Grand Falls, Newfoundland & Labrador
Associated name: Grand Falls-Windsor
Location: Central Newfoundland on the Exploits River. 48.937 N, -55.645 W.
Grand Falls was the first town in what is now Canada to be planned and realized using Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” ideas. Alfred Harmsworth established the mill and associated company town just after the first garden city was begun at Letchworth, England, in 1903. In a much expanded form, this expression of garden city ideas in a resource town continues to exist today.
Nearly 10 years before the start of World War I, one man’s prescience about the pending conflict led to the founding of Grand Falls in central Newfoundland, a region once occupied by the Beothuk people and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mainly exploited for furs and for occasional sports fishing. Its founder was Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, one of the quintessential press barons of London’s fabled Fleet Street. He knew Ebenezer Howard and contributed financially to his project, and his brother, Cecil, was an influential member of the Garden City Association in England.
Concerned that a war in Europe might restrict his supply of timber for his newsprint, Alfred Harmsworth was determined to find a source safely removed from continental Europe. He was attracted to central Newfoundland because of the presence there of a large waterfall on the Exploits River known as Grand Falls. He called the falls “white coal,” coal being the dominant source of power at the time. Other incentives for building his pulp and paper mill there included the completion of the Newfoundland Railway in 1898, generous rights to land and a ninety-nine year lease on a large area of land. The land required for the mill and town-site was leased to the Anglo-Newfoundland Development (AND) Company which, in turn, leased homes to residents for $1 per annum. Only employees of the AND mill and ancillary businesses were permitted to live in the community; non-AND employees (e.g. forest workers, merchants and sundry service providers) resided in the adjacent town of Grand Falls Station (later called Windsor) which grew up in the shadow of Grand Falls. The two communities were connected by a jitney transportation service. That separation of classes of workers and services marks many garden city-styled settlements.
Townsite and Architecture
The 1907 plan for Grand Falls shows five parts: the mill, town centre, two residential districts, and a recreational area. The mill was situated at a bend in the Exploits River because there the river is forced through a narrow gorge where hydro-electric power could be generated and fed directly into the mill. Land east of the mill was designated the High Street, which then as now would be the commercial and administrative centre of the community. Further east was a residential area distinguished by the circular road that circumscribes it. Two pairs of intersecting streets form a grid within the circle. Houses are arranged on spacious lots along each street, with front and rear ‘gardens’ as per the dictates of Howard’s garden city model.
North of the mill, another residential area was also built, this time featuring an irregular curvilinear street network dictated by the hilly terrain. A recreational area was laid out to the east of this neighbourhood, which for many years held a race park and grandstand. In keeping with garden city ideas, townsite buildings were of local materials, chiefly wood. Raw materials were abundant; the workers hired were familiar with the materials used. Later, imported Scottish brick was used for several large structures including the town hall and a hotel called the Carmelite House.
The design and substance of the domestic architecture varied depending on the intended occupant. Thus, Lord Northcliffe’s home away from home, Grand Falls House, was a large, traditional Tudor-style dwelling that feels like it was lifted from the English countryside. As one moved down the management ladder, dwellings rapidly became more modest. Drawings of the most common dwelling types have survived.
The building program began in 1906, lasting until 1912, with a later development thrust after World War I that lasted until 1922. In this period, a total of 485 houses were constructed. Some of the post-War streets are named for battlefields in Europe where Newfoundland soldiers suffered major losses — for example, Beaumont Avenue and Suvla Road. Apart from dwellings, more than fifty other buildings were also erected, such as stables, a hospital, schools, and churches. All were paid for by the company.
In 1909, Lord Northcliffe and his wife visited Grand Falls to officially open the mill. He said at the opening banquet on the floor of the mill that he hoped Grand Falls would be a garden city and that he could see modest signs they were on the way to realizing that hope.
After more than 50 years under company management, in 1961, Grand Falls became a municipality with local governance and for the first time, private land ownership was made available to anyone. The towns of Grand Falls and Windsor were amalgamated in 1991. And while the initial economic activity and rationale was the local pulp and paper mill, gradually, the Grand Falls-Windsor community developed into a major service centre for central Newfoundland. The mill closed in 2008.
The above description of Grand Falls draws from Ward (2005). Several references used in that article are included here to make them more readily accessible.
by Jeffrey P. Ward
- Ferris, Paul. 1972. The house of Northcliffe: A biography of an empire. New York: The World Publishing Company.
- Meacham, Standish. 1999. Regaining paradise: Englishness and the early Garden City movement. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Purdom, C.B. 1963. The Letchworth achievement. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
- Fyfe, Hamilton. 1930. Northcliffe: An intimate biography. New York: The MacMillan Company.
- Symonds, Richard. 2001. The architecture and planning of the townsite development Corner Brook 1923-5. Accessed 6 May 2016. http://www.heritagefoundation.ca/media/713/report-cornerbrook-townsite.pdf
- Tucker, W.B., ed. 1986. “The forest beckoned: Reminiscences and historical data of the town of Grand Falls, Newfoundland from 1905 to 1960.” Grand Falls, Nfld: Exploits Valley Senior Citizens Club.
- Ward, Jeffrey P. (2005). White coal: The birth of a company town 100 years ago. Plan Canada 45, 3: 32-35.