All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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Herbert J. Russell and the Newfoundland Government Railway

In 1923, the ownership and operation of the Reid Newfoundland Company transferred to the Newfoundland Government. For the people of Newfoundland, this was a gift of dubious value. For a small country already beginning to feel the strain of a massive war debt, it was a burden that many felt simply could not be carried. The new regime assumed management of nearly 1000 miles of track, including several branch lines which had no prospect of paying, and a main line which required complete re-railing.

What was needed was a change in management, and the Newfoundland Government found that change in Herbert J. Russell, who was named General Manager.

Born in 1890 in Musgrave Harbour, Herbert Russell moved with his family to St. John's at the age of 10. He started what would be a lifelong career with the railway at the age of 15, as a messenger. By 1917, he was the Superintendent of the Eastern Division, before being promoted to General Manager in 1923, at a salary of $8,000 per year.

The Railway that Russell had inherited was not in good shape. The Railway's equipment was outdated and worn out, and the Railway was losing a million dollars a year. There was little money available from the Government to help, but within a decade of his appointment, Russell had performed a miracle. The rails and equipment had been updated, and the operating deficit had been slashed from one million dollars to just $30,000. In 1928, the Daily News stated that the Railway now ran "on time, at the lowest cost, and in the most effective manner."

Russell achieved much in his career with the Railway. Within ten years of taking over, Russell refurbished the railbed, rebuilt or replaced most of the worn out equipment, and cut the annual deficit to only $30,000. In 1939 he was recognized for his efforts, and made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Herbert J. Russell had turned the fortunes of Newfoundland around, and steered it through some of the hardest times of Newfoundland's pre-Confederation history - the depression, the Government scandals of the early 1930s, and World War II. The Railway was to undergo more major changes with Confederation in 1949, but Russell would not see them. He passed away suddenly in February 1949, just months before the takeover by the Newfoundland Railway by the Canadian National Railway.

Portrait of Herbert J. Russell.
Herbert J. Russell (1890-1949) was the first native Newfoundlander to head the Railway in 1923. H.J. Russell Collection.