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The ‘Most important WWI aviation archaeological site in Canada’ lies nearly unscathed on Deseronto Road

Camp Rathbun 1917. Photo Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

Just on the boundary of Greater Napanee and Deseronto lies what archeologist Michael Deal calls the most important aviation archaeological site of the First World War in Canada. Deal, an honourary Research Professor of Archaeology from Memorial University with a passion for aviation history, came to the area in September to survey and map the largely-unspoiled site.

There are no locals left who remember the training that took place in the skies above Deseronto, Napanee and Mohawk Bay. In fact, if you were born on the day the war ended, your 103rd birthday would be today, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021 — Remembrance Day. So, it is difficult for most of us to fathom what life was like during the First World War, and much of what did happen is confined to history books, museums, and monuments.

This is what makes the Camp Rathbun site so special to Dr. Deal’s research, and to Canadian history.

According to the Deseronto Archives, by 1916, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots were being killed in such numbers that they couldn’t keep up with the demand for new airmen. The British War Office looked to Canada to fill the deficit of recruits and training grounds. 

Camp Rathbun was one of two airfields (aerodromes) constructed in Deseronto during the First World War by the Imperial Munitions Board on behalf of the Royal Flying Corps (RCF) for pilot training use. Nearby Camp Mohawk was west of Deseronto, and the others were Camp Borden near Barrie, Armour Heights and Leaside in north Toronto, and Long Branch and Beamsville south of Toronto. However, Camp Rathbun, unlike the other aerodrome sites, was abandoned in 1919 and, aside from the occasional cattle herd, the land has had very little disturbance.

Deal began research on Camp Rathbun in 2017, reviewing documents and visiting the site in Deseronto, and has now received funding from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Heritage Fund and Memorial to take his next steps.

He visited the site in 2017 to do some preliminary reconnaissance. “The foundations for the hangars, you can still see on the ground,” he explained, “there’s a little bit of vegetation over them. But when I was trying to poke around with a probe, you could find the corners of all the buildings.”

Deal’s return to the site was significantly delayed by the pandemic, but he finally managed to get back in September 2021, and worked with a small team of researchers and volunteers to do a comprehensive mapping survey. 

The site spans both sides of Deseronto Road, and there are important sites on both sides, explained Deal.

“There was a railway track that went up along the side of the property and at the road, it stopped and they could take stuff across. And there was an a dump over near the ammunition building, which is still there. And the guardhouse is still there. And the hospital is still there,” he said. “Our priorities are mapping the visible foundations, standing buildings, and the geophysical work.”

There were aerial photos of the site taken during the war, but not all of them had notes explaining what each building was used for, Deal said. Some, like the hangars, guardhouse, hospital, the messes and the water tower were easily identified. But there were many other buildings that remained unidentified before Deal’s mapping visit.

In a phone conversation before his visit, Deal pointed out that the foundations of much of the aerodrome can be seen via Google Earth, “You can see brown patches where there were buildings. There’s one huge brown patch, where we can’t see any distinctive buildings. And that one might need something like ground-penetrating radar to see what’s under the ground there.”

Some buildings remain intact. The hospital building is now a private residence that has been renovated, while other smaller buildings are used as storage sheds and farm buildings. Deal even discovered that a building from the time, that now serves as a small house, must have been a shower building, due to the large cistern beneath the home.

Interestingly, Deal pointed out, “some of the original hangars are still standing, you probably know the ones on the Napanee fairgrounds.” The Lennox Agricultural Society still uses those hangars, which were moved to the Napanee Fair Grounds after Camp Rathbun closed.

The subsequent visit was successful, and Deal was able to confirm many of the suspicions he had. “The first three hangars and the old farmhouse (which burnt down) were part of 90 squadron in 1918. There were two other squadrons as well, each with three hangars and a headquarters. So there were three squadrons. Each hanger was a ‘flight’ of four to six pilots and a crew,” he explained. And referencing a photograph from 1918, Deal was able to confirm some significant findings, including the placement of the railway spur, and the depot (which his team measured using a drone), as well as six or seven barracks, and a T-shaped administration building.

At the Hospital at Camp Rathbun in 1917, airmen relax and convalesce on the porch. Now it is a renovated residential farmhouse. Photo courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

Though it wasn’t a full-on excavation of the site, Deal also came to officially record the many artifacts collected on the current farmland, part-owned by the Kimmet family and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, where the aerodrome stood, as well as various surrounding crash sites. The Kimmetts’ artifact collection includes an officer’s “swagger stick” or walking stick, bottles and bricks plowed up over the years, and even a stove from the barracks that was in the barn when they bought the farm, not realizing until recently that it was from the WWI era.

“The people who lived in the hospital before, they found a cane, it would have belonged to one of the officers,” said Deal.

Deal also had a great time exploring an area on the Kimmet property that was used as a dump by the airmen. China plates, bottles, and other glassware were evident from the period, but his two most special finds would seem insignificant to the untrained eye.

The first, a small piece of rusty metal resembling a key, he described as “the end of a turnbuckle… They were used to tighten all the wires that a biplane had — they were held together with a lot of wires.” 

The second is an engraved brass button the size of a dime. “It likely came from the fly on an officer’s pants and, if you look, the inscription is RFC,” he said, proudly displaying the item likely lost by an airman over 100 years ago on the very site. 

While in the area, Deal was taken by a local to visit her uncle and brother, Tom Dowling and Kevin Dorey. Both men own important artifacts found by their father and grandfather, Robert Edmund Dowling, who was born in 1901 and lived near the Camp during WWI. The late Mr. Dowling had shared stories of the usually quiet area buzzing with the sound of the squadron’s fragile aircraft, and the crashes that inevitably came with them. 

Tom Dowling, 75, unwrapped a clearly cherished heirloom to show Deal; a pair of struts from the airframe of a Curtis Jenny (Canuck) biplane. 

Dowling’s father, Edmund, then 17, had tended to two airmen who crashed their plane on his family farm. Later, he was given the pieces of the airframe by grateful comrades of the pilot and cadet.  The struts, the wood still strong and the metal still shiny, bear in pencil the name of the young pilot who was tragically killed, Lieutenant J. D. Stephen, and the year 1918.

Mr. Dorey, 49, showed the professor a pair of ‘gaiters,’ leather guards that covered the gap between the pilot’s trousers and boots to protect the leg and shin, that he received from his grandfather. Since multiple crashes occurred in the area, it is unclear whether these gaiters were worn by one of the two men in the crash that killed Lieutenant Stephen and badly injured a cadet, W. Somerville, but they, too, remain in pristine condition. 

“These are in amazingly good shape,” admired Deal, “you can still wear them. They would have been responsible for a lot of their own kit, so he [the pilot] probably would have bought them himself. They look like they were privately made by a leather maker.” 

While he took notes and photos of the artifacts, Deal chatted with both men about the stories that had been passed to them from the elder gentleman’s teenage experiences with crashes and the airmen. “There were several crashes,” recounted Dorey, “one where they ran out and our grandpa had to cut the gas because the gas was spraying all over.”

In another instance, the story goes that it was a crashed airman who taught Edmund Dowling to swear. “This pilot took a real tight bank and he stalled it and went in that way. And [Dowling] said [the pilot] walked away, but he was swearing up a storm. Swear words he’d never heard before.” 

Another time, a group of people were standing around watching when one of the pilots decided to show off. Dowling described that the aircraft dipping so low it went underneath a telegraph line, touching it’s wheels before climbing back into the sky.

Monument to “THE MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS NON-COM OFFICERS CADETS AND AIRMEN OF THE ROYAL FLYING CORPS AND ROYAL AIR FORCE WHO DIED WHILE ON DUTY IN CANADA 1917 — 1919,” Deseronto/St.Vincent de Paul Cemetery. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

Deal also took some time to visit the Deseronto Cemetery and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Cemetery, where some of the pilots are buried, and photograph their grave markers.

It is Deal’s hope that his preliminary survey will lead to a more extensive investigation of the site, and the future granting of National Historic Site status. 

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