Today, Mill Creek Nature Park is an idyllic forested enclave frequented by hikers, bikers, snowshoers, and birders who come year-round for its peaceful beauty. While the park is popular for its well-maintained trail network, it is perhaps most well-known for its large reservoir formed by a dam on Mill Creek. Water spills over the top of the structure forming a beautiful, if not a little industrial, ribbon of water. Considering that it was built in the 1960s, the dam is largely out of use but the reservoir is still maintained as reserves in case of wildfire. Surrounded by the sounds of twittering birds and cascading water, the casual visitor is often all but unaware that this land has a long, storied military history— one largely led by women.
The year is 1942. Approximately three years have passed since Germany first invaded Poland effectively summoning the world to the war table. Tension was high as the death toll mounted; by this point, millions of Canadians had voluntarily enlisted to aid in the war efforts and they were quickly followed by thousands of conscripted men. As war raged on the Western Front, Canadian officials scrambled to bolster domestic military intelligence infrastructure. Coverdale (the area now occupied by Mill Creek Park) was established as a naval radio station on Nov 23rd, 1942. This area was selected after an extensive survey because its large bog facilitated clear radio frequency signals (an ecosystem service we were certainly not aware of before this series) and the abundance of water provided a good source of domestic water.
With much of the male population overseas, the facility was quickly staffed by the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service upon opening. During this time, the base’s primary duty was to remotely track German U-Boats, and they successfully identified an enemy submarine in the Saint Lawrence River, leading to its eventual destruction. After the Axis’ surrender, the station remained in operation throughout much of the cold war and was not officially closed until the 1970s.
Despite the heroic patriotism displayed by the women running the Coverdale station during this time, controversy ensued when a 1950s error in a Moncton phone book mislabeled the station as the “Naval Ladies Station Coverdale.” Locals were outraged and saw the feminine title as extremely disrespectful. While doing research on the subject, we came across an article written for Sentinel Magazine in 1971 (nearly two decades after the initial mistake), still lamenting the “anguish” and “embarrassment” faced by the male Coverdale authorities. The author went on to note that the cause of the mistake was “too obvious: a smitten male somewhere in the system. After all, the Wrens1 there were darned good-looking gals!” But, to the relief of the author, Coverdale transferred its functions to the station at Gander, “a masculine name if there ever was one!” (see Sentinel Magazine,Vol 6, July-August 1971 for the original article, which is an entertaining read).
Today, little remains to remind visitors of the park’s storied past. For the most part, the lives and identities of the women who worked at the Coverdale Station during these tumultuous years have been lost to the thankless annals of history. Throughout this project, one of our primary goals has been to highlight local places, people, and things that are often overlooked or forgotten— the PWA is grateful for the opportunity to shine a light on some of the women that have worked to make our incredible watershed what it is today. The PWA hopes to demonstrate this respect by working to protect the park for current and future generations, through efforts such as our water quality monitoring program.
For an entry into our contest, take a trip to the Mill Creek Nature Park. As you walk along the winding paths, take a look around, and think about all of those that have stood in your place. We invite you to consider all of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of the women that never got the recognition they deserved.
1Short for Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (and named after their British counterparts)