All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway


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Early transportation in Newfoundland was nearly always by water. For hundreds of years more than a thousand little outports along 10,000 miles of coast were connected to each other and the outside world only through the boats of the fish merchants. The interior of Newfoundland, the sixteenth largest island in the world, was almost totally unknown. By the end of the nineteenth century a more formal coastal boat service operated by government subsidy had evolved.

The story of railroading in Newfoundland begins in 1875 with the appointment of a commission to study the route of a proposed railway.

A commissioned survey recommended the building of a 360 mile, standard-gauge railway from St. John's to St. George's Bay on the west coast, the shortest line between the two points. It cut through the centre of the Island, usually following the high ground. As it turned out, after all the efforts expended on the surveys, the railway ended up being second-class, narrow-gauge, much more expensive than anticipated and followed a more circuitous route than had been planned. For political reasons, large portions of the line were shifted to link the more remote communities of the great bays on the northern coast. This modification resulted in severe snow-clearing problems in winter and a winding roundabout route, which made it impossible to operate the railway on a break-even basis, let alone a profitable one.

The work was completed by the Reid Newfoundland Company in 1898 when the first passenger train crossed the Island from St. John's to Port aux Basques to meet the steamer Bruce.

The Reid Newfoundland Company operated the railway and the coastal boats for the next twenty-two years until 1921 when it was forced to give it up to the government due to a lack of operating funds. In 1926 the name was officially changed to the Newfoundland Railway.

The S.S. Iceland at Harbour Grace, pre 1910.
The S.S. Iceland at Harbour Grace, pre 1910. 31.02.003 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
A crew of  four sectionmen checking the tracks on a speeder car.
Section crew checking rails, 1905. Fabian Kennedy Collection.
Yard and roundhouse employees with locomotive #112, 1916.
Humbermouth, 1916. Yard and roundhouse employees pose with Engine #112, built at the St. John's locomotive shed in 1911. A. R. Penney Collection.