All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Railway/Coastal Boat Service

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Newfoundland Railway Steamship Service

Newfoundland merchants remained deeply involved in the delivery of coastal services up to the beginning of the last century. By that time the Reid Newfoundland Company had succeeded in revolutionizing the transportation industry in Newfoundland. By building a narrow-gauge railroad across the Island and dominating the coastal service, it held a virtual monopoly over the movement of people and goods within Newfoundland. In 1898, the first of Reid's famous "Alphabet Fleet", the S.S. Bruce, went into service in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The railway and ships began to connect in various places across the Island, thus allowing for travel and freight service on an unprecedented scale. Over the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Reid Company operated fourteen ships in the coastal service. After World War I, the pace of life in Newfoundland accelerated. Government now felt a responsibility to provide transportation links to the people. In 1923 Reid's railway and coastal services were taken over by the Newfoundland Railway, created and operated by the Newfoundland Government.

The Newfoundland Railway was responsible for a marine division. The railway operated a fleet of steamships which made scheduled connections with the mainland via North Sydney, Nova Scotia. It operated in the great bays of the Island and also serviced the remote coast of Labrador. For ease of freight handling, wharves with railway track were built in Port Blandford, Humbermouth, Placentia, and Lewisporte. The 1898 Railway Contract gave Reid a 30-year responsibility to provide steamer service between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, and around the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Reid received an annual subsidy of $90,000 from the Government, making the service marginally profitable. Adequate coastal boat revenues were necessary for Reid's overall operation. However, Government also awarded additional routes to other ship-owners. That unexpected competition led to duplication of some routes and took business away from Reid's branch railway lines. Reid's efforts to tidy up all Government's transportation problems were undermined by Government itself.

The Alphabet Fleet

The 1898 contract to operate the Newfoundland Railway, between Sir Robert Reid and the Newfoundland Government, contained a provision for Reid to operate eight steamers to provide freight and passenger service to designated ports around the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Named for towns in Reid's native Scotland, these ships became known as the "Alphabet Fleet." It is interesting to note that all names end with the letter "e." Reid acquired twelve steamers in all for this service, but never completed the alphabet.

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Portrait of Robert Gillespie Reid seated.
Robert Gillespie Reid (1842-1908). In 1898 he received a Government contract which allowed him to purchase the completed railway, coastal boats, and other assets. His family operated the Railway for 25 years. Harvey, 1900.
The S.S. Bruce at Port aux Basques.
The S.S. Bruce commenced service between Port aux Basques and North Sidney, Nova Scotia, June 30, 1898. A. R. Penney Collection.