Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions (continued)
Bitter though Cleary was about his coal claims, his frustrations pale in comparison with those of their next owner, Thomas J. Freeman. Freeman, a St. John's broker, secured Cleary's claims in 1913 as part of a larger claim block along the Middle Barachois River. Like the Reid Newfoundland Company, he tried to use the wartime coal shortage to advantage: in 1918 he incorporated the St. George's Coal Fields Limited and transferred his property to the company.
At first all went smoothly. Local men working under mine captain Furlong built surface facilities and excavated hundreds of tons of coal from the Jukes and Cleary seams over the 1918-19 winter. In July 1919, residents from the neighbouring village of Robinsons sent a petition to the government stating that Robinsons lacked timber, that the company had consented to sell them coal and that for $5,000 a road could be laid from the mine site to the town. The money arrived in October and road construction began at once.
The government also assisted the St. George's Coal Fields Company by agreeing in the fall of 1919 to provide the company with concessions similar to those of the 1910 Coal Development Act. The St. George's Coal Fields Act was passed in 1920 and stipulated that the company had to build a railroad between the mine site and the Newfoundland Railway by March 1925.
Then the troubles began. In November 1919, the manager of the St. John's Gas Light Company inspected the coal property and contracted to buy 1000 tons of coal. Furlong anticipated no difficulties in mining the coal, nor in hauling it to Robinsons Station on the Newfoundland Railway. What he failed to consider was that the railway operator, the Reid Newfoundland Company, would regard the coal as a threat to its own coal mines in the Codroy Valley and at Grand Lake. Robert G. Reid Jr. at first declined to carry the coal and then cited an excessively high freight rate. As a result, the excavated 1000 tons of coal never reached its destination.(12)
The affair disconcerted the Reids enough for them to approach Freeman in the spring of 1920 with an offer to option the St. George's Coal Fields' holdings. Freeman not only refused the proposal, but informed the Colonial Secretary of the Reids' move. He self-righteously detailed his refusal of the offer and, after intimating that the Reid's interest proved the value of the property, asked: "If the government would see its way clear to aid financially to the extent of Twenty Five or Thirty Thousand Dollars in the development of (our) coal areas. ...(13) Freeman's nerve can only be admired, as the letter came a month after the government passed the Coal Fields Act.
In fact, Freeman's letter backfired on him. The government took its contents to heart and became acutely possessive of the coalfields. In May 1920 Government Minister Coaker approached Freeman to sell the company's property for the $37,000 that it had already raised. Freeman declined. Coaker next hinted that the government might be persuaded to buy 100,000 of the $1 shares. Freeman ignored the hint. In June, Coaker changed his tune and told Freeman that he would rather lease the property for $200,000 and a graded royalty. This offer Freeman tentatively accepted.
At this delicate moment, the Department of Agriculture and Mines sheepishly informed Coaker that parts of the St. George's Coal Fields' land had been surveyed incorrectly and really belonged to the Reid Newfoundland Company. Coaker deplored the prospect of a confrontation and ceased negotiations, fervently hoping that Freeman would do the same.
Freeman, however, was not to be dismissed. He protested to Prime Minister Squires that the government owed him the legal fees required to solve the dispute with the Reid Newfoundland Company and that, because of the interruptions, he wanted a deadline extension of the Coal Fields Act. Freeman had his way: the government paid the lawyers fees and extended the deadline. The government did not suspect that Freeman, once placated, would drive his placators to the limit.
In March 1924 Freeman asked for and received another extension, but was told that the company must start boring for coal. It failed to do so. Instead, Freeman applied to the government for a $100,000 loan to sink a shaft. When the government refused him the loan, Freeman made the more modest request of $30,000 to drill the property. The Executive Council, by now fed up with Freeman, denied him that loan as well. He appealed to the Minister of Agriculture and Mines, W.J. Walsh, who in turn advised the Colonial Secretary to approve the money, saying: "I am prepared to not only recommend this financial assistance, ...but am also prepared to stake my political future on the outcome."(14) The outcome caused Walsh intense disappointment. The company obtained $10,000 from the government used it badly and accomplished only a fraction of its original aims.
Freeman managed, with much letter-writing, to extract the promise of another loan from the government in 1928, but before it came through the government changed hands. Freeman fell from favour and did not receive the money. The company sold 150 tons of coal to the International Power and Paper Company of Corner Brook around 1929 just before the depression began.(15) Exploration ceased and the property deteriorated.
Intense investigation of the St. George's coalfields last took place after World War II as part of a government scheme to employ war veterans in a steel mill in the St. George's Bay area. The government planned for the mill to use coal from the coalfields, limestone from the Port au Port Peninsula's Aguathuna limestone quarry and iron from the Steel Mountain iron deposits. The mill did not materialize, ostensibly because of the unsuitability of the Steel Mountain iron ore.
Exploration work to date has yet to prove the economic feasibility of the St. George's coalfields; nor has it vanquished the St. George's Coal Fields Limited, for the company is still extant and holds the mineral rights to the coal deposits.
Oil is known to exist at a number of locales along Newfoundland's west coast, but was commercially exploited at only two places: Parsons Pond on the Northern Peninsula, and Shoal Point on the Port au Port Peninsula.
Parsons Pond lies north of Bonne Bay National Park and supposedly was named after a Mr. Parsons who eased his rheumatism with oil that seeped from the rocks around the pond. A visiting Nova Scotian, John Silver, heard of the tale and became intrigued, especially after seeing oil slicks on the pond. He returned to the area in1867 and used one of the first steam-powered drills in the world to sink a well on the north side of the pond.(16) His activities annoyed the French navy, however, and he left Parsons Pond in 1868 to set up a sawmill in western Newfoundland.
Interest in the Parsons Pond oilfields subsided for a time until Simeon Parsons acquired claims in the district in the early 1890s. The claims passed from him to two other men and from them, on 23 April 1894, to the Newfoundland Oil Company.
The Newfoundland Oil Company belonged to a group of St. John's merchants whose combined knowledge of the oilfields entailed little more than having heard of Parson's rheumatism cure. They sent drilling equipment and two Ontario drillers up to the area in the spring of 1894 not realizing that its wharfing and transportation facilities were minimal. The drillers and their local assistants spent eight weeks simply removing the machine from the ship to the shore and towing it the seven miles inland over Parsons Pond to a site near Silver's old well. The men assembled the rig throughout the summer and were about to commence drilling when an oil expert, George Spottswood, arrived from the company. He suggested that the drillers shift the rig over a few yards to a more suitable location. They did so, but a strong wind toppled the second assemblage as it neared completion.(17) Thus ended the first season's work.