Port Union: Wonderful Plant of FPU visited and described by J.R. Smallwood
And so this is Port Union!(Originally published in the Evening Advocate, September 2, 1921)
Here I am actually in the sacred spot which of all places in Newfoundland crystalizes unionism and cooperation, and stands as eloquent testimony of the contention that men united can do almost anything, and certainly what men divided cannot do.
Here is the soul of the Fishermen's Protective Union, and its several important auxiliary activities. Here is where the hopes and aspirations of the fishermen of the North take concrete form and lay a foundation upon which will yet be built a structure which unionists the world over might envy.
To you the naked truth, I had always been skeptical of this Port Union. I was never as sure in my mind that Port Union really existed. I had never been here until this time, and there was a subconscious tendency to discount all this talk about the FPU headquarters. I know that this is the tendency of the average St. John's man who has not been here to see for himself.
It seemed preposterous that there could exist in Newfoundland anything of the nature of Port Union. Surely, my subsconscious mind argued, St. John's was the only thing of its kind in this little country of Newfoundland. Like the average St. John's man, I thought of Newfoundland as St. John's, and St. John's as Newfoundland.
I was wrong, of course, I was very wrong.
There is nowhere in Newfoundland such a plant as this Union Trading Company plant, built and maintained by the toil-gotten money of the sturdy fishermen scattered throughout the North of this fishing country. St. John's cannot produce anything that can compare with the wharves and piers of Port Union. St. John's cannot produce anything in the store line as the Union Trading Company store here.
There is no waterfront premises in St. John's to-day showing such industrious activity as I see on the Port Union waterfront as I look through the window of the great office window on the fourth storey of the Trading Company plant where I am typing this article.
As I look there are three schooners from Labrador unloading new fish. A large steamer stands by the farthest-down pier. She is being loaded with fish in drums from the giant store which fronts the harbor. This fish is being unloaded in fervish activity - as I imagine - by as good longshoremen as I have seen anywhere and taken into the plant to be assorted, packed and sent out again to the big steamer for shipment.
There is nothing antiquated about the methods in vogue here. There is the very minimum of labor on this waterfront. True, the barrow-men lift the barrow from the vessel's side to the scales, and from that onto the trolley which runs out on the wharf from the store. But that is all the lifting there is. Four and more barrows of fish are placed on this trolley, and this is pushed into the door of the store, and onto an elevator. The elevator takes the barrow, men and all to the second floor, where there is an even busier scene than on the wharves. Here there are cullers, here packers, and here men at the electric press by which the fish is given its last packing in the cask before the cask is headed in. Here is a gang of men rolling the casks out on a superstructure built out on wharf beside which the steamer is lying. Soon the winches are in play and the fish in casks is being loaded into her holds. There is no overlapping, no double labor. Everything is in routine. From the time the fish is unloaded from the schooners to the time it is loaded into the steamer there is no retracing of steps. This is system personified.
Care of Fish
And what care is taken of the fish, in Port Union. Why, man, they seem to regard fish as an article of food! You think, from the way they handle it, that it was going to be eaten some day. I confess that on all former occasions when I saw fish being handled this thought never struck me. Even the casks are put aboard the steamer as clean as when they left the hands of the dozen coopers on the top floor of this spacious building. On one occasion, yesterday, I saw the President of the FPU stop the steady progress of rolling the casks toward the steamer, and direct that one particular cask, which had gotten some dirty sawdust on it, be cleaned before going aboard for the market. No wonder, I thought, Port Union fish had such a reputation.
And what cheery, friendly men are those Union men who work alongshore here in Port Union. Smiling, joking and chafing each other as they work, there is withal no step and no letup. They get through a surprising amount of work. In the last few days they have been working night and day getting the steamer loaded. Each man is filled with the unionism that has made this huge plant possible, and, made the phenomenal success of the Fishermen's Protective Union, and the success of the Union Party, possible.
One feels himself immediately to be among friends.
A Modern Town
And what a modern looking town is Port Union! Every house is electrically lighted. The power plant behind the port supplies not only the plants, houses, churches and hotel of Port Union with light and power, but Catalina, Bonavista town and other places along the line. The streets are electrically lighted. St. John's cannot boast the percentage of houses lighted by electricity that Port Union can. It seems to me that all the houses here are lighted. At least, I haven't seen one yet that was not.
It is a pretty sight at night-time, this lighted-up condition of the town. Built right on the edge of the harbor, something after the fashion of St. John's, the waters of the harbor shine with the illumination of the lights of the town and the plant.
Further up the harbor is the shipbuilding plant. Here have been built a dozen vessels, as far as I can remember The latest one is on the stocks now, and is ready to be launched. She will come off tomorrow, Thursday, if report does not lie. She is truly a beautiful and graceful little craft.
As I write these few words about the Port of Unionism, I look through the window and there upon the wharf my eye falls upon the man who has by his vision and imagination, his peerless organizing genius, his indomitable courage and matchless energy made it all possible. I see him busier than any man on the waterfront. I see him, in the free and easy apparel in which he is, I am certain, at greater ease than stifling in the town of St. John's, in and out among the men who love him as no men love any man in this country. I see him directing, supervising, helping, giving a hand, where needed - all quite without hesitation, and with an evident zest and keen enjoyment.
Mr. Coaker's Pride
Very apparent delight does Mr. W.F. Coaker take in this child of his brain and energy, as I can see. Intensely proud is he of Port Union and the organization which made Port Union possible.
The talk here is largely of his amazing energy. The man never seems to tire. He must have a stupendous reserve. He is out of bed and on the wharf and in the store at six in the morning, is here all day and I have seen him here each night so far this week when I left, late in the night, to retire. When he sleeps I know not. The men around him are him are proud of his strength, and tell stories of his feats of endurance. It is easy to see that the fishermen love him and are proud of him. Not that they talk out their sentiment in this regard. Any psychological student can see it, however.
Well, as I said, I have seen Port Union. There is one thing I can wish I had seen - that is, Port Union before it was Port Union - when it was Port Blank, Port Waste. I should have like to have seen the "before" as well as the "after."
One old man with whom I talked gave me a pretty clear picture of it, however. Richard Mesh, of Keels, Bonavista Bay, who, as he tells me, comes to Port Union for a month every summer, painted a vivid picture of the Port Union that used to be.
"Nothing but shrub," he said succintly. "Shrub trees grew down to the water's edge. It was the most unlikely looking place you ever looked at."
"I was with Mr. Coaker when he came here." He told me then what he had in mind for Port Union. I could not believe that his picture was a very probable one.
"Pigs might fly, Mr. Coaker, I said, but they're very unlikely birds."
The old man gazed reflectively at the ground for a moment.
"But he did it," he said when he looked up.