All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Railway/Coastal Boat Service

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S.S. Bruce

With the completion of the railway line from St. John's to Port aux Basques, the Reid Company wanted to provide passenger, mail and freight service to and from Canada and the United States, as well as to promote tourism. As the train crossed the Island in just over 24 hours, it was necessary to have a reliable and fast ship for the Gulf crossing to and from North Sydney, Canada. The S.S. Bruce, the first of the Alphabet Fleet, was purchased for that purpose and made the first run from Port aux Basques to North Sydney on June 30, 1898. This memorable trip, with the return fare of $11.00 for first class passengers and $6 for steerage passengers, was an excursion to Nova Scotia to celebrate Dominion Day in Canada. The express left St. John's at 7:20 pm on June 29th, arriving in Port aux Basques at 10:45 pm on June 30th. The S.S. Bruce, equipped with sails and steam engine was already waiting. She cast off sixty five minutes later and arrived in North Sydney in time for breakfast. After a day of celebrations the passengers boarded the ship for the return trip to Newfoundland.

The S.S. Bruce continued in the Gulf service for the next fourteen years, until it was lost near Louisbourg, Nova Scotia on March 24, 1911 with the loss of two lives. The ship had been diverted to Louisbourg due to ice conditions of the coast off Nova Scotia.

The S.S. Bruce was a magnificent ship with electric lighting, including a searchlight. Its dining saloon had dark mahogany panels fringed with gold. The saloon's chairs were upholstered in blue velvet, and its floors covered in Turkish carpet. The S.S. Bruce had a large smoking room and "a special apartment" set aside for ladies.

On March 24, 1911, in heavy ice conditions, the S.S. Bruce was wrecked on the rocks near Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island. On board were one hundred and twenty-three passengers, including many women and children, as well as forty Newfoundland fishermen heading for British Colombia to join the Pacific seal hunt. Two lives were lost. The survivors made it to shore in six large lifeboats, where they were met by local people with horses and sleighs. The Sydney and Louisbourg Railway ran a special train to get the people to safety.

Almost immediately the S.S. Bruce II was built in Scotland for the Newfoundland Railway. More than 50 percent larger than the earlier vessel, the S.S. Bruce II was built to navigate through ice. She did the mainland crossing until 1916 when she was sold to Russia.

S.S. Argyle

In 1900 the S.S. Bruce was followed by the S.S. Argyle, an attractive and substantial vessel 155 feet long and 25 feet wide. A bay boat destined for Placentia Bay, the S.S. Argyle's gross tonnage was 439, quite a bit smaller than the S.S. Bruce's. The S.S. Argyle was named in honour of Argyll, the cradle of the Scottish kingdom, lending the ship an air of romance and grandeur.

View of Notre Dame Bay from the Durrell Museum.
View of Notre Dame Bay through the window of the Durrell Museum. Ute Simon, 2006.
Fishing stages, Fogo Island.
Fishing stages, Fogo Island. Ute Simon, 2006.
A crowd of people waiting for the boat.
Waiting for the boat. A typical scene at a wharf before a boat arrived or after it left. 29.01.017 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
The S.S. Portia at Bowring wharf in St. John's.
A crowd watches the departure of the S.S. Portia from the Bowring's wharf, c. 1905, in St. John's. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.
Toilet and sink from the S.S. Fife.
This toilet and sink are all that are left of the S.S. Fife. They are now part of the Railway Coastal Museum's collection.