All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

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Gaff Topsail

Gaff Topsails Signal Station, 1950.

High winds were of particular danger to trains in certain areas of the Island; particularly, an area close to Port-aux-Basques, the Gaff Topsail or Wreckhouse area. The 'Gaff Topsail' was a legendary place in Newfoundland railway lore. Heard of by everyone in Newfoundland, including people who had never been on the railway, as a place of deep snows, wild winds, burning furniture to keep steam in the boiler of a train stuck in a snow drift for days, passenger trains running short on food, high stakes poker games in the dining cars of trains marooned by winter storms. An eminent railroader A.R. Penney wrote: "The direct route over the Gaff Topsail was feasible but it was certainly not practicable. The railway should never have been built there."

In the wintertime when the Gaff Topsail was swept by wind and snow it was a tense ride for the train crew and a long wait for the dispatcher sitting by his key in the office in Bishop Falls. When the winter had settled in and the snow cuts along the track reached to the top of the cars so that it appeared at times that the train was going through a tunnel as you looked out at the shiny snow banks sliding past the train windows, the roadmaster spent a lot of time living in his cabin on the Gaff. It was the roadmaster who continually assessed the snow conditions, the wind and the weather, and called for plows on the trains as they left Humbermouth going east and Bishops' Falls going west. When conditions got really bad he ordered out the rotary plow, the great snow fighting machine that kept the line open when the snow cuts were so high that the regular push plows could not get through. 20.05.001 Coll-137 Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.

Train making its way through a deep snow cut on the Gaff Topsail, c. 1905.
Train making its way through a deep snow cut on the Gaff Topsail, c. 1905. Railway Coastal Museum.

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