All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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The Telegraph Service

By 1887 telegraph lines were laid from Avondale to Trinity, Catalina and Bonavista, from LaPoile to St. George's, Humbermouth and Tilt Cove, from Shoal Harbour to Gambo and Greenspond, and from Long Harbour to Bay L'Argent, Burin and Fortune, and from Gambo to Fogo, Change Island and Twillingate. In 1892 Colonial Secretary Robert Bond headed an inquiry into the public system, and found that accounts were hopelessly intertwined with those of AAT.

The first trans-atlantic cable was landed in 1865 in Heart's Content, Newfoundland, and a monopoly given to the Anlgo-American Telegraph Company. This "Anglo" telegraph line across southern Newfoundland was of little benefit to the Railway and left the north coast without service. Government needed a telegraph service and in 1893 contracted Reid to build it. Reid purchased it in the 1898 contract. Government re-purchased it in 1901 for $1.5 million, as determined by arbitration. Government built a new telegraph line along the railway, and Reid's station managers provided the service.

The dispatching office was the nerve centre of the railway, controlling the movement of all trains at any given time. For a number of years, the line was divided in two, the western division being controlled from Bishop's Falls, and the eastern division from St. John's.

Along with running the railway, R.G. Reid was contractually bound to install a telegraph line beside the track. In 1898 Reid purchased the existing telegraph line for $125,000 and agreed to operate the system for an annual subsidy of $10,000. In 1905 Reid sold the telegraph service to Newfoundland Postal Telegraphs for $1,500,000.

Much of the Newfoundland Railway led through remote, underdeveloped areas. Traffic movements were regulated mostly by "Written Train Orders," transmitted by telegraph from a central office to the few stations along the line where facilities existed for crossing trains running in the opposite direction.

The Conductor and Engineer of a westbound freight or passenger train would receive an order telling them to proceed to station "A," where they would meet an eastbound extra or No. 204. On the way they might have passed several stations, all of which were equipped with the standard quadrant signal boards designed for this type of line. If the arm was pointing in a downward direction, it meant that no additional or contradictory orders were awaiting the train, and it could pass on through. If the arm was pointing straight out, it meant, "I have orders for your train and you must stop for instructions".

Rotary snow plows operating in the storm-ridden Gaff Topsails would frequently break the line with the weight of the ice and snow they threw off.

Dispatcher W.J. Chafe, Bishop Falls at the telegraph station, 1914.
Bishop's Falls, 1914. Like many young Newfoundlanders, W.J. Chafe took private lessons in telegraphy in the hope of getting a job on the Railway. He was for many years chief dispatcher, retiring from the Railway in 1962. Sister Loretta Chafe.
Outport telegraph office with three unidentified people.
Outport telegraph office. Reid's 1893 operating contract called for a telegraph along the 'whole line of the railway'. Local lines on the north and west coasts connected to the railway telegraph. Harry Cuff Publications.