Port Union, Newfoundland & Labrador

Location: NW Arm of Catalina Harbour, Trinity Bay side of Bonavista Peninsula. 120 kilometres northeast of St. John’s, by sea.  48.4975 N, -53.0844 W

Port Union is reputed to be the only town in North America established by a union. Its development came out of an intricate web of history and place, of embedded colonial-imperial practices, and struggles over a geographically-specific economic resource — fish. The settlement’s reason for being was to provide a focal point for activities that would shift some power into the hands of fishers.

Heritage Resource Master Plan of Port Union, 1997. Prepared by Sheppard Case Architects Inc. (later LAT49 Architecture Inc.). Shows the siting of some of the town’s original buildings such as the fish plant and retail store (top left); Fisherman’s Advocate building to their right along the harbour; semi-detached staff housing on the opposite side of Main Street; up behind it, Coaker’s “Bungalow” ringed by trees. A shipbuilding site was around the harbour on the right of the photo. Source: Plan displayed in the Port Union Interpretation Centre. Photo: Beth Moore Milroy 2016.

The rich fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland attracted seasonal European fishers from at least the fifteenth century. Permanent settlement was at first prohibited while nations, especially Britain and France, fought over ownership and control. However, that couldn’t last and by the early 1600s year-round settlements began to appear. Because fishers needed to be close to the specific locations they harvested annually, their settlements were small and highly dispersed along the Island’s coastline.

Isolated, and with almost no communication with the wider world, these small coastal fishers became locked for generations in an exploitive economic relationship with Newfoundland merchants the effect of which was to condemn them to perpetual poverty. This relationship was a credit arrangement known as the “truck system” that enabled fishermen to obtain necessary supplies in advance of a fishing season from a merchant, the same merchant to whom he would be bound to offer his catch and who would then determine how much the catch was worth. More often than not, the value of a season’s labour on the water turned out to be little more than the fisherman’s debt on the merchant’s ledger. However, when the merchant sold that same catch in overseas markets, its value was much higher. Individual fishers did not know the international fish prices merchants received. Other problems with the system developed, having to do with fish quality and over-fishing. The basic cycle of fisher debt and merchant power, once set in motion, continued to maintain itself. Unfortunately, neither the religious nor political elites of Newfoundland were sufficiently motivated to moderate, let alone stop, this system.

That world was about to change when on November 2, 1908 William F. Coaker convened the founding meeting of the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU). Coaker, who was born in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, was in his late 30s and had had a variety of occupations including farmer and union activist. From the outset, the FPU’s purpose was to improve the lot of fishers and others in Newfoundland’s outports by several means: advocating for sound management of the fishing industry; publishing weekly reports of fish demand and pricing in foreign markets; instituting a system of free and compulsory education and old age pensions; establishing a minimum wage; and replacing the truck system with cash payment for fish landed. By late 1909 the FPU had established 50 local councils, and by 1914 the FPU had over 21,000 members.

The FPU originally set up its headquarters in St. John’s. However, when repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to secure satisfactory premises there, Coaker began looking for a suitable location elsewhere. He chose an undeveloped 80-acre (32 hectares) site on the Bonavista Peninsula. This became Port Union. This location had many positive attributes: the greatest concentration of FPU members lived and worked in the area; it was ice-free year round with waters deep enough for large-tonnage ships, and had over 600 metres of harbour frontage; the railway was only 2.5 kms away, from which a spur line could be built right to the FPU premises; a nearby river could be harnessed to generate electricity; it was an unincorporated area where municipal property and business taxes did not apply; and the site could be acquired for the reasonable sum of $400. Physical building of the community began in 1916.

Layout of Port Union

As in any coastal community of that era, economic activity was centred on the flat land closest to the harbour. Along the waterfront and Port Union’s Main Street were the principal commercial and industrial facilities including: wharves; fish plant; a general store which was also the retail headquarters for the FPU; a shipbuilding plant; the post office, railway station, church, and more.

The Union Trading Company building on the left dealt with retail sales in Port Union, and was the Company’s headquarters for its outlets around Newfoundland. Beyond it on the right is the fish plant, with its elevators. Photo: bmm 2016

The electric plant which powered Port Union and several nearby communities was a short distance away.

The residential areas of the community were set back from the water-side commercial and industrial areas, beginning just across Main Street. Affordable rental housing was built for managers and staff, 50 of which existed by 1925.

The Fisherman’s Advocate Building on the left was a woodworking factory, as well as the printing plant for The Fisherman’s Advocate and ancillary printing and publishing. On the right are two-storey semi-detached dwellings built for the senior managers of the various companies run by the FPU. Photo: bmm 2016

Unlike many homes in Newfoundland at that time, those in Port Union all had electricity, indoor plumbing, and municipal water and sewer services. Semi-detached and single-family dwelling types were available, mostly for rental but some were privately built. On “Bungalow Hill” just above the managers’ housing was Coaker’s house called “The Bungalow.” The scale, design and materials used for the housing reflected the mixed cooperative-yet-hierarchical nature of the town. The linear arrangement, setbacks, and close spacing reflected contemporary town planning, which contrasted with the usual spread out pattern of neighbouring coastal settlements.

By 1917 the Union Trading Company supplied over 40 FPU stores in communities up and down the coast. In a short time, the fishery branch of the FPU’s Union Trading Company became the single largest buyer and exporter of cod in Newfoundland and the price-setter in the local marketplace.

“Notice” about fair wage policy and the need for boat-builders for the FPU’s Trading Company and its Shipbuilding Company. Source: Port Union Interpretation Centre. Photo: bmm 2016

In its heyday, Port Union was a vital player in the international fish trade, hosting FPU representatives from all over the island as well as international fish buyers. Its influence loosened merchants’ historic grip on the fishers and increased the income level and standard of living of the average fisher and his family. Women were also deeply involved in the fishery but the FPU focused on fishermen.

In addition to the Union Trading Company, the FPU set up four other companies: The Union Export Company; The Union Shipbuilding Company; The Union Publishing Company; and the Union Electric Light & Power Company.

A Congress Hall, built for meetings and events, was finished by 1918. From then onwards, the Union’s annual convention was hosted at the FPU Congress Hall, which upwards of 200 members attended from all over the Island.

FPU Congress Hall. Burned down 1960. Source: Port Union Interpretation Centre. Photo: bmm 2016

Port Union was a fully functioning community. Coaker persuaded the Newfoundland government to establish a postal and telegraph office and a customs house; make Port Union a regular port of call for the coastal steamship service; construct the railway spur line to the FPU premises; build a school; and assign a public health nurse to the settlement. Port Union also had its own bakery, soft drink manufacturing plant, and movie theatre.

In 1910 the FPU created a political party — the Union Party. Like the FPU’s ventures in the realm of commerce, the Union Party’s purpose was to challenge the status quo and advance the interests of Newfoundland fishers in particular. It did not intend to form government so much as influence decisions and legislation. The Union Party had to fashion its strategy knowing that its influence was strongest on the northeast coast of the Island. Expansion into southern areas in Conception Bay and the southern Avalon Peninsula was difficult because of the staunch opposition of the Catholic Church and the influence of the St. John’s merchants. Coaker’s party had successes and failures but in the end despite valiant effort did not manage to reform the fishery at the legislative level. The Union Party ceased to function when responsible government was suspended in Newfoundland in 1934. From then on the FPU became more like a service organization for its members and eventually was sold to a private company.

The town carried on, although declining as the various FPU companies declined and closed. With the cod moratorium of 1992, one-third of the community’s population left and the fish plant was closed, then subsequently converted to shrimp processing. In 2010 the plant closed again, apparently for good. The history of this settlement is preserved on the ground because of a major reconstruction and restoration project in the town since 1997.

See Cadigan (2009) for the overall historical and political context of fishing in Newfoundland, including Coaker’s role in trying to alter the industry in the interests of fishers. For the in’s and out’s of managing the FPU enterprise during its first two decades, including the town, see Coaker’s own publication from 1930. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s cited webpage succinctly describes the fates of the FPU companies. Coaker hired Joey Smallwood to write for his paper, The Fisherman’s Advocate. Smallwood’s 1927 book is an insider’s portrayal of Coaker and his work.

by Paul Boundridge


  • Cadigan, Sean T. 2009. Newfoundland and Labrador: A history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Coaker, Hon. Sir W.F., K.B.E., comp. 1984 (orig. 1930). Twenty years of the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland, from 1909-1929. Containing the records of the Supreme Council since the Union’s inception, and other matters of interest to members of this great organization. St. John’s, NL: Creative Printers and Publishers Ltd.
  • Memorial University of Newfoundland Maritime History Archive, 2003-2012. The Fishermen’s Protective Union After 1918 (http://www.mun.ca/mha/fpu/fpu21.php) Accessed 12.09.16.
  • Smallwood, J.R. 1927. Coaker of Newfoundland: The Man Who Led the Deep-Sea Fishermen to Political Power. London: The Labour Publishing Company Limited. Reprinted 1998, with Melvin Baker as added author. Published in Port Union NL: Advocate Press. See p 58-64 on Port Union, the settlement; also at http:// www.ucs.mun.ca/~melbaker/coakerjrs.htm. Accessed 12.09.16.