Port Union's Fascinating History

The history and legacy of Port Union and Sir William F. Coaker are so intertwined as to be almost synonymous. Together, they changed the history of Newfoundland and Labrador (before the province joined Canada) and the lives of ordinary people – their lot in life and their aspirations. And while Coaker’s labour movement didn’t start in Port Union, the town is the realization of his dream and the greatest testament to his legacy.

Sir William F. Coaker was born in St. John’s but came of age in the Twillingate/New World Island area on the Northeast Coast of Central Newfoundland. There, he grew into young adulthood, holding many jobs, including managing a store, acting as postmaster, operating a telegraph, and farming an island near what is now Dildo Run Provincial Park. Perhaps this wide variety of experience exposed him to the wider community and the economy which prepared him for what was to happen next.

In 1908, Coaker’s keen sense of labour organization helped him create the Fishermen’s Protective Union. This was a new type of union, non-sectarian and whose interests were not restricted to just the fishery. Indeed, Coaker’s vision was expansive and wholistic. By 1916, he had established a settlement at Port Union, which was North America’s first, and to this day only, union-built town.

Port Union in the winter. Photo by Adam Hefferman.

 The original settlement is preserved as a National Historic District of Canada. It is immediately obvious upon entry into the district that the town was deliberately and conscientiously built. Tidy red duplexes line the ocean-side main road, while another line goes up the hill overlooking the harbour. While some of the houses show the many decades since their construction, ongoing restoration continues to breathe new life and purposes into some of these buildings.

The centrepiece of the district is unmistakable. The large red Factory was the lifeblood of the FPU, housing the many aspects of community life the union managed: trade, woodworking, and even the publication of the Fisherman’s Advocate, the newspaper of the union. Today it acts as a museum, preserving the legacy of the union and the work of Coaker and how the union touched every aspect of Port Union life. Outside there are even farming implements on display, showing that the Union’s interests did not end at the water’s edge. The railway ran just outside the Factory and it was powered by electricity, making the town one of the finest examples of modernity on the island of Newfoundland.

The exhibits at The Factory. Photo Credit: Andrew Hiscock/Legendary Coasts of Eastern Newfoundland

Across the street is a green building known as The Bungalow. This former home of William Coaker, and his niece and her husband, has become a museum telling the story of the man and his family. It is an astonishing time capsule and a tour through the home is a journey through the life of a remarkable man. A world traveller, a politician, and intuitive businessman were all facets to this influential labour organizer.

 While these two sites tell the story of the union and the man who brought it to life, the district doesn’t end there. Further down the street you’ll find the Port Union Historical Museum, which tells the story of everyday life in the town and how Coaker and the Union weaved themselves through the experience of the ordinary fisherman and his family. Just past that you’ll find the Shipbuilder’s Park, a green space dedicated to the shipbuilding of the union. And finally, on the hill overlooking the town, you’ll find Sir William Coaker Monument Cemetery which hosts an impressive monument to the man.

Port Union Historical Museum

 While Coaker died relatively early at the age of 67 in 1938, his influence can be found in the decades afterwards. His efforts in the labour movement elevated the consciousness of the average fisherman, who demanded more for their labour and for their lives and families. He was mentor to Joey Smallwood, the most influential figure in the movement for Newfoundland and Labrador to join Canada as the tenth province in 1949. The FPU lasted until 1977 and the Fisherman’s Advocate published until 1980, but his influence is still felt in many ways, whether we look at workers’ rights, the strength of rural Newfoundland, or even the province’s place in Canada.

Of course, Port Union is still standing and continues to develop. Union House Arts is a new art space located in one of the union’s houses. Much like Coaker himself, Union House Arts seeks to create a collaborative space to explore ideas. Whereas Coaker’s sphere was labour and the economy, one could say that Union House Arts does similarly for art.

Exhibition view of “repair: place, self, and future." Photo credit: Union House Arts

 Finally, Port Union’s history didn’t quite start with the establishment of the town. Indeed, the fossils of Port Union have been in the rock for hundreds of millions of years. Port Union boasts two fossil sites that are part of the UNESCO Discovery Geopark: a rock formation protruded from the ocean just behind the Factory and another on the coastal part of the Murphy’s Cove-Lodge’s Pond Hiking Trail (part of the Hike Discovery Network). This second site is of special note, as it is where Haootia quadriformis was found (currently on display at The Rooms). This fossil represents the first evidence of muscle tissue in an animal known on earth.

Everywhere you look in Port Union, there's a piece of history. Sometimes you might have to get below the surface to find it (quite literally). Other times all you have to do is stroll the picturesque historic district and imagine what life was like here in a hardworking community guided by a visionary man and his family.

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