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Thursday, March 1st, will always be remembered with horror by the people of Port Union and vicinity. Around six a. m. a fire broke out which in a matter of hours had levelled the main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Co., Ltd., the Church of Holy Martyrs, the Hotel and the residence of Messrs. Daniel and John King. For a while it looked as if the whole town would be totally destroyed, but heroic and unceasing efforts on the part of the fire fighters stopped the blaze and town, south of Bungalow Hill, was spared.
A wind, approximately blowing north-west, added to the dangers. Several small fires were started by flankers on the factory and the roofs of houses, but were promptly extinguished.
All morning the blazing inferno raged. Billows of smoke rolled away from the flame sheeted plant, as one of the most modern and best equipped fish plants in the country was destroyed.
The main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Co., Ltd. was familiar to thousands. It housed the offices of the Company, the wholesale, retail and department stores, fish stores, drier, cooper loft and large stocks of drygoods, provisions, etc. A large quantity of dried codfish was in the fish stores at the time and was destroyed. It also housed the offices and stock rooms of the Union Electric Light and Power Company. We understand considerable stocks of electrical equipment was on hand at the time, new shipments having just been received. The Machine Shop, too, with its valuable tools, was located on the plant and was destroyed as were the Electric Company's familiar Buick, a Mack truck, owned by the Trading Company, and a Pontiac sedan owned by Mr. Alex Pelley, Plant Engineer, all partially dismantled for repairs at the time.
The beautiful Church of Holy Martyrs was built in the early 1920's it contained stained glass windows in memory of soldiers who fell in the First World War. It was a graceful edifice beloved by the congregation and crowning the skyline of Port Union.
The Port Union Hotel, for the last number of years operated by Mrs. A. Goodyear, was familiar to the many visitors to Port Union who enjoyed its hospitality. Delegates to Union conventions will hear of its destruction with sorrow, for it was there many of the delegates stayed and much of the business informally discussed. The souther end of the hotel was the residence of Mr. Alex Pelley, Plant Engineer. Both the Goodyears and Pelleys lost most of their effects.
The King residence was directly across from the bungalow and above the hotel. When the hotel caught it was realized that Kings dwelling was doomed. Fortunately the Kings were able to save most of their furniture, but the double-house, which they owned, had to be abandoned and it carried no insurance.
Pillars of Fire
It was a scene never to be forgotten and (something) in its magnificence. Seen from across the harbour, where the impressive buildings of the company have long been a familiar sight, it presented an awful and (something) making picture. The proud church disappearing, the hotel sheeted with flame, and the great blazing fire, with half the Company's premises gone, inexorably destroying the remainder. With the southern part of the buildings gone, the northern, with fish stores and elevators still stood but were blazing, and the
elevator towers were like great torches with smoke and fire pouring from the upper windows.
Here was grim disaster. Here the holocaust of fire unleashed and beyond the power of man to control, was wrecking terrible destruction upon a vital industrial center, with pillars of fire and smoke making a horrible, transient monument of the work of years.
Within the town itself, with the wind freshening and sheets of flame making hungry passes at the bungalow and the Woodworking Factory which houses the Fisherman's Advocate, all those not engaged in fire fighting were removing their possessions from their homes, for it seemed very unlikely that the main residential part of the town would be saved. It was certain that if the Bungalow or the Factory caught the whole street would go. There was a period of tense suspense and strenuous all out endeavour, as water was poured on these two buildings and on Mr. Frank Bailey's hours, the nearest of the houses along the road to the conflagration. But the grim, exhaustive work paid. The crisis passed and with a tremendous feeling of relief it was realized that there was a good chance to save the town. And the town was saved. The fire was under control but the danger was not past. A high wind, fanning the heaps of flaming and smoking rubble could yet cause the havoc so nearly averted in the morning. A request was sent by Mr. Aaron Bailey, Manager of the Electric Company, and later confirmed to the chief of Police by Const. Hickman Rose, who was on the scene of the fire and rendered invaluable assistance, for portable fire fighting equipment hoping it could be procured from Port Rexton or Lethbridge by speeder. Apparently it was not obtainable. Meanwhile, Mr. H. A. Dawe, General Manager of the F. U. Trading Co., Ltd., who was in St. John's at the time, and who was kept informed of the tragic developments, by arrangements made through His Excellency the Governor, Sir John Puddester and Mr. K. I. Carter, Secty, for Natural Resources, obtained the "Shulamite" from the Admiralty to bring him t the scene of the disaster. He arrived shortly after six o'clock. Meanwhile the "Swile" and the "Hood" had arrived from St. John's, having left there before the news of the disaster had been received.
The "Swile" was immediately dispatched to St. John's and two portable pumps and a thousand feet of hose, with Fire Constables Jack Gulliver and Arthur Crotty in charge, arrived this evening and immediately began to pour heavy streams of water upon the ruins from which clouds of smoke were still billowing. Meanwhile hoses from the town's water system had been kept playing on the smouldering rubble, and the danger passed.
The main plant of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company, Ltd., was built in 1917, and the headquarters of the Company was moved to Port Union from St. John's. The importance of the Company to the island's business economy in general and to the fishing industry in particular is very great indeed. Here was one of the largest centers of the salt codfish industry in the island. The Company is among the few very large fish exporters. Here many thousands of quintals of Labrador and shore fish were handled annually. Here fleets of vessels came for supplies or to discharge the products of the sea or general freight. Here foreign steamers came to take on cargoes of codfish, exported not only by the Trading Company, but by the other exporters in this area, for Port Union is the shipping center for this part of the peninsula. Here, too, were available facilities which existed nowhere else on the coast. Here the Electric Light and Power Company had its headquarters, while the services of the machine shop were frequently sought. Thus the loss of the Trading Company's plant is not only felt keenly in Port Union, but represents a serious loss to the whole area and to the country's welfare.
But although plant and equipment may be gone the Company remains. True most of the equipment will be hard to replace, but it can be done. Already arrangements are being made to resume business. Rubble is being cleared away, preparations are being made to open business temporarily in the woodworking factory. The Factory and the Company's wharves are intact, as is also the sealing plant and the dock. The nucleus of a new beginning remains.
Tomorrow representatives of the company will go to St. John's by the "Swile" and the purchasing of new stocks will begin. We understand that the principal records of both the Trading and Electric Companies were found intact in the vault.
Insurance was carried on premises and contents.
The numerous telegrams pouring in to Mr. H. A. Dawe, General Manager of the Company, show the widespread consternation and sympathy this conflagration has aroused. The telegrams express personal sympathy, a knowledge of a national loss and the wish that the Company will continue. Hon. P. D. H. Dunn, Commissioner for Natural Resources, telegraphed from New York expressing his sympathy with the Company which he wished to extend to the people of Port Union. These telegrams will be acknowledged in due course.
TRIAL BY FIRE
Port Union has been visited with the wort disaster in its history.
The scourge of fire has laid in ashes one of the greatest fish plants in the country.
Built by the last Sir William Coaker, the Founder of the F. P. U. and the Union Enterprises, the Fishermen's Union Trading Company, Ltd., occupied a vital place in the business economy of Newfoundland.
On Thursday morning this product of the energy and idealism of years was laid in ruins in one of the worst conflagrations in recent Newfoundland history.
But the disaster is not a fact. It has happened and cannot be helped. What remains is valuable and the problem of the moment is planning for the future.
True the scars will remain for some time. The Anglican Church, a sanctuary of worship and a memorial to the glory of the dead of the last great war, is no more, for the Church of Holy Martyrs, with beautiful stained glass windows to the memory of soldiers and to the last Sir William Coaker and late E. Collishaw, built on an eminence above the site of Trading Company's plant, was fired by the intense heat, and only the concrete foundation remains. The Hotel is gone and with it most of the possessions of the Goodyear and Pelley families. Very little did they save, and the accumulated valuables of a lifetime have been lost. Messrs. Daniel and John King have lost their homes. Yes there are scars beside the scars of blackened rubble.
But Port Union will survive this trial by fire. The spirit of the people in time of catastrophe has proven itself to be made of the same tough fiber which aggressively created this town in the beginning when the fighting followers of the fighting spirit of Sir William Coaker and Unionism, created a town on the south side of Catalina harbour - a town which has made its weight felt consistently in the business and politics of the country.
Already a feeling of sober optimism is in evidence. The people, far from feeling broken over the destruction of the plant which provided their bread and butter, face the future with confidence. Disaster has brought out a common determination to face the demands of the future together with triumph. It will take more than disaster by fire to put either town or people out of business.
Already the management have made arrangements to resume business. The woodworking factory is being converted into temporary headquarters. Within a few days necessary supplies will be available to the people. Lost equipment will be replaced as soon as possible, and from out of the ashes of destruction a new plant will arise.
A poet once wrote "We only love what we have left behind," and while that statement may be somewhat sweeping, it is a trait of human nature that we appreciate a valuable thing most after we have lost it. So it is with the loss by fire this week. The value of the Trading Company and its importance both locally and elsewhere, is best appreciated now. Out of this increased appreciation will come a new loyalty and pride and an endeavour to do and to achieve, which will not only contribute toward the rapid replacement of that which is lost, but should give a new pride of place, and a new determination that the town will not only recover but will the better for its harrowing experience.
Port Union will arise again, and we look forward with confidence in seeing our old friends, the Labrador fishermen coming here again for their supplies this spring and the products of the sea coming in here in the fall and the packing of these products for export, and the shipping of them proceeding as in previous years.
Destruction is not permanent. Nor does a company consist of the buildings which house it. The spirit and the will to survive remain, and with patient determination that which has been lost will be replaced.
Page transcribed by: James Butler, 2000
Page revised: Oct. 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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