On the morning of September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers were collapsing in New York City, 38 jet planes were re-routed to a tiny airport in Gander, Newfoundland. More than 7,000 passengers found themselves stuck in a town of 13,000 for up to five days, with only 500 hotel rooms available in the vicinity.
The story of how the community came together to welcome and care for all these unexpected visitors, at such a tragic time, is today the subject of a hit Broadway musical, Come From Away. Volunteers made lunches, elementary schools were turned into dormitories, and the hockey rink became a walk-in refrigerator. The “plane people,” as they were called, hailed from 95 countries, and they were welcomed with open arms by the people of Gander and nearby communities.
Gander is a small town in central Newfoundland, about 208 miles (335 kilometers) from the eastern coast, which juts into the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s a sparsely populated part of the province, which is sparsely populated itself. But it’s in a strategic spot for aircraft flying over the North Atlantic Ocean, which is how the airport came to feature on the world stage.
Before Gander International Airport opened in 1938, Newfoundland’s fields were the jumping off points for early transatlantic pilots like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Newfoundland was the most eastern point in North America, and a logical place to begin a transatlantic flight.
During World War II, Newfoundland was dominion of Britain. Due to its strategic importance, the airport was turned over to the Canadian government for the duration of the war. Gander became one of the main staging points for the movement of Allied aircraft to Europe. Post-war, it was at the crossroads of transatlantic flights and remained an important refueling stop for many years. Everyone from Hollywood movie stars to pop stars to world leaders touched down in Gander.
In 1959, the Queen of England opened a sleek, modernist International Departures Lounge at the Gander airport. The avant-garde lounge reflected the glamour of mid-century air travel and featured furniture by famous designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Robin Bush, Jacques Guillon, and Arne Jacobsen. A striking mural by Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead, floor tiles that are reminiscent of Piet Mondrian, and swivel chairs in the ladies washroom, completed the look.
Gander’s global importance as a touch down point faded when jumbo jets from more western points started crossing the Atlantic non-stop in the 1960s. Air traffic dwindled in Gander, and with it the need for a large airport terminal.
Plans to build a smaller, more efficient terminal, unveiled in 2015, put the dazzling departures lounge at risk. The lounge today is a kind of time capsule, a perfectly preserved moment when air travel was exotic and glamorous. It’s considered the single most important modernist room in Canada, and there’s a groundswell of support to save it. For now, the Gander International Airport Authority has indicated that the departures lounge, along with its murals, sculptures, and furniture, will remain intact and isn’t going anywhere.