Port Union is the only union-built town in North America.
Construction began on the shores of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, in 1916. Within five years, a busy and modern union town bordered the protected deep-water harbour-all made possible through the hard work and vision of the members of the Fishermen's Protective Union (the FPU) and their first leader, William Ford Coaker.
A self-made man and a tireless worker, Coaker had been a clerk, telegraph operator, customs worker, postmaster, and farmer in the years leading up to the FPU's formation. A collective-action organizer from an early age, he turned his mind to the problems of the Newfoundland fishermen and saw unionization of this powerless, dispersed group as the solution.
Coaker attracted the first 19 men to join the FPU at a meeting he called in Herring Neck on November 2, 1908. During the winter that followed, he travelled around Notre Dame Bay, seeking support in as many tiny communities as possible. By the fall of 1909, the FPU had 50 local councils. By 1914, 21,060 members were signed up-just over half the fishermen in Newfoundland.
Port Union was built to be the home of the Fishermen's Protective Union. Close to the communities where FPU support was strongest, it became the centre of the FPU's business in all ways. The Fishermen's Union Trading Company, formed by the Union to break the merchants' stranglehold on salt fish prices and trade, moved its operations to the new community in 1918. By 1924, when the FPU's annual convention centre, Congress Hall, was built and the Union's weekly newspaper, The Fishermen's Advocate, had also moved from St. John's, the town was a hive of mercantile activity.
In addition to these enterprises, in its successful first decades Port Union could boast:
- a retail store that served 40 outlets in other communities
- a salt-fish plant with electric dryers
- a seal plant
- an international fish and supply trade
- a fleet of supply and trading vessels
- its own spur railway line
- a pier for the government coastal steamer
- coal and salt sheds
- a cooperage and carpenter shop
- workers row housing
- a soft drink (or ětemperance beverageî) factory
- a hotel
- a warehouse with electric elevators
- its own power-generating plant
- a movie theatre
- a woodworking factory
- a school
- a debating club
- a community nurse
- a church built to commemorate the Coaker Recruits of World War One
As the century progressed, however, the waning of the FPU's power and changing economic and political circumstances-particularly the current Moratorium on Northern Cod-led to a corresponding decline in the community. By the late 1990s, what remained of Port Union's once impressive buildings (re-constructed after a devastating fire in 1945) was in a sad state of neglect and disrepair.
Today, however, the outlook has changed again. Through the ongoing work of the community of Port Union and the William F. Coaker Foundation, renewed attention is being shone on the significant heritage and buildings of historic Port Union. The now-restored Factory building is open for tours, and work and planning continues for further restorations and interpretation displays and programs.
Below are some views expressed durning Port Union's history.
“Port Union is a compact, convenient, safe and self-contained commercial venture established by the Northern fishermen in the face of bitter opposition of large commercial and financial interests.”
“When the FPU determined to establish a Company of fishermen to do their own trading, we had no idea of building a town or a plant . . . . “
“The site at Port Union now occupied, was not a promising proposition, as it was hilly and rocky, but it possessed a splendid deep water front.”
Mel Baker: Sir W.F. Coaker, Past, Present and Future: Being a Series of Articles Contributed to the Fishermen’s Advocate, 1932 (Port Union, 1932), Article 16, published November 2, 1932
“When we worked with the Trading Company in the peak days, especially in wartime, in ’39, my Goodness, 26 schooners I have seen in the harbour at one time. Beautiful! What a sight!”
Mrs. Louie (Sutton) Mouland (From Oral Histories, volume 1, pp. 74-5)