Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak, eds. Company Houses, Company Towns: Heritage and Conservation. (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2016)
By Andrew Parnaby
A colleague of mine recently purchased a house in Sydney, Nova Scotia. While the sale went smoothly, insuring the property proved tricky. If the new dwelling was in the vicinity of a company house, his insurance broker reported, premiums would be higher and quite possibly no policy would be issued. There are hundreds of company houses on Cape Breton Island. They were built in the late 19th and early 20th century for coal miners and steelworkers in the emerging industrial zones of Glace Bay, New Waterford, Sydney Mines, and Sydney. Many are still inhabited, sometimes by descendants of the original working families who bought them, but many more sit neglected and empty. And in that state, according to my colleague’s insurance provider, they represent a significant risk to owners of adjacent properties. In this view, company houses are not just worthless; they are significant liabilities, like the amperage of an electrical service or the potential for sewer backup or flood. The editors and contributors to this collection of essays, not surprisingly, hold an altogether different perspective. They posit that company houses not only embody a history of industrialization, immigration, and community formation, but also provide the raw materials for thinking about heritage, public policy, social entrepreneurship, and economic development in post-industrial contexts.
Andrew Molloy and Tom Urbaniak, eds. Company Houses, Company Towns: Heritage and Conservation. (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2016).
Constructed by employers to attract and retain workers, often in remote and inhospitable environments, company houses served an important ideological function historically: a better built environment, so the argument went, could bevel the hard edges of class antagonism. Yet as the authors of this volume illustrate, paternalist gestures of this kind assumed different forms depending on the employer, employees, and geographical setting. This is the collection’s dominant theme; the case studies dedicated to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Bell Island, Newfoundland introduce it well. In both examples, the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (and its corporate predecessors) was key. It mined iron ore on Bell Island and shipped it to Cape Breton where it was combined with locally sourced coal to make steel. As the essays by Richard MacKinnon and Gail Weir reveal, modest company houses were built in both locations by the same company, with similar architectural styles popping up in Wabana, Sydney, New Waterford, and Glace Bay.
As iron ore, coal, and steel production expanded, immigration swelled; Newfoundlanders were especially mobile within the region. In time, diverse working-class cultures took root in these purpose-built communities. Company houses became family homes. Yet by the early 1960s, DOSCO’s industrial complex had collapsed as domestic markets for steel, coal, and iron ore contracted sharply. The downward spiral of deindustrialization on either side of the Cabot Strait was underway. Never built to last in the first place, company houses on both islands (with few exceptions) entered into a period of neglect, decline, and eventual abandonment. Across the country, a similar pattern of boom and bust unfolded in the mid-to-late 20th century, including in Elsa, Yukon. Once home to one of North America’s largest silver deposits, this company town, as Barbara Hogan et.al. demonstrate, was dismantled after mining ceased there in 1989. Only “vestiges” remain, part of a depleted frontier landscape that contemporary Cape Bretoners and Bell Islanders might easily recognize.