Sir William Coaker
(Source: Sir W.F. Coaker, Past, Present and Future: Being a Series of Articles Contributed to the Fishermen's Advocate, 1932 (Port Union, 1932), Article 16, published in the Advocate, November 2, 1932)
This week I will endeavour to cover our activities at Port Union.
When the F.P.U. determined to establish a Company of fishermen to do their own trading, we had no idea of building a town or a plant such as now exists at Port Union. I tried to get a price on the property at St. John's now occupied by the Imperial Oil Co. I was told it was not for sale. I tried to get a price on Tessier's premises. I was told it was not for sale. I was negotiating for the property on the South Side, now owned by Cashin & Co. when Mr. Brown came along and offered a better price. The other suitable locality would be at Catalina. I examined the property at the bottom of the harbour occupied by the Stone family, and but for the shoalness of the water and the bar across the harbour entrance it is likely that site would have been decided upon. I tried to get Snelgrove's property which is extensive and would have suited, but found that only a portion of that could be secured.
The site at Port Union now occupied, was not a promising proposition, as it was hilly and rocky, but it possessed a splendid deep water front. It was owned by McCormack & Walsh of Catalina. It formerly belonged to a Scotch business man named Thompson. One hundred and twenty years ago he conducted a small supplying business on this site and died at the age of thirty eight, and was buried in the Church Cemetery at Catalina where his tombstone can be seen in front of the Church. Fifty-five years ago it came into the possession of Messrs. McCormack & Walsh, who then conducted a thriving business at Catalina, and had a considerable investment in a banking fleet. I found out that the firm was willing to sell the property in the Northwest Arm as it was then called. Eventually it was transferred to the F.U. Trading Co. for $400.00. It is the only suitable outside site for a large commercial and exporting business between Baccalieu and Cape Norman. Near by was a river which could be utilized to provide electric power. The waterfront would accommodate steamers up to 4000 or 5000 tons. The bottom was mud and quite suitable for piling. The area embraced eighty acres abounded by 2000 feet of water frontage suitable for marine activities. The railroad was but one and half miles distant. The formation of the frontage was suitable to accommodate the laying of rails along the whole frontage and connecting it with the stores and piers. Had the locality consisted of agricultural land, instead of being rocky and hilly it would have been occupied years before, and not available for our purpose.
When we started to build we had no money for construction. We started in the spring of 1916. In January, 1918, we moved into the new premises from St. John's where we then occupied the premises now used by Lazo & Co. and the Water Street store formerly used by Mr. Sidney Woods. 1916, 1917, and 1918 were good business years owing to war conditions, and the high price of fish. The premises was paid for from the profits of the business during these good years, and none of the shareholders money was expended for the construction. Hand in hand grew the Hydro Electric Plant, the Shipbuilding Plant and the erection of dwelling houses and a church. To this was added subsequently an equipped Woodworking Factory and Store extensions and a Seal Oil Plant worth another $50,000.
All the buildings are equipped with elevators and labor saving appliances. The Fish Stores are the most modern and conveniently arranged in the country. Adjoining the Fish Stores which contain 25,000 square feet of floor space with fish presses in each flat, is the Drier capable of covering 150 quintals, and equipped with Electric Blowers, Fans, and Heaters that transfer damp fish into hard dry in twenty hours. At the other end of the Fish Store is situated the Salt Store, with a capacity of twenty-five tons and a Cooperage equipped with machinery that provides all the fish packages used on the plant. The roof of the Fish Store and Cooperage is used as a flake to dry fish and can spread three hundred quintals. The premises also contains a Cold Storage Plant, Coal Sheds, three 150 feet Piers with 500 feet of Breastwork. The Provision Stores, Machine Shop, a modern equipped Forge, Garages, Stables, Boiler House, used to heat the Premises are all constructed along the waterfront. The Dry Goods Wareroom, General Store, Offices, Electric Co. Repair and Retail Shops are all connected with entrance from the main street. The church is a lovely building fitted with ten coloured glass windows in memory of ten Coaker recruits who died in the Great War, consequently the church is named "Holy Martyrs." It cost $25,000 and is out of debt.
The hall known as "Congress" Hall was built by the F.P.U., the Trading Co. employees and subscriptions of friends of the F.P.U. and is an outstanding building, situated on the crest of a hill overlooking the whole community, and cost $25,000, and is out of debt. The Trading Co. owns 50 tenement houses on the property occupied by the employees. The Woodworking Factory is probably the best equipped and laid out in the country.
Thirty private residences have been erected at Port Union during the past twelve years.
The Shipyard adjoins the property, also the seal Manufacturing Plant. At the bottom of the Arm about a quarter of a mile from the Plant is the Power House which supplies light to the adjoining towns of Bonavista, Elliston, Little Catalina, and Catalina. This investment covers an outlay of $150,000.
The Trading Co. owns and operates twenty-five Branch Stores and premises, also a fleet of fifteen motor vessels and schooners. Here is a venture that is owned by fishermen, controlled and operated for their benefit and in their interest. A tremendous undertaking which has been of immense value to the whole body of Northern fishermen, whether they recognize the fact or not, and it would be a national calamity if it ceased to continue to be operated in any other capacity.
Port Union is a compact, convenient, safe and self-contained
commercial venture established by the Northern fishermen in the
face of bitter opposition of large commercial and financial
interests. The obstacles it had to overcome were many and severe,
and the whole history of its trials and perplexities will never
be generally known. One instance I might cite: Fourteen or
fifteen years ago the Company owed the Bank some $90,000 in the
spring of the year. The Manager wrote giving us a couple of days
to square up the amount. Whether it was Toronto, or the
influences at St. John's of commercial or political opponents
that pushed the St. John's Manager I do not know, but I felt the object
of the imperative demand was to embarrass the whole organization
as well as the Company. We had no rich directors or associates to
appeal to for help, but I had to make good or take the medicine a
soulless Bank Manager had prepared, and I had forty-eight hours
only to look around. I probably showed Mr. Halfyard the Bank's
letter but no one else connected with the Company knew of it. It
was then the Trading Co. realized that all business men were not
soulless, and the warm friendship was begun between myself and
the late Mr. Collishaw, which continued during the remainder of
his life. I went to Mr. Collishaw and showed him the demand and
asked him if he would see a few important men around town who
might be induced to assist the Company under such Shylock
circumstances. Without hesitation he started on the mission and
by the next day he was in a position to inform the Bank that the
Trading Co.'s obligation would be met. He interviewed Hon. John
Harvey, Messrs. T. & M. Winter, Mr. Geo. Neal, Hon. John
Browning, Sir M.P. Cashin, Hon. Tasker Cook, and between them
they endorsed Notes to the value of $90,000, which Notes were all
paid off during the following fall. I trust Sir M.G. Winter and
Sir Tasker Cook will forgive me for referring publicly to this
matter. I have never publicly referred to this incident, but as
the interests of the fishermen affiliated with the F.P.U. and
Trading Co. were safeguarded at that time by the actions of the
above gentlemen, most of whom have passed over, I consider it my
duty to publicly acknowledge my deep appreciation of this
splendid response to my appeal for help at that time. It goes to
prove that while the generality of mankind is cold blooded and
mercenary, there remains a small percentage of noblemen
possessing souls that spur them on to do their duty to their
fellowmen. Sir M.G. Winter has always been a tower of strength to
the Trading Co. and without the financial help of Mr. Collishaw
for years prior to his death, it would have a life and death
struggle for the Trading Co. to keep on its feet. No good action
wherein men demonstrate that they possess souls, passes without
its proper reward here or hereafter. The country indeed lost
severely when at middle age Hon. John Harvey, Hon. John Browning,
Sir M.P. Cashin, and Mr. Geo. Neal passed on to their reward
leaving their country and countrymen deeply bereaved and unable
to fill the vacant gaps.