The 19th and 20th centuries saw the foundation of new communities that were
based upon the burgeoning industrial development of the resources of Newfoundland
and Labrador. Although manufacturing in St. John's, for example, contributed much
to the economy, this article focuses upon towns which were based exclusively upon
one industry. Since there are too many such towns to discuss all of them here, we
can examine two of them, Buchans and Grand Falls-Windsor. These towns grew up near
a mine and a paper mill respectively, and can illustrate some of the
characteristics of company towns.
Buchans town site looking east. Main Street left-center.
Plant and Lucky Strike Glory Hole in foreground.
Reproduced by permission of the Geological
Association of Canada, ©1981. From E.A. Swanson, D.F. Strong,
and J.G. Thurlow, The Buchans Orebodies: Fifty Years of Geology
and Mining (Waterloo, ©1981) 47.
In most respects, these industrial towns are like their counterparts elsewhere
in North America. They differed from outports in that their population was larger,
and the origins of their residents more diverse. Industrial workers and their
families came not only from Newfoundland and Labrador, but from many countries.
They were paid an hourly wage and did not operate on the credit system. Average
incomes in these industries were also higher than in the fishery, and conditions
in the mines and mills led to working-class solidarity and the growth of trade
unions. It is important to understand that these communities were "company towns",
in which the company had a significant control over the lives of families.
The first industrial towns were mining communities, such as Tilt Cove, Notre
Dame Bay, which started in 1864 and reached 768 residents five years later.
Although the mineral potential of Newfoundland and Labrador had been noted by
the first explorers, and attempts to open mines had been made, no mining
communities existed until the 19th century. Such mining towns were usually
remote from other communities, which made it easy for the company to dominate
the lives of its employees and their families. In Betts Cove, a mining community
consisting of 2000 residents, with poor quality housing and few amenities, the
miners were paid an hourly wage, but in company "script" which could only be
spent in the company-owned store.
Several of the mining towns that were established during the 20th century,
such as Wabana (Bell Island), Buchans, Wabush, and Labrador City, had higher
standards of living and were more like urban centres elsewhere. Yet mining towns
in the interior could be even more oppressive than those on the coast. The
company-owned railroad provided the only way in and out of Buchans during its
first few decades. Privately-built homes were not allowed, and employees had
to live in poor-quality company-owned houses or bunk houses. Sometimes people
in industrial towns were satisfied with the company dominating their lives as
long as they continued to enjoy a higher standard of living than families in
the outports. In other towns people resisted the company and fought to gain
control over their towns. When a road out of Buchans was completed in 1956,
about 60 families rebelled against the company's domination of their lives
and built their own homes on land that the company did not own across the
river. They named their renegade settlement "Pigeon Inlet" after a fictional
outport on a popular Newfoundland radio program. Later, families established
a privately-owned "townsite" to escape the control of the company. The townsite
was amalgamated with the company-owned town in 1979, not long before the mine,
the community's largest employer, closed.
The paper-mill town of Grand Falls, established in 1906, provides another
example of the character of industrial towns. For much of its early history,
like the mining communities, it was a "company town." Families lived in houses
provided by the company and people were not able to live in the town unless they
worked in the mill or had permission from the company. A separate community,
Grand Falls Station, grew on the opposite side of the railway track to the mill
property, as a place for non-mill workers and their families to live. Those who
did not work for the company, or worked for the company outside of the mill,
such as loggers, who provided the raw material to be processed, were not only
prohibited from living in the town but also excluded from socializing with mill
workers. Social life within Grand Falls, such as participation in sporting teams,
as organised on the basis of one's employment in the mill. So there was little
"community" feeling between the residents on the two sides of the railway tracks.
|Grand Falls-Windsor, 1992.
Aerial view of the town of Grand Falls-Windsor.
Reproduced by permission of the Town of Grand Falls-Windsor ©1992.
From Grand Falls-Windsor: A Town For All Reasons (Grand Falls, 1992), 2.
Grand Falls Station grew into a large community with many residents and
businesses, but since the company did not provide services such as water and
sewer, it had poor sanitation and living conditions. In 1938 a local citizens'
committee succeeded in incorporating the "wrong side of the tracks" as the
municipality of Windsor, making it the first community outside St. John's to
be incorporated. Eventually, the paper company relinquished control over the
Grand Falls, but social distinctions between the two towns were slow to erode.
They amalgamated into one municipality in 1991.
Newfoundland's second city, Corner Brook, started as an industrial town as
well. The site of a sawmill since 1864, it remained a small town until 1926 when
British industrialists built a pulp and paper mill. As was the case with Grand
Falls, the company provided mill management and skilled workers with housing near
the mill on attractive real estate, and others built accommodations on the nearby
Industries such as mining and papermaking are capital intensive, and employ
few labourers compared to the more labour intensive fishery. Papermaking
companies, for example, were able to pay relatively high wages to their
highly-skilled employees. Wages in the industrial communities were higher
than the Newfoundland and Labrador average, and many of these communities
had electric power and other social amenities before they were available in
many fishing outports. The relative affluence of residents, labour requirements
of the industry and larger size of the town, allowed these industrial communities
to have a large middle-class of professionals and managers. Since many of these
professionals and highly-skilled technical staff came from other countries, people
in these "oases of prosperity based on foreign capital," as one observer referred
to them in the 1930s, had a similar lifestyle to industrial towns in the rest of
With the urban lifestyle and industrial capitalist organization of the labour
force, came the same sort of labour relations that existed elsewhere. The
experience of working underground, and the poor treatment handed out to miners
by the companies, gave miners and their families a particularly strong sense of
antagonism toward the company. Miners organized unions and were willing to strike
for better working conditions and higher pay. This was difficult, since companies
were often able to prevent union organizers from visiting the town, for example.
Paper mill workers were often unionized as well, although the relatively higher
wages and much safer working conditions made them less militant than miners.
Although there was solidarity among mill workers, one effect of the division of
mill workers and "outside" workers into two "communities" (Grand Falls and
Windsor) was to make it possible for the company to avoid mill employees siding
with those who worked in the woods during periods of labour strife. During the
1959 International Woodworkers of America strike, for example, many mill employees
sympathized with the company rather than striking woods workers.
Ore bodies are eventually exhausted, and mining communities were either
abandoned after the mine closed as was the case in Tilt Cove, or in a few cases
such as Wabana and Buchans residents found other sources of employment. Even
then, these towns are a shadow of their former size and much less prosperous.
Technological change can lead to large-scale downsizing of the labour force even
when the mine continues to produce ore, as is the case in Wabush and Labrador
City, or paper, as in Grand Falls and Corner Brook. The residents of these
communities have worked hard to maintain services in the face of a shrinking
After 1949 the federal and provincial governments both took a larger role
in providing services such as health and education to all communities, allowing
the companies in industrial towns to back out of providing many services. These
two levels of government also supported the creation of municipal councils. The
people of many communities took democratic control over their towns. The "company"
still "owns" a few towns and provides for many of the needs of citizens, such as
Churchill Falls, Labrador, the site of a hydroelectric generating station. But
such situations are now rare and confined to places where isolation makes the
community unattractive in which to live unless the company subsides housing and
amenities. The industrial towns of Newfoundland and Labrador are now largely
indistinguishable from urban centres elsewhere in North America.
©2000, Jeff A. Webb
Updated October, 2009