"Tramping 100 Miles on the West Coast" - J.R. Smallwood



Melvin Baker (c) 1995

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXXIX, no. 2 (Winter 1994-95), 17-25

Joseph Roberts Smallwood in 1930

In 1915 15-year old Joseph Roberts Smallwood left Bishop Feild College and found employment as a "printer's devil " (or apprentice printer) with the St. John's newspaper Plaindealer and six months later with the Spectator. When the latter ceased operations he joined the Daily News as a circulation clerk where he worked for the next two years. During this time he wrote anonymous letters in support of William Coaker and the Fishermen's Protective Union in its newspaper under the pen name "Avalond." In 1918 he became a reporter for the Evening Telegram, the city's most prestigious newspaper. Smallwood, or "J.R. as he is familiarly known to his friends," resigned from the Telegram on June 25, 1920 to take up employment arranged by St. John's journalist Sir P.T. McGrath in Halifax on the Halifax Herald. He travelled by train across the island writing back to the Telegram of his impressions of the island's interior and west coast, which particularly inspired him: "Newfoundland is the West Coast - the West Coast is Newfoundland. One cannot be really proud of Newfoundland until he has seen the West Coast and that's no lie!"

After two months as a reporter in Halifax, he eventually moved on to New York where he joined the socialist newspaper Call as a reporter and became active in the Socialist Party as a public speaker. In February 1925 he returned to Newfoundland and with it an end to his fascination with all things American and his budding career as an American journalist. It was labour leader and socialist friend, John P. Burke, who persuaded him to return home and reorganize branch Local 63 of Burke's International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers at Grand Falls. Smallwood found at Grand Falls a local which had had a membership of 1700 now with only about 100 and declining further. He built the membership rolls up to over 900 within a few months. In the summer of 1925 Smallwood moved to the frontier construction town of Corner Brook (the site of Newfoundland's new second paper mill) and organized Local 64. Smallwood's next effort was to organize the 600 section-men who worked for the publicly-owned railway and who had been threatened with a wage cut. By foot, by hand trolley, and by train, during September and October he signed the men up in their homes and at work and had reached Avondale, approximately 30 miles from the capital, when he met a train going in the opposite direction carrying officials of the railway. Threatening to close the railway down, Smallwood convinced the officials not to implement their proposed wage cut.

What follows below is a description of part of Smallwood's walk across the island to organize the railway section-men. It contests of two articles he published in the Corner Brook Western Star for October 7 and 31, 1925. The articles present Smallwood's views on the need for compulsory education and highlight his life-long fascination with agriculture. They also provide glimpses of French Newfoundland life on the west coast as well as the small colony of British military officers who had moved to Newfoundland to be gentlemen-farmers. Very little of Smallwood's early writings have been compiled and analysed; as a significant 20th century figure in Newfoundland's political and cultural history, more is needed to be known of the pre-1949 journalistic and labour organizing phases of Smallwood's life in order to understand fully his place in that history. We know from his own autobiographical account as well as several biographical accounts that his writing output was no doubt volumious. Smallwood's place in Newfoundland's history has been greatly coloured by his 22 controversial years as premier; it is time to put his whole career in historical and scholarly perspective. Recent work by Peter Narvaez and Philip Hiscock of Memorial University's Folklore Department on the "Barrelman" phase of Joey's life is a start in this direction.


Every Mile a Revelation to One Who Hiked the District for the First Time


J.R. Smallwood, President of the Newfoundland Federation of Labor

The train from Port aux Basques, ten miles to the West, set me, a lone passenger, down at Cape Ray, and, discovering from a bye-stander at the station that the objects of my quest were along the line near Little River, now called St. Andrew's, I set out on my klh]ike [sic]. Valise in hand, overcoat slung on shoulder, I swung along the sleepers bravely enough, viewing the scenery on either side of the track. A couple of miles ahead on my right, some magnificent hills, rising in undulating waves like a saw with round instead of sharp teeth, showed. As mile followed mile, these hills accompanied me, in their everchanging shapes and heights, and presently the track was running quite close to the sea coast. The wind had blown fiercely the day before, and the sea pounded tirelessly upon the sands - for sands these were, stretched in most beautiful beaches curved like crescents, that out-rivalled Coney Island beach with their attractions. Hundreds of yards out the breakers gathered and came rolling in upon the sand with a sure, resistless might that compelled the attention and awe of the solitary traveller that day, and sitting on one of the rails I listened to the sighing and bellowing of the sea and wished others might be there to enjoy the sight with me. For miles, winding around the crevices and ravines worn into the shore by the sea, the track kept in sight of the Cabot Strait, until gradually it veered away to the right, out of sight of the shore, and one began to notice the improving nature of the soil and the more luxurious growth of vegetation that lined the railway line. Still there was no houses, until one got close to St. Andrew's. From that place Eastward the farm lands began, and houses were more numerous, although never plentiful.

A Run By Trolley

A mile from St. Andrew's I ran into the four-manned section crew whom I sought, sitting beside a boiling kettle having dinner, for it was twelve o'clock, and I got a run by hand trolley into St. Andrew's, where I got dinner and stayed to tea. After tea I went to Tompkin's,and stayed for the night with Mr. Tom Wall, the foreman of that section. In the morning, on again, past Doyle's, to Overfall, where a freight passed through and wouldn't stop at my signal to give me a lift - for which I expressed my sentiments heartily to myself as she thundered past me and the mosquitos got down beneath my collar at their nefarious work. However, South Branch was finally reached, after a weary walk, made worse by the evergrowing weight of a heavy valise, which I now learned to sling across my shoulder on a stick.

Owls and Black Bears!

From South Branch I trudged on, past North Branch, where I met a crew of bridge repairers who treated me to a "mug-up," and arrived foot-sore, by eight o'clock, at Codroy Pond, where after getting a cup of tea, I saw the section crew and borrowed a lantern and, at ten o'clock, set out on the last ten miles for the day. Beginning at the beautiful Codroy Pond, which begins at North Branch, and extends for miles, and extending to Crabbes, ten miles past Codroy Pond station, the track stretched through beautiful wooded country, the trees being leaf-bearing, mostly birch, I think, interspersed with evergreens. These trees, tapering high on the sides of the hills, now to my left, barred off the moon, and, to make matters worse the chimney of the lantern broke and I was in darkness, stumbling along the sleepers towards Dick Wells' house near Crabbes. The night silence was made eerie with the cries of the crazy owls in the hills, and every now and then I heard a certain sound which was new to me and about which I was a little apprehensive. Dick Wells, the foreman of that section, when I reached his house at two in the morning, told me that it was the "gruff-gruff" of black bears. I don't know whether my face was pale as he held the lantern up, but at any rate he quickly added that at this time of the year with so many berries around, they would not molest a human being. All the same, black bears, at twelve o'clock in the night, are not my idea of choice of company for anyone to keep.

By dint of walking and pumping my share on hand-trolleys, I reached St. George's that night, slept, and by noon got into Black Duck, having walked over 100 miles since leaving Cape Ray. Needing to be in Corner Brook by the next day, I boarded a freight there and reached home Saturday night. Thus I covered one of the divisions into which the main line is divided, and three more, with six branch lines, remain to me to be covered in the same way before reaching St. John's.

A Tragic Comedy

At Carteyville, the other side of Robinson's, I was chatting with a young fellow who looked to be about fourteen. I was sitting on the rail when he sauntered up, without a word, sat beside me, took a great black pipe from his mouth, blew out a cloud of smoke that went curling into the air, and, after spitting deliberately, passed the time of day. Conversation ensued, in which I learned that he was the cook for a crew of men I had seen further back. He said he was sixteen, and I protested that he didn't look it, but he reckoned, he said, that might be due to "the pipe". He had been smoking since he was thirteen. I asked him if he had ever gone to school. "Oh yes; about a twelve month." That was, twelve months off and on, there being no teacher in his home, which was Cape Ray. I was studying a railway timetable, and he bent over my shoulder and painfully spelled out the name of two or three places. Overcome with the magnitude of his accomplishment, he leaned back and remarked contemplatively: "'Tis a qua'e thing, sir, but out of all the fellows (meaning the crew of twelve men for whom he was cook) I'm the on'y fellow as have eider bit o' larnin' atall." And still there are some people in Newfoundland who don't appreciate the dire necessity for compulsory education in our country.

A Bold Peasantry

At Codroy Pond I discovered some facts which greatly interested and pleased me. A family named Cormier, of French origin, gave me a lunch, and while I ate I chatted with them. They have a small lumber mill, the trees for which they cut themselves in winter and saw in summer. They have some sheep, and they shear the wool, card it themselves, and weave it into blankets, underclothing and homespun cloth for outer garments. They showed me the articles which they had made, and it was, even to my novice eyes, of extra good quality, and I am quite sure that Mr. Cormier's suit of clothes will outlast three suits of ordinary material. Mr. Cormier c[t]old (sic) me that it was his sister who had been asked by that Priest - whose name I forget - on the South West Coast, to go there and teach the people how to weave cloth, etc. She took the first loom there, and now there are actually 40 looms in that place. That is the sort of thing that makes any country great. "A bo'd peasantry is its country's pride."

Local Made Violins

Basil Cormier, a twenty year son, strained some muscles over a year ago, and was ordered by the doctor to do no more work for a few years. So last winter, being indoors, he cast his mind for something with which to busy his hands and brain. Upon what idea do you suppose he hit? Making violins! He made one, a rather crude affair, but with a good tone which, his father assured me, sustained a note half a minute after the bow had left the strings. He thereupon made another much better, and then another. So far he has made eight violins, the last two of which he showed me and played upon, to demonstrate the tone and volume. To me it was almost unbelievable. The violins looked almost exactly the same as you'd see in a music shop, and the tone was greatly better than that of two-thirds of the "fiddles" you see around the country at dances. Every part of the violin except the strings and the bow he makes himself, even the keys for winding the strings.

I was greatly surprised to find the number of French people along the line. As you approach St. George's nearly all the people you meet on the line, at least are French, speaking, some of them, very little English. I was assured that more than half the people around St. George's and Stephenville are French or of French extraction. Some of them have English blood in them, the result of mixed race marriages. They are a fine type of men, and it was a matter of keen interest to me to meet and talk with them.

Newfoundland Coal

At Robinson's Station I had dinner with Mr. Dean Gale, and was greatly interested to hear from him and Mrs. Gale about the quality of coal at the St. George's Coal Fields, Ltd. reserves. They had burned quite a quantity of it in their kitchen stove, and they told me that it burned better than any coal they had ever had in their lives. The local coal burned down to a fine white ash, giving off great heat, and leaving no smoot or dirt about the stove. What's wrong? If the coal is actually there in quantity and quality, why is it lying unused in the earth, and we importing coal by the hundreds of thousands of tons? This is a national matter, and as a national matter it ought to receive national consideration. Personally I am weary of talking and writing about it. It's time for ACTION.

English Officers Farming

One of the most interesting of all the things I learned on the tramp through this beautiful country was at Black Duck Brook, where Mr. Edward Chaffey was telling me about some Englishmen who are farming about two miles inland from the railway. There are five of them altogether - Captain Victor Campbell, ex-R.N., Colonel Taylor, Captain F.H. Beckerman, ex-R.A F., Captain Neville, and Major D. Wise. They have a farm each, having started last year and this year. They have hundreds of acres of land, and are getting much of it under cultivation, employing modern machinery and crews of men for the purpose. They employ men with their families and pay them monthly wages and find them and their families. The employees are very decently treated, and are well paid. Almost every week, I was told, they import some additional farm implements, and apparently they are determined to go in for farming on a large and thoroughly scientific scale. They go home to England for the winter, leaving the men to attend to things, and also have their families visit them from England in the summer months.

But the most astonishing fact I learned in this connection was about the farm owned by Mr. Charles D. White, formerly of St. John's. There now some ten years, Mr. White has actually 115 acres under cultivation. Last year he shipped to Corner Brook, Port aux Basques, Grand Falls, St. John's, Fogo, etc., ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SEVEN CARLOADS OF FARM PRODUCE. The produce consisted mainly of turnips, cabbages, carrots, parsnips, etc., and 100 tons of hay. He does not go in much for growing potatoes, I heard.

What's Wrong With Agriculture

These facts opened my eyes. If, as has been so nobly demonstrated by these men, farming can be so successful over in this part of the country why in the name of all that is sensible is not farming carried on upon a bigger scale than it is? I am thoroughly convinced that there is room for 1000 new big farms over here, and what they could mean to Newfoundland any child can see. The land is the mother of all wealth, and it is kindly and fruitful. How much longer will we neglect farming in Newfoundland?

Take, again, the matter of sheep and cattle raising. Will someone explain to me why sheep ranching is not gone in for in Newfoundland? The average farmer over here has a few sheep, maybe a dozen, or twenty. That is a paltry number to have. There is no insurmountable obstacle in the way of having 1,000,000 sheep on this coast alone. But it is too big a thing for the individual farmer unaided. Why cannot the Government in Newfoundland do what governments do in Australia, New Zealand, and other countries? Does anyone suppose that those countries have become great farming and stock-raising lands by chance or luck? No, indeed. It is largely because of judicious, sound help from the governments. It is time the government held out the helping hand to agriculture. Every cent expended would come back a hundred-fold.

There are two ways in which a government could be of very great assistance to the farmer or stock-raiser, not to speak of the dairyman. One is in the matter of marketing; the other concerns capital.

Government "Helping Hand"

I found along the line that in places the farmer is solely dependent upon one local merchant in marketing his produce. That, obviously, is not a healthy state of affairs. Again, we import hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of produce into Newfoundland. I remember seeing whole schooner loads of potatoes and turnips, etc., on the south west coast a few years ago discharging from Prince Edward Island. All that is required is some large-scale agency for moving produce from our points of production to the points of consumption. That would be largely a matter of freight consideration, and the arranging of favorable credits. The government might do as they do in Queensland and other Australian states - organize the farmers and growers into cooperative societies for the joint marketing of their crops. This would be of enormous practical help to agriculture, and if this is not a legitimate activity of any government, then the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Denmark, Holland, etc., have been violating some principle of government for many years.

I believe that if the government were to set up some Farm Loan Bureau, such as the American Federal Farm Loan Bureau, and like the government institutions in so many American and Canadian States and Provinces, to lend money to the legitimate farmer on long-term, low-interest lines, there would be many who would be glad to take advantage of it to widen the scope of their activity, with obvious benefit to themselves and the country.

Great Possibilities

All very well to start Corner Brooks, Ganders, etc. That is good, but the fact remains, and obtrudes itself: a prosperous farming community is always the backbone of a country. I am convinced, from personal observation here and in other countries, that we have great agricultural, dairying and stock-raising possibilities, and it is time something practical was done to make those possibilities real and actual.