St. Margarets

1952 – Memories of Construction – Sherman R Fisher

Memories of Construction
Sherman R Fisher

April 28 is not a date that historians remember for any reason. When that date rolls around, my wife is reminded that she is one year older. Not only is it her birthday that I must remember, but it is also a reminder of another event in my life.

In 1952, April 28 was just another Monday in the small community of St. Margarets, New Brunswick. Diamond Construction and their subcontractors were busy building the radar base. Many of the buildings were already completed and they were focusing their attention on the main Operations building and the adjacent towers. Don Fowler, a friend of mine who is plumber was one of the first tradesmen on the project in 1951. When John A Kennedy, the electrical contractor was expanding their crew, Don made arrangements for me to meet with their foreman. As a result of this interview I embarked on a career in the electrical industry that lasted until my retirement in 1999. Working as a new apprentice, my hourly rate was 80 cents. For those who had reached journeyman status, the rate was $1.35. Carpenters were paid $1.05 per hour and laborers received 75 cents.

Diamond Construction provided living accommodations for their men and those who were employed by the subcontractors. Three wholesome meals and a bunk cost $1.25 per day. I was assigned a top bunk in one of three bunkhouses. These bunkhouses each consisted of one large room and housed forty men each. An oil space heater was located in the center of the room with a long galvanized sink and several wash basins placed in one corner. A mattress and two gray blankets were standard issue. Sheets and pillows were the responsibility of the individual. The sink and the wash basins were standard conveniences in all the bunk houses but to use the showers and other facilities it was necessary to pull on your boots and walk to another building nearby. The dining hall and the kitchen were located in another building. Eight trestle tables with a seating capacity of twenty people each filled the dining area which was separated from the kitchen by a large arched doorway. After each meal the tables were reset for the next meal. Each table setting consisted of a large dinner plate set upside down on the table accompanied by a mug, bowl, knife, fork and spoon.

There were several camp rules to abide by. One was that all lights were turned off by 10:00 each night. Another rule forbid talking in the mess hall. I was told that this rule was necessary because the seating capacity was inadequate to accommodate everyone at one sitting. When you were finished eating, you immediately cleared your dishes off the table and took them to the kitchen so that your place could be reset and used for the next hungry person. The food was served family style with large steaming bowls filled with meat and vegetables or whatever was on the menu placed on each table. Platters stacked high with homemade bread cut in one-inch slices were accompanied by plates of old fashioned cheese cut in irregular cubes.

Several homemade pies in two varieties and cut in six pieces each were also placed on the tables. Large enamel coffee and teapots were within everyone’s reach.

Before the days of television, there was very little in the way of recreation. In the summer months between six and ten PM, most people chose to spend the evenings outside watching or participating in a game of horse shoes or taking a short walk up the road to Flynn’s country store and maybe a stop at Bert and Mary Shanahan’s house to buy postage stamps from the post office which they ran out of their living room. Occasionally Father Grant would show a movie at the community center. A donation box was there for those who wished to show their appreciation.

The main Operations building and the adjacent towers were completely closed in by April 1952. Corrugated asbestos panels were used to form the outer shell of these structures and the passageway that connected them. Asbestos was also used as an insulating material and was applied by spraying on the interior walls of the building. No precautions or protective equipment were used by the workers in the area during the application of this hazardous material. At times the visibility would be reduced to a few meters as they sprayed the walls.

Many changes occurred from April 1952 to September 1953. Interior walls were erected and a mechanical contractor installed a network of metal ducts. This system, commonly known as the Electronic Duct, served as a raceway to install a network of multi-conductor cables that ran from room to room and building to building under the watchful eye of a young Flying Officer by the name of Arthur Ireland. Northern Electric’s installers completed this installation that enabled the radar equipment to be interconnected. In addition to Flying Officer Ireland two other personnel were there during the same time period. LAC Don Wright from Manitoba and LAC Don Goudy from British Columbia were the first two power plant operators to start up the three Blackstone diesel generator sets.

Like April 1952, September 1953 was an important date from my experience in St. Margarets. During that month I returned to a classroom for another year at New Brunswick Technical Institute which later became New Brunswick Community College. They offered an eight month electrical program. Math and other related subjects were taught to enable the student to attain journeyman status. The following June I returned to Saint Margarets for a few finishing touches to the project.

Now the base was operational. Security checks and ID cards were necessary. Diamond Construction’s living quarters was no longer being used. The base mess hall was now available to us for meals. Recently, when I was talking to my old friend Don Fowler, he told me that when the buildings were demolished the Health and Safety Commission’s regulations required that showers be made available for the people handling the asbestos material. This would allow them to take off their contaminated clothes and shower before leaving the work site.

Although I have driven by the base many times since June 1954 it would be more than forty-five years before I would pass through that old gate again. This time I drove along a broken asphalt lane leading to the area where the main Operations building once stood. Getting out of my car and walking around I found the silence deafening. Except for the sound of a few crickets in the long grass I realized that I was there alone.

Click on the description text to view the photograph.
  1. Assorted photos taken during the construction phase.
    Courtesy As Indicated.

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Updated: February 26, 2004