Argentia is a community on the island of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is situated on a flat headland located along the southwest coast of the Avalon Peninsula on Placentia Bay.
Originally a small fishing village called Little Placentia, the community adopted its present name in 1904 after a silver deposit was located nearby.
The first church and school were established in the village in 1831 and 1832 by Father Pelagius Nowlan, an Irish priest; the 1836 population was 484 people in 76 houses. The community's 2001 population was 450.
Railway comes to town
Construction started on a branch line to nearby Placentia from the Harbour Grace Railway mainline near Whitbourne (what would later become part of the Newfoundland Railway) on October 14, 1886 and the 26 miles of track were completed by October 1888. This became known as the "Placentia Branch" and it served as a key route to Placentia and the nearby port and anchorage of Little Placentia where coastal ferries would run to outports along the south coast of the island.
The Newfoundland Railway chose Port aux Basques to be its western terminus in 1893 and a new ferry intended for service to North Sydney, Nova Scotia was built in Scotland. In October, 1897 the new vessel named the Bruce arrived but the docks at Port aux Basques had not been completed. As a result, from October until June, 1898 (when it reverted to Port aux Basques), the Bruce operated from Little Placentia to North Sydney.
The name Argentia was coined in 1904 by local parish priest Father John St. John. The silver mine operated until the early 1920s but was never profitable. Through most of the 1800s, the fishery was the lifeblood of the community; a herring factory was built in 1936.
Death of a village
War between Great Britain and Nazi Germany was declared on September 3, 1939 in the aftermath of Hitler's invasion of Poland.
Argentia was selected in 1940 to be the location of a United States Navy base being built under the U.S.-British lend_lease program which saw American warships loaned to Britain in exchange for selected British military bases (or land for new bases) in the Western Hemisphere. The reason for preferring the Argentia site was due to the secure deepwater anchorage offered by the adjoining Ship Harbour and Fox Harbour, as well as the local topography for an airfield and an existing railway line.
The base was urgently needed as part of the trans-Atlantic supply line which joined North America to Great Britain, in order to provide anti-submarine patrols to protect shipping from the menace of the German U-boat fleet.
The land beneath the village was traded to the United States for construction of the base under the lend-lease programme and the residents of Argentia and Marquise received the following notices:
In exercise of the powers conferred upon me by the Defense (requisition of land) Regulations, made under the Emergency Powers Defence Act 1940, on the 28th day of December AD 1940, I do authorize all persons who shall be engaged by the United States Government or its agents and contractors on the construction for that government of any naval, military or air works at Argentia to do any work on any land or place any thing in, on, or over any land upon the Argentia Peninsula, in so far as it shall be necessary for any such person so to do for the carrying out of any such work of construction including any preliminary work in relation thereto.
Provided, however, that this present authority shall not be valid to authorize the demolition, pulling down or destruction of any building or erection upon any such land, or the doing of any act which renders any such building or erection intangible.
Signed, Wilfrid Woods, Commissioner for Public Utilities
"The Defence (requisition of land) Regulations made under the Emergency Powers Defense Act 1940 on the 28th day of December, A.D., 1940.
I have to notify you that the lands and buildings lately belonging to and occupied by you at Argentia, for which said lands and buildings payment has been awarded, are required for occupation by the Government of Newfoundland not later than ________. Take notice, therefore, that the said premesis must be completely vacated by you and peaceably yielded up to the Government of Newfoundland, its servants, agents, on or before the date mentioned.
Signed: WW Woods, Commissioner for Public Utilities"
Most relocated to the nearby villages of Freshwater or Placentia, however what little had been paid as compensation (usually no more than a few thousand dollars for homeowners in Argentia) proved woefully inadequate for building equivalent new homes due to severe wartime shortages of labour and materials.
Those buried in the three local graveyards were exhumed and reburied in a new cemetary constructed by the US forces at the insistence of the local parish priest, Father A.J. Dee, who had also raised serious objections to the wartime delays in finding new housing for Argentia's living residents who were being forced to leave the village.
The abandoned homes were then burned to the ground or (later) levelled by the use of bulldozers.
The American flag was raised in Argentia on February 13, 1941.
U.S. military presence
Throughout 1940-1941 the U.S. Navy constructed an airfield and navy base and built an extension to the Newfoundland Railway to service their facilities, owing to the condition of local roads. The navy base construction in particular was a priority with Navy Operating Base Argentia being officially commissioned on July 15, 1941.
The reason for the rush was made clear on August 7, 1941 when the heavy cruiser USS Augusta carrying U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in the Ship Harbour anchorage. Roosevelt inspected the base construction progress and did some fishing from Augusta over the next few days. Augusta was joined by the British warship HMS Prince of Wales carrying British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 10, 1941. While in the Argentia anchorage from August 10-12, the two leaders and their delegations managed to negotiate what was called the "Atlantic Charter" which established the basis for UK-US military cooperation and objectives. This history-altering agreement was signed on August 12 whereby both vessels departed for their home territories at high speed. The "Atlantic Charter" was publicly announced in a declaration on August 14, presumably after Prince of Wales had returned to UK waters.
When Argentia village was demolished during WWII, its people were moved mostly to nearby Placentia
On August 28, 1941 Naval Air Station Argentia was officially commissioned by the US Navy. Argentia would prove to be a very important base in the US war effort; by 1943 with the U.S. fully involved in the Second World War, Argentia saw upwards of 10,000 U.S. personnel passing through on the way to the European Theatre. An adjoining United States Army base was established as Fort McAndrew to provide anti-aircraft artillery protection for the navy base and naval air station. In 1946 Fort McAndrew became part of the United States Air Force and was renamed McAndrew Air Force Base in 1948. With VE in 1945, Argentia saw a drop in personnel but by the start of the cold war in 1947_1948, personnel numbers rose to 7,000. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, Argentia saw a total of 8,500 personnel posted in the area.
In 1955 McAndrew AFB was deactivated and turned over to the US Navy as the US Air Force moved its personnel to more remote and northern locations along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador to build radar stations which would become part of the Pinetree Line and DEW Line systems. In the 1960s Naval Station Argentia became a key "node" in the U.S. Navy's SOSUS underwater hydrophone system. As such, the base was the target for several espionage attempts by the Soviet Union. By 1969 the total U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine contingents had dropped to 3,000 and to 1,000 by 1971.
As facilities and structures closed, assets were transferred to the Government of Canada under the terms of the U.S.-Britain lend-lease program; Newfoundland having become a Canadian province in 1949. In 1973 Naval Air Station Argentia was closed and by 1975 the entire north side of the base was out of U.S. hands. In 1994 Naval Operating Base Argentia, one of the US Navy's most modern facilities, was officially decommissioned and the entire site was transferred to the Government of Canada, and in turn to private sector and the provincial government.
By the mid-1960s roads were upgraded between Argentia and the newly-opened Trans-Canada Highway at Whitbourne. In 1967 a new ferry terminal was opened by Canadian National Railway and the Ambrose Shea became the first seasonal ferry to call at the port, largely carrying tourists bound for the Avalon Peninsula (19 hours crossing time) from North Sydney, Nova Scotia. In the 1980s the terminal was upgraded by CN Marine and in 1989 the company's successor, Marine Atlantic, welcomed the Joseph and Clara Smallwood superferry (14 hours crossing time) on the Argentia summer run.
Its military base now closed, Argentia has all but become a ghost town. Not one of the original pre-war buildings remain (as they were demolished to construct the base) but some empty military buildings are being reused as the beginning of what is hoped to become an industrial park in Argentia.
The airfield lies abandoned; it may still be usable in case of emergency but as of 2002 its condition continues to deteriorate.
See also: ISBN 1-895387-19-1 "Uprooted! The Argentia Story" by Eileen Houlihan (1992, Creative Publishers, St John's)