Port Union Fire of 1945


Melvin Baker and Peggy March (c)1997

A version of this article was published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. XCI, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 1997), 9-11.

On Thursday, March 1st, 1945, at about 6 a.m. a fire broke out which in a matter of hours destroyed the main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company, Ltd., the Church of Holy Martyrs, the Hotel and a duplex residence. Unceasing efforts on the part of the town's volunteer fire fighters stopped the blaze and the town, south of Bungalow Hill, was spared. A wind, approximately blowing northwest, threatened the rest of the town. Several small fires were started by flankers on the factory and the roofs of houses, but were promptly extinguished.

Port Union since 1918 had been the commercial headquarters of the Fishermen's Union Trading Co., Ltd. established by the Fishermen's Protective Union and its President, William Coaker. The Trading Company's main plant housed the offices of the Company, the wholesale, retail and department stores, fish stores, drier, cooper loft, and large stocks of dry goods and provisions. A large quantity of dried codfish was in the fish stores at the time and was destroyed. The main fish plant also housed the offices and stock rooms of the Union Electric Light and Power Company. The Machine Shop, located in the plant, was destroyed.

The Church of the Holy Martyrs, which was built in 1920, contained stained glass windows in memory of soldiers who fell in the first world war. The Port Union Hotel was also lost; the hotel had been home to delegates attending annual Union conventions at Port Union. A double-house, directly across from the bungalow (Coaker's residence) and above the hotel, caught fire but its owners were able to save most of their furniture.

"It was a scene," the Fishermen's Advocate's editor Charles Granger wrote, "never to be forgotten and terrible in its magnificence." "Seen from across the harbour, where the impressive buildings of the country have long been a familiar sight," he continued,

"it presented an awful and heartbreaking picture. The proud church disappearing, the hotel sheeted in flame, and the great blazing fire, with half the Company's premises gone, inexorably destroying the remainder. With the southern part of the building gone, the northern, with fish stores and elevators still stood but were blazing, and the elevator towers were like great torches with smoke and fire pouring from the upper windows. Here was grim disaster. Here the holocaust of fire unleashed and beyond the power of man to control, was wrecking terrible destruction upon a vital industrial centre, with pillars of fire and smoke making a horrible, transient monument to the work of years."

The importance of Port Union's commercial activities to Newfoundland's economy was not to be underestimated, Granger observed.

"Here was one of the largest centers of the salt codfish industry in the island. The Company is among the few very largest fish exporters. Here many thousands of quintals of Labrador and shore fish were handled annually. Here fleets of vessels came for supplies or to discharge the products of the sea or general freight. Here foreign steamers came to take on cargoes of codfish, exported not only by the Trading Company, but by the other exporters in this area, for Port Union is the shipping center for this part of the peninsula. Here, too, were available facilities which existed nowhere else on the coast. Here the Electric Light and Power Company had its headquarters, while the services of the machine shop were frequently sought. Thus the loss of the Trading Company's plant is not keenly felt in Port Union, but represents a serious loss to the whole area and to the country's welfare."

By late 1946 the Union Trading Company had erected new buildings to house the fish plant, department store, and the Union Electric Light and Power Company.

Some of the following photographs were taken at the time of the 1945 fire by Randolph Tulk. The only known photographs of the funeral in 1938 of Sir William Coaker were also taken by him and are made available here by courtesy of Peggy Tulk March.

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