The history of the Union Electric Light and Power Company is a story of development and
progress, and its story is a record of the fundamental changes which have shaped the way of this
entire area during the last seventy (70) years.
The Union Electric Light and Power Company was the creation of the late Sir William Ford
Coaker, and it is indeed fitting that this story should begin with Sir William's own words, and I
quote from the Evening Advocate of February 15, 1918.
"The water power was turned on the Electric Plant last night, and immediately started the
generator which operated without the slightest friction. The floodgate was raised at 5 P.M. The
water reached the canal gates at 7:30 P.M. and entered the flume at 11:00 P.M. The canal is 1400
ft. long and the flume 300 ft. long. The plans were made by Mr. J. P. Powell, the construction by
Mr. Vatcher of the Reid Newfoundland Engineering staff, the machinery was installed under the
supervision of Mr. J. W. Morris, the first plant manager is Mr. A.B. Smith " (Mr. A. B. Smith was
from the Reid Company). He was assisted by his brother, Ernest, who succeeded him as manager.
Mr. A. Bursey was the power plant operator.
Sir William went on to state that, at Port Union were business premises, dwelling houses, a staff
house and 700 ft. of pier - an industrial center ready for the electricity which was now being
The Electric Company was one of a number of enterprises originated by Sir. William Coaker,
Founder and President of the Fishermen's Protective Union.
Coaker had become convinced that the fishermen should have their own Company which could
buy, process and sell their products and purchase in quantity the supplies they needed. He,
therefore, organized the Fishermen's Union Trading Company Ltd., which operated out of St.
John's and through semi-autonomous branches, most of which were located along the North East
In Coaker's opinion the headquarters of the F.P.U. should not remain in St. John's, but
ideologically should be located in fishermen's territory.
Coaker's first choice was Trinity but he was unable to obtain the site which met his requirements.
He then chose Catalina Harbour.
Catalina had a long history of seafaring and overseas trade. It had been the great center of the
Grand Banks Fishery. It had an excellent harbour, the Northernmost relatively ice-free harbour on
the Northeast Coast. Coaker knew Catalina quite well. He had held Union conventions there and
a branch of the Trading Company was operating in Catalina. As well he had many personal friends
there among whom were men of considerable ability. Fishing schooners from the North regularly
harboured in Catalina enroute to and from St. John's in the Spring for supplies and in the Fall with
the season's voyage of fish.
Boats and vessels in the costal trade regularly used the harbour as a port of call and as a haven of
refuge during stormy weather. I, myself, remember quite clearly and with some nostalgia, the fleet
of sail entering Catalina Harbour, many of which would be getting blocks and sheaves and
wooden pumps made or repaired at my father's workshop. It was a port of call particularly for
vessels sailing to and from St. John's and ports in Bonavista Bay. It was usual for the coastal
captains to put in Catalina for the night, breaking their trip and allowing most of the sailing to be
done in daylight. It was about half way between St. John's and the North side of Bonavista Bay.
Altogether it was a strategically located harbour and well placed to serve the North East Coast.
Here, in the South West Arm of Catalina Harbour ,Coaker planned his capital which he would call
Port Union would be built as a complete industrial town, designed for the needs of the fishermen.
It shortened their voyages for buying supplies and outfitting for the fishing season, it was
convenient to reach to discharge their cargo - and fishermen would be dealing with their own
Coaker is remembered as the Great Fishermen's Leader, a man of social vision and political vigor.
His political career and the farsighted legislation he sponsored are matters of history. What is not
so well understood is that he was an imaginative and creative businessman.
In 1916 the building of Port Union began. Construction proceeded simultaneously on the business
premises, the piers, the dockyards, the dwelling houses, the staff house and the power plant.
Coaker reasoned that no modern fish plant could operate properly without electricity - neither
could a town. One of the principal reasons that he selected the South West Arm of Catalina for
his town was the potential hydro power of the river which ran into the arm. He needed a safe
harbour, strategically located and with the water power to generate sufficient electricity. He now
had the port he needed.
On May 4th in that same year of 1916, an Act to incorporate the Union Electric Light and Power
Company was passed by the Legislature. The petitioners for the Act of Incorporation were
Dugald White, Joseph Perry and John Guppy. Dugald White had worked in the steel industry in
the U.S.A., had been severely injured in an accident and returned to his home in Catalina. He was
an aggressive natural leader. Joseph Perry was a businessman who had managed the Catalina
Branch of the F.U. Trading Company Limited. John Guppy was a Labrador schooner Captain
from Port Rexton.
The petition requested the incorporation of the Union Electric Light and Power Company to
provide electricity to the Towns of Trinity, Catalina, and Bonavista and adjacent towns and
settlements and for the right to use for these purposes, and I quote from the Act: "The waters of
certain lakes and streams situate at the South West Arm of Catalina, at Little Catalina, at
Champney's and at Trinity, To Wit:- Diamond's Long Pond, Gull Pond and their lakes and
tributaries, and the waters flowing from Diamond's Long Pond into the North West Arm of
Trinity and the waters also of North West Brook and its outlet to the North West And of Trinity."
The above is of particular interest in that the future plans for expanding the initial program were
Looking over that area today it is possible, to some extent, to appreciate the skill and knowledge
with which J.P. Powell and his associates surveyed this extensive region of difficult country,
planned a co-ordinated system of dams and water reservoirs and diversions to bring the rain fall
over hundreds of square miles of hills and woods and marshes and lakes together to the South
West Brook, in such a way that the flow would be sufficient and steady.
The first directors of the Union Electric Light and Power Company Limited, were John Guppy of
Port Rexton, John Stone, Peter Coleridge and Joseph Perry of Catalina and William F. Coaker of
While the surveys were being made and dams being built at South West Brook a canal was being
dug, a flume constructed, a powerhouse built and turbines and related equipment installed.
The main machines were Pelton water wheels and American General Electric generators. The two
generators produced 280 KW each.
This was a period of unprecedented activity. Hundreds of men were employed. They came from
Port Rexton, Melrose, Catalina, Little Catalina, Elliston, Bonavista, Newman's Cove and the
Amherst Coves. Some returned to their homes after the days work, some stayed with friends,
some boarded with local residents, some lived under canvas and many were given a lift home at
the week's end in the Company's trucks. It was an exciting experience and they knew they were
participating in an extraordinary venture.
As stated above the enterprises at Port Union were under construction all at the same time. When
Port Union was ready for electricity the power company was ready to supply it. This was a fine
feat of co-ordination and integrated planning.
The power plant was built in 1917. The power was on in Port Union and Catalina on January
17th, 1918; in Bonavista in 1920; in Little Catalina in 1928 and in Elliston in 1929.
From the beginning the Company had been meant to operate beyond the limits of the Port Union -
Bonavista power lines. This was evident in the 1916 Act which authorized the establishment of
the Company. As stated above, Trinity was specifically mentioned and the brooks and rivers
flowing into Trinity Arm were included in the Company's franchise.
However, probably because of the uncertain economy and the devastation of the Depression, the
Company's expansion was halted. It should be noted that there was steady growth until 1929. The
Depression of the thirties is today a miserable memory to those who lived through it and an
uneasy if vague fact of history to the younger generation. It was a time of economic paralysis and
mercantile decay. It should be noted that this area was depended then as now solely on the fishing
industry. There was and is little or no diversification. Everything depended either directly or
indirectly on the fishing industry. In those years, fish meant salt cod. Early in the Great Depression
of the thirties, the markets for salt cod began to weaken and soon all but disappeared. Prices fell
to literally nominal values. Money was scarce or nonexistent. The fishermen and average working
men and many professional people lived and worked with the fear of poverty and the threat of
destitution always with them, while the merchants courted bankruptcy with every season of
supply. Many people were hungry and many businesses failed. It is to the credit of the Union
Electric Light and Power Company that it survived these desperate and depressing years. It is also
an indication of the real need of electric power in the communities it served. The Depression was
a merciless curler. Only what was necessary survived. All the frills and much of the graciousness
of living disappeared for many. Existence was the aim of all, but to the credit of the people let it
be said, that some pride and much humanity were salvaged.
In the mid-thirties, there were signs of recovery and by the late thirties there were marked
improvement. The Second World War brought unprecedented prosperity to Newfoundland and
the Company's revenues improved. But the war also brought shortages of materials and
manpower and expansion had to wait but it was never far from mind.
Aaron Bailey, a native of Port Rexton, who went to work with the Union Electric Light and Power Company in its early stages, literally grew up with the Company. In 1926, he became the manager at the age of twenty. Mr. Bailey's plans went beyond the program contemplated when the Company was incorporated. Over thirty years ago, he outlined to me his concept of a power grid covering all of the Bonavista Peninsula. At that time, electricity was supplied to Melrose, Port Union, Catalina, Little Catalina, Elliston and Bonavista - the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula only.
Mr. Bailey told me what could be done. He spoke of electricity , for the Amherst Coves, King's
Cove and on up to Musgravetown and the neighbouring towns and settlements. He said that
Trinity and its neighbouring towns and in fact virtually all this large and important part of
Newfoundland would be supplied with electric power and all its benefits.
Through Mr. Bailey's initiative, the first corporate step was taken towards the complete
electricification of the Bonavista Peninsula. This was the purchase of the Clarenville Light and
Power Company by the Union Light and Power Company in 1951.
The Clarenville Company had a small hydro plant which produced 100 kilowatts. The purchase
was negotiated between Mr. Aaron Bailey and Mr. Edgar Stanley, owner of the Clarenville plant.
It was approved by the Company and the deal was consummated. The Union Company installed
two (2) diesel generators which produced 500 kilowatts, bought power from the Clarenville
shipyard and extended the service of the Clarenville plant significantly.
The purchase was a sound investment, not only in its own right as a supplier of electric power, but in establishing the Union Electric Light and Power Company at Clarenville, it now had two hydro-electric plants, one at the Eastern end of the Peninsula and one at the Western end. Each had its franchises and other rights and together they were strategically located to form the basis for the major program of electricification of the main territory of the Bonavista Peninsula which lay in between. It is of interest to note that the dam which supplied water to the
original Clarenville generators, now supplies water to the town of Clarenville.
Lockston was the chosen site for the main power development for the Bonavista Peninsula.
The development of the Lockston site was principally to achieve two complimentary objectives:
1. To provide electric power to all of the Bonavista Peninsula for general purposes.
2. To provide power in sufficient quantities for industrial use.
The Lockston plant and its program were given statutory approval on April 27, 1955. The
boundaries of the area covered by the franchise are set forth in the Act as follows:
1. For the purpose of this Agreement, Bonavista Peninsula shall be deemed to be all that tract of
land contained within the following metes and bounds that is to say commencing at Deep Bight in
the North West Arm of Random Sound in the Electoral District of Trinity North and following
the Coast Line to East Random Head; thence following the Coast Line of the North Side of
Trinity Bay to Catalina; thence the Coast Line to Cape Bonavista; thence following the Coast Line
of the South Side of Bonavista Bay through Clode Sound to Middle Brook; thence southerly in a
straight line to the Western extremity of Shoal Harbour Pond and thence southerly in a straight
line to Deep Bight aforesaid the place of commencement.
The Lockston site could use the extensive waters of the myriad of lakes which lay behind it. The
site was chosen by Mr. George Desbarats and Mr. Aaron Bailey. They supervised the
construction of the plant jointly. Construction started as soon as the survey was done and the
design ready. The following year, 1954, it was in operation. It produced 3,000 horsepower and
was equipped with two 1500 kilowatt units.
The turbines are Gilks from Scotland and the generators are Canadian General Electric. In 1956,
the Company built a 4900 volt transmission line to Georges Brook and by 1956 and 1957 it
connected thirty-six communities to the grid. By 1966 the Company had 108 communities. In that
year the Union Electric Light and Power Company became part of Newfoundland's largest power
corporation. The new Company was formed by the amalgamation of Newfoundland Light &
Power, United Towns Electric, West Coast Power, Wabana and Union Electric. Mr. Bailey
became president of the new company, Newfoundland Light & Power.
The power grid has accomplished its purposes. In the 1930's the Bonavista Cold Storage
Company's plant was built. At that time the Union Electric Company had the Port Union plant
only. After due consideration the Company felt they should have their own power supply and
installed diesel generators.
However, when Fishery Products were planning to build their plant at Port Union it was decided
that the large amounts of power needed could be obtained from the Union Electric Light and
Power Company. It is important historically to note that the Union Electric Light and Power
Company was a pioneer in bringing electricity to outport communities, and that Lockston marked
the beginning of rural electrification in the province.
The Company was fortunate in having the services of a competent and loyal staff, some of whom joined the Company in its early stages and remained with it until their retirement. They included such men as the late Lloyd Courage who was chief operator of the power house at Port Union, the late Zebedee Russell who was superintendent of the area consisting of Melrose, Port Union, Catalina, and Little Catalina, and Alex Tremblett, Superintendent of the area consisting of Bonavista and Elliston - now retired.
A list of the principal businesses served by the Union Electric Light and Power Company during
its lifetime is in itself a commentary on the economy of this area. They are:
Phillip Templeman Ltd., salt fish exporter, Bonavista
J. T. Swyers Co. Ltd., salt fish exporter, Bonavista
James Ryan Ltd., salt fish exporter, Bonavista
Bonavista Cold Storage Co. Ltd., fresh fish processors, Bonavista
C. Tilley Limited., salt fish exporter, Elliston.
S. W. Mifflin Ltd., salt fish exporter, Catalina
Samuel Elliott Ltd., salt fish exporter, Catalina
McCormick & Walsh., salt fish exporter, Catalina
F.U. Trading Co. Ltd., salt fish exporter, Port Union
In addition, the Company served Imperial Oil, Irving Oil, the Shipbuilding Company, the
Fishermen's Advocate Publishing Company and others.
The turbine installed in the old power house is still operating at its original capacity, It is
automatically controlled and is tied into the peninsula grid.
From the beginning of time man's cry had been "Lighten our Darkness" It echoed in some remote
time in the dim primeval days of our race. It echoed again in another sense as human being
sought to lighten the darkness of isolation and restricted opportunities.
Electricity was to give more than light, but it was the electric light itself which caught the
imagination and the interest.
The Union Electric Light and Power Company's influence on this region has been of far greater
significance than its notable record of providing a service that becomes more essential as times
goes on. It has provided the power for industry. It has lighted the streets; it has lighted churches
and hospitals; schools and libraries; it has lighted homes and provided the power for entertainment
and information on the homes. All these are part of our daily lives, but I think that most important
of all has been lengthening and making more pleasant the hours for reading and studying. It may
not be possible to measure its influence but it has made its contribution to the modern and
prosperous society that now occupies this ancient area.
This record would not be complete without further reference to Mr. Aaron Bailey. Mr. Bailey was
born in Port Rexton on October 25, 1906. His parents were Joseph John and Sarah Elizabeth
Bailey. During Mr. Bailey's boyhood, Port Rexton was a busy port for the Labrador fishing with
twenty-six schooners sailing from there. Mr. Bailey's father and his brother built their own
schooner with timber cut at Pope's Harbour. The men worked on the schooner during the winter,
fished during the summer, resumed work on the vessel in the fall and sailed her to the Labrador
fishery the next summer. The sails were made in Port Rexton and the iron work in Trinity. Mr.
Bailey describes the shipbuilding yard as the Trade School of its day.
In 1916, Mr. Bailey's father came to Port Union to work at the shipyard and subsequently moved
his family to Port Union. Mr. Aaron Bailey joined the Union Electric Light and Power Company
at its inception and became its manager in 1926. He remained in charge throughout the entire
periods of growth, of survival during the Depression, and of the final expansion into a grid that
covers the entire Bonavista Peninsula. This was his dream and his initiative and it speaks well for
him in that during these periods of planning and the times of uncertainties which always occur
when plans have to be implemented or dropped, and when risks have to be part of a program, that
he had the support of his Directors and technical advisors and his financial backers.
The Presidency of Newfoundland Light & Power gave him recognition and probably some
personal gratification, but I think his greatest satisfaction is in that the plans made years ago were
carried through to fruition and in completing what Sir. William Coaker had begun.
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Honourable Charles R. Granger is a former president of the F.P.U., a former editor of the Fishermen's Advocate,:was an M.P., a M.H.A., a Cabinet Minister in the Government of Canada and a cabinet minister in the government of Newfoundland and Labrador and is a Privy Councillor.