Port Union, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1920
The crowd was silent as the brand new elevator whirred and banged its way up to the second floor of the big red wooden building. Everyone was holding their breath. Everyone was leaning forward just a little. And then with a final sliding clank, the door opened and out stepped William Coaker. The crowd exhaled into one big cheer.
“Ladies and gentlemen of Port Union, I give you Newfoundland’s only elevators outside of the fair city of St. John’s!” Jane Roberts and her cousin Eliza were jostled around as the crowd moved to greet the man who had made their town possible.
Jane’s brother, George, had been chosen to operate the elevator for the big occasion. He’d told Jane she and Eliza would get the first ride after Mr. Coaker, but now that the time had come, Jane’s feet felt like they were stuck to the floor. She couldn’t get into that big metal box — what if she never got out? What if the cables broke and they went crashing to the ground?
“Come on,” Eliza said, exasperated. “If we don’t get on now we’ll lose our turn!” She grabbed Jane’s arm and pulled her into the compartment. “Okay, George,” Eliza said. “Let’s go down!”
“Yes, ma’am!” George said with a grin. He pulled a lever and the elevator door slid noisily shut. Even Eliza looked a little pale as the elevator jerked into motion and slowly started to drop.
“My tummy just jumped into my throat!” Jane gasped. Now too nervous even to agree, Eliza just nodded her head hard in agreement.
George laughed. “It does feel a bit funny at first, but you get used to it. And see?” The elevator stopped with a gentle bump. “We’re already downstairs!” He slid the door open, bowed and swept his arm forward. “Thank you for riding the Port Union elevator, young ladies. We hope to serve you again soon.”
The girls spilled out onto the ground floor of the Fishermen’s Protective Union factory, not far from the big machines where the FPU newspaper, the Fishermen’s Advocate, was printed every week.
Nerves overcome and the elevator conquered, they ran out into the street, breathless with giggles.
The warm sunshine made the row of painted houses glow and the water in the harbour sparkle. Fishermen were joking as they mended their nets, and women in their Sunday dresses were walking along the waterside in twos and threes, excitedly discussing the elevator.
Mr. Coaker himself was just leaving the Advocate building as the girls skipped by. He tipped his hat. “Hello, young ladies,” he said with a smile.
It was Eliza’s turn to be shy, but Jane jumped right in. “The elevator is very exciting, Mr. Coaker! This is Eliza Briggs. She’s my cousin. Her village doesn’t even have electricity. This is her first time in Port Union.”
“Well then,” Mr. Coaker said. “We’ll have to take her to the temperance beverage factory.”
The trio started walking toward another building. “Soft drinks are much preferable to alcohol, I believe, so we make our own beverages right here for all to enjoy.”
Eliza’s eyes widened when she saw the drink bottles arranged on shelves just inside the door. Mr. Coaker opened two lemony-looking ones and handed them to the cousins.
Eliza took a sip, then sputtered and coughed. “I didn’t know it would be all bubbles! They’re going up my nose!” she said, her eyes watering. “But don’t worry,” she said hurriedly. “I like it!”
“Thank you, Mr. Coaker!” Jane blurted. “Thank you for everything — the pop and the elevator and the houses and the school and the church and . . . everything!”
“Enjoy your drinks, girls,” Mr. Coaker said with a wave.
Back in the sunshine, they ran down to join George by the docks. The words tumbled over each other as the girls told him about their adventures. “Mr. Coaker is awfully nice,” Eliza said.
“We wouldn’t be here without Mr. Coaker,” George said. “Nobody would. He bought this land four years ago and now we have all this. The FPU means fair prices for fish and work in the factories. They say we even had electricity before New York City, thanks to him!”
He took a deep breath and started singing.
“We are coming, Mr. Coaker, from the east, west, north and south; you have called us and we’re coming, for to put our foes to rout.”
First one, then several fishermen’s voices floated up from the boats to join with George’s.
“By merchants and by governments, too long we’ve been misruled; we’re determined now in future, and no longer we’ll be fooled.”
Jane and Eliza danced around and clapped their hands as more voices from women and teenagers joined the chorus.
“We’ll be brothers all and free men, and we’ll rightify each wrong; we are coming, Mr Coaker, and we’re forty thousand strong.”
Eliza sighed with happiness. “You sure are lucky to live in Port Union, Jane.”
When William Coaker was just 13 years old and working on the docks in St. John’s, he led a strike of other young workers. After two days, they got everything they had asked for, including a raise.
Over the years, Coaker was a farmer, a telegraph operator, a postmaster and a clerk. As he travelled among outport fishing communities, he saw how hard people’s lives were. Everywhere he went, fishing families were at the mercy of big companies, known as merchants, which set prices for fish and usually ran the local store, too.
In 1908 Coaker started the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland, the FPU, which quickly grew to more than 20,000 members. He also started the Fishermen’s Advocate newspaper, which published from 1910 until 1980.
In 1916, he bought land on the south part of Trinity Bay that became Port Union, the first union-built town in North America. It had things you wouldn’t expect to find outside bigger towns or cities, such as a movie theatre, a hotel, plants to process seal meat and fish, housing for workers, a woodworking factory, its own power plant and yes, a soft drink factory and elevators.
Because the FPU guaranteed fair prices and honest treatment, the people of Port Union weren’t hurt by ups and downs like the Great Depression of the 1930s.
By the 1990s the town was in bad shape, but the Sir William Coaker Heritage Foundation has rebuilt much of Port Union.
Today you can visit the factory, see the workers’ housing and the printing presses of the Advocate, tour Coaker’s house, the Bungalow, and imagine the harbour a century ago bustling with FPUowned boats. A monument to Coaker stands on a hill overlooking the town that he, and the union, built.