Port Union Fire, 1945


Charles Granger

Charles Granger

(Published in the Fishermen's Advocate, March 2, 1945. The article had no by-line, but it was written by Charles Granger, the Advocate's editor. The article was transcribed by Melvin Baker, July 1997)

Thursday, March 1st, will always be remembered with horror by the people of Port Union and vicinity. Around 6 a.m. a fire broke out which in a matter of hours had levelled the main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company., Ltd., the Church of Holy Martyrs, the Hotel and the residences of Messrs. Daniel and John King. For a while it looked as if the whole town would be totally destroyed, but heroic and unceasing efforts on the part of the fire fighters stopped the blaze and the town, south of Bungalow Hill, was spared.

A wind, approximately blowing northwest, added to the dangers. Several small fires were started by flankers on the factory and the roofs of houses, but were promptly extinguished.

All morning the blazing inferno raged. Billows of smoke rolled away from the flame sheeted plant, as one of the most modern and best equipped fish plants in the country was destroyed.

The main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Co., Ltd., was familiar to thousands. It housed the offices of the Company, the wholesale, retail and department stores, fish stores, drier, cooper loft, and large stocks of drygoods, provisions, etc. A large quantity of dried codfish was in the fish stores at the time and was destroyed. It also housed the offices and stock rooms of the Union Electric Light and Power Company. We understand considerable stocks of electrical equipment was on hand at the time, new shipments having just been received. The Machine Shop, too, with its valuable tools, was located on the plant and was destroyed as were the Electric Company's familiar Buick, a Mack truck, owned by the Trading Company, and a Pontiac sedan owned by Mr. Alex. Pelley, plant engineer, all partially dismantled for repairs at the time.

The beautiful Church of the Holy Martyrs which was built in the early 1920's, contained stained glass windows in memory of soldiers who fell in the first world war. It was a graceful edifice beloved by the congregation and crowing the skyline of Port Union.

The Port Union Hotel, for the last number of years operated by Mrs. A. Goodyear, was familiar to the many visitors to Port Union who enjoyed its hospitality. Delegates to Union Conventions will hear of its destruction with sorrow, for it was there many of the delegates stayed and much of the business informally discussed. The southern end of the hotel was the residence of Mr. Alex. Pelley, plant engineer. Both the Goodyears and Pelleys lost much of their effects.

The King residence was directly across from the bungalow and above the hotel. When the hotel caught fire it was realized that Kings' dwelling was doomed. Fortunately the Kings' were able to save most of their furniture, but the double-house, which they owned, had to be abandoned and it carried no insurance.

It was a scene never to be forgotten and terrible in its mangnificence. Seen from across the harbour, where the impressive buildings of the country have long been a familiar sight, 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.

Within the town itself, with the wind freshening, and sheets of flame making hungry passes at the bungalow and the Woodworking Factory which houses the Fishermen's Advocate, all those not engaged in fire-fighting were removing their possessions from their homes, for it seemed very unlikely that the main residential part of the town would be saved. It was certain that if the Bungalow or the Factory caught the whole street would go. There was a period of tense suspense and strenuous all out endeavour, as water was poured on these two buildings and on Mr. Frank Bailey's house, the nearest of the houses along the road to the conflagration. But the grim, exhaustive work paid. The crisis passed and with a tremendous feeling of relief it was realized that there was a good chance to save the town. And the town was saved. The fire was under control but the danger was not past. A high wind, fanning the heaps of flaming and smoking rubble, could yet cause the havoc so nearly averted in the morning. A request was sent by Mr. Aaron Bailey, Manager of the Electric Company, and later confirmed to the Chief of Police by Const. Hickman Rose, who was on the scene of the fire and rendered invaluable assistance, for portable fire-fighting equipment hoping it could be procured from Port Rexton or Lethbridge by speeder. Apparently it was not obtainable. Meanwhile, Mr. H.A. Dawe, General Manager of the F.U. Trading Co. Ltd., who was in St. John's at the time, and who was kept informed of the tragic developments, by arrangements made through His Excellency the Governor, and Mr. K.J. Carter, Secretary for Natural Resources, obtained the "Shulamite" from the Admiralty to bring him to the scene of the disaster. He arrived shortly after six o'clock. Meanwhile the "Swile" and the "hood" had arrived from St. John's, having left there before the news of the disaster had been received.

The "Swile" was immediately dispatched to St. John's and two portable pumps and a thousand feet of hose, with Fire Constables Jack Gulliver and Arthur Crotty in charge, arrived this evening and immediately began to pour heavy streams of water upon the ruins from which clouds of smoke were still billowing. Meanwhile hoses from the town's water system had been kept playing on the smouldering rubble, and the danger passed.

The main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Co. Ltd. was built in 1917, and the headquarters of the Company was moved to Port Union from St. John's. The importance of the Company to the island's business economy in general and to the fishing industry in particular is very great indeed. 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.

But although the plant and equipment may be gone the Company remains. True most of the equipment will be hard to replace, but it can be done. Already arrangements are being made to resume business. Rubble is being cleared away, preparations are being made to open business temporarily in the woodworking factory. The factory and the Company's wharves are intact, as is also the sealing plant and the dock. The nucleus of a new beginning remains.

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