stands as a throwback of modernist design to a time when plane travel was glamourous (instead of today's exercise in getting bumped from your flight as you stare into a grey abyss at Washington Dulles).

Obviously we now have jet airliners that no longer need to stop in Gander for refueling before you head off to Copenhagen or Lisbon. The downside to this, is that it means Gander's airport is overkill for what is required by a rural Newfoundland airport. At 200,000 square feet, the airport's CEO has declared the need for a new building that would only be 50,000 sq ft. (Although, for some reason they're now looking to build a 100,000 sq ft building since the original 1/4ths-the-size quote came out.)

Citing an $800,000 heating bill in 2013, the need for a new $4 million roof & that the aged electrical system in this building would cost $11 million to replace, the CEO called for the construction of a new building at $40 million instead. This was announced in 2014 and they've built an airport terminal for ants already, but as of early-2016, that's all of the progress I see online (they're currently working to convince taxpayers & politicians to fund this construction).

As soon as this news came out there were calls for preservation of this special lounge, but the airport is on record saying that they're not in the museum business & that they're only open to zero cost adaptive reuse.

With the special lounge being the International Departures Lounge where my Quebec ticket didn't allow me to go, I was only able to check it out from behind reinforced glass, the tiny windows of closed doors and through security tunnels.

There were a few modernist pieces of furniture that escaped - like the uncomfortable couch I slept on & some awesome bright yellow trash bins - but the bubble couches, sun-shaped phone cluster and amazing clocks all kept their distance from me.

On an island where I often times feel removed from the rest of the world, how awesome is it that there's a clock here showing the time in Moscow?

Also, take notice of the cornerstone to the left of the above picture, marking the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and her dedication of the new terminal building & its lounge.

I was also able to get up close with this intricate Kenneth Lochhead painting.

The damned security tunnel was right behind me, but squeezing against it & utilizing the somewhat-wide lens on my camera, I was sort of able to take a picture of the 72-foot long work that he created right here in the airport.

In the end, I might not have had the best night's sleep at the airport, but I'm really happy that I spent this amount of time exploring and photographing the building. I had stopped here to use the wifi before, but having all evening & night to explore this time, I now realize just how much cooler the whole building is throughout.

During the entire visit & up until now, I never understood why the airport authority couldn't demolish only a portion of this building (obviously not the lounge). Finally I now see on their website that they say demolishing a portion and fixing the heating system would bring the cost close to that $40-million price tag and "with all of the challenges of an old building and none of the benefits of a new structure."

To me it seems that they are of that mind that go buy the built-in-2005 subdivision house, because they don't want to have to deal with any old house problems (while not thinking about the value and history that an old house provides to the community).

I think you can guess what camp I'm in for this debate. I wish more places decided to go the route of renovating the old instead of always longing for the new.

I almost feel bad for bad-mouthing the airport because the bartender lady was really nice, the waiter at the restaurant the same & the baggage check guy even gave me a bunch of ripped up cardboard trays to put in my pack, insisting that they're great for starting fires & I'll really appreciate them once I'm out camping on my adventure.

...but anyway, one last thing that I thought was neat was this painting of Great Burin that they had hanging on the wall. It was only back in June that I had been to Great Burin down by Marystown; photographing the grassy hills that are home to a few cabins nowadays (picture link, update link).

As the morning went on, I started to wonder what kind of people find themselves on the 9:45 a.m. Saturday flight from Gander to Wabush or Sept-Îles. My answer would be only a mother and her daughter this time, where the three of us then walked out onto the tarmac and boarded our 18-seat Beechcraft 1900.

This worked out for the best as the two of them sat towards the back & I was free to move from window to window, checking out the sights as we flew over Notre Dame Bay & White Bay.

In the above picture you can make out East Island of the Horse Islands - two sizable slabs of land off of the Baie Verte Peninsula that used to be home to a settlement of 215 people back in 1956. I had only poorly viewed these islands once before from a woods road near La Scie, so I was geeking out as we flew over.

The dramatic eastern coast of the Northern Peninsula would make an appearance, before everything clouded over and ended my fun.

Even though it didn't say it on my original ticket, I learned that I was on the Gander-Goose Bay-Wabush run & we stopped in the Goose to drop off the mother/daughter and trade them for two businessmen. It was rainy and grey outside, but I still craned my neck at the Goose Bay surroundings since I hadn't been here in about 5 years. It was neat to see the place outside of wintertime.

Landing in Wabush after another 90 minutes, it felt like I was up north because the airport was similar to what I knew in Goose Bay, with local advertisements & many of them for construction services. The terminal was small with a low ceiling, the aluminum of the baggage carousel dulled and seats were laid out in a tight fashion where you had to watch where you walked.

Wabush & Lab City are twin cities in far western Labrador and with Lab City being the bigger and more well-known of the two, I decided that Lab City was the one I wanted to check out. With the Wabush Airport being about a 4 km (2.5mi) walk from Lab City, I had already planned to take a cab now and later walk back to the airport - after all, if I was running out of time because of my excitement in walking around Lab City, I could always take another cab back.

I told the cabbie to drop me off simply "in Lab City" because I wanted to walk around all over and just check out the town. He seemed confused by this and assured me that there's nothing to see, but he guessed the mall was where I'd find the most action.

Along the way I was amused as he pointed out things: "and here's our Tim Horton's...and there's our McDonald's...and we have a Mark's Work Warehouse..."

This didn't deter me though, as there's plenty of places I like on the island of Newfoundland that other people enjoy saying mean things about and finding no enjoyment within.

It seemed that the mall was about as far as you could go in Labrador City, so at least it worked for allowing me to walk back through town and check out the housing stock. I walked up Vanier Ave alongside many small bungalows, before cutting up a dirt alley in back of houses, with no idea why the alley existed.

Popping out downtown, I came across Our Lady of Perpetual Help, built in 1962 and 1963, using local stone.

In researching this now, I was confused why there wasn't a church here earlier, but I see that the mine site at Labrador City was only being prepared in 1958, and the first families only started up a town site here in 1960.

I had no idea the history of Lab City was so brief.

Their schools were your standard, brick rectangles from the 1960s, but I was happy they were there when I needed to get out of the intensifying rain.

Continuing along 20 minutes later, there was finally something with a bit more colour; the type of place you imagine to exist in these northern communities. I guess I was mostly looking for those funky "northern" buildings with sheet metal and colour bands that you see in places like Springdale and Lewisporte, but they were surprisingly limited here.

Apartment at the corner of Cartier and Avalon.

It was around here that I decided I better get going towards the skatepark, as that was a must see before returning to the airport.

And voila! You have the $500,000-dollar skatepark of Labrador City!

I especially loved how these kids were all out in the rain because of the excitement of the new ramps. Which is extra good when you consider that the skatepark completion was announced for August 1, but sadly the ramps couldn't get setup until into September, i.e. a couple weeks before their winter. At least they managed to have a few days of enjoyment on slippery, wet ramps before the endless snow and cold.

Standing there to take a few pictures, kids kept jumping the box & trying to show off, thinking I was taking pictures for the CBC or The Aurora - which led to them being unimpressed when they learned the pictures were simply for a website with a readership of 5 people/day! Ha ha!

In addition to that scene, before leaving I had to ask one of the kids to try his bike. He had that look of, "oh, this old washed-up guy's going to eat it, nice!" since I wasn't dressed the part at all, with my wet parka and hiking shoes. Thankfully I managed to muscle his low-psi tires into a smooth feeble grind on the flat rail, much to his bewilderment.

I thanked him, then checked off "ride Lab City skatepark" & moved along.

The skatepark is basically in the parking lot of the local arena, so I obviously had to go check out the Labrador City Arena too.

Built in 1967, this arena replaced the original outdoor rink of Labrador City. It had the feel of an old rink in its design and small lobby, but was so well maintained & clean that I questioned how old it was until just now.

I had now been walking for a few hours & I was ready to warm up and grab some lunch. I had previously researched this and set off across town to get sushi, which I thought would be hilarious to get in Labrador City. Alas, it was closed until 4 and I was left disappointed in the office plaza which it occupies.

I'd end up settling for the chain restaurant of Pizza Delight, because I was tired of walking, the rain had increased & I didn't see any other exciting options. After all, I had walked by an abandoned 'Heddy's Restaurant' already.

Sufficiently warm and full of food, I settled into my 4 km (2.5 mi) walk back to the airport, only making it about 1 km before a car pulled over and a young couple offered me a ride to get out of the rain. Which how could I turn down, as I was now outside of Labrador City and walking on a plain, treed highway.

Back at the airport I was early getting back & additionally my flight was delayed. I thought about also seeing Wabush & how I should be thorough, but in the end I pulled out my miniscule 8" bluetooth keyboard and worked on this website by typing into my cell phone instead.

(Now sitting warm inside my house, I look back & regret not going to check out Wabush. Live & learn.)

My plane wouldn't be delayed for long & I would be on my way south soon enough.

Continue to Part 2: From Sept-Îles to Baie-Comeau...


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< Older Update:
The Old Newfoundland Railway:
Badger to Deer Lake, Part 1
or Part 2


Newer Update:
The Quebec Island Part 0.5:
Sept-Îles to Baie-Comeau >

1 - History of Labrador City - Labrador West
2 - New ATB FAQ - flyGander
3 - The Mad Men appeal of Gander's aging airport - CBC.CA/NL
4 - Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, volume 2
5 - Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, volume 1
6 - No Destruction Plans - The Beacon, Nov 26, 2014
7 - Gander International Airport Departures Lounge - National Trust For Canada
8 - Gander International Airport's Historic Lounge At Risk Amid Growing Costs - The National Post, Sue Bailey, June 22, 2014
9 - Gander Airport To Be Traded-In For New Terminal - CBC.CA/NL, Apr 29, 2014
10 - Gander's Glorious Room - Canadian Architect, Jane Severs, March 1, 2015

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