All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Railway/Coastal Boat Service

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Steamships and Marine Services

Upon the completion of the railway line in 1898, the Reid Newfoundland Company attempted to consolidate and expand coastal steamship services in Newfoundland and Labrador, thereby continuing the established practice of subsidized mail and passenger service to the outports. In 1923-24, in the aftermath of the Railway Settlement Act, the government took over the service and put it under the direction of the Newfoundland Railway.

Under the Railway Settlement Act of 1923, the government purchased the remaining six of the Alphabet Fleet from the Reids, putting them under the direction of the Newfoundland Railway. The following year the Bowring and Crosbie boats were purchased outright and a new Gulf ferry, S.S. Caribou, was also commissioned (operating in 1925).

The fleet was not added to again until 1936, under the Commission of Government, when M.V. Northern Ranger replaced S.S. Prospero. In 1940 S.S. Portia and S.S. Sagona were retired and S.S. Burgeo and S.S. Baccalieu joined the coastal service. During World War II, 10 smaller wooden steamers were built at Clarenville and operated by the Newfoundland Railway. They were dubbed the "Splinter Fleet." S.S. Caribou was sunk by a German torpedo on October 14, 1942, with the loss of 137 lives. The last three coastal boats added to the fleet under the Newfoundland government were Cabot Strait (Gulf ferry), S.S. Bar Haven and S.S. Springdale.

The Splinter Fleet

In 1943, the Department of National Resources contracted with the Clarenville Shipyards to build ten wooden vessels, designed by W. J. Roue all with the same specifications: 135 feet, gross tons 322. They were to be managed and operated by the Newfoundland Railway for the purpose of freighting on the coast, and transporting dried fish to market and returning with whatever freight was available. All vessels were launched in 1944-45 and operated by the Railway until confederation with Canada when CN Rail took over operation of the rail and coastal services. At that time, most of the Clarenville vessels were sold off to private enterprise with the exception of S.S. Burin, S.S. Clarenville and S.S. Codroy.

Under the Terms of Union, ferry and coastal boat services were taken over by Canadian National Railways in 1949. As it was anticipated that improved roads would lessen the need for a coastal boat system, fewer new vessels were built: notably S.S. Bonavistain 1956, which replaced the S.S. Kyle on the Labrador. The last of the original Alphabet Fleet (S.S. Glencoe and S.S. Kyle) remained in service until 1959. CN added a new auto-ferry William Carson in 1955, the coastal boats M.V. Hopedale, M.V. Petite Forte and M.V. Taverner in 1960-62, and the Gulf freighters Ambrose Shea, Patrick Morris and Frederick Carter 1965-68.

Medial personnel and boat crew boarding patient for hospital.
Boarding a patient for hospital. Coastal boat crews and railway men were accustomed to providing for the special needs of the sick. They often went out of their way to transport medical personnel. Harry Cuff Publications.
View of the M.V. Northern Ranger at Englee, White Bay.
The first M.V. Northern Ranger at Englee, White Bay. The M.V. Northern Ranger was built for the Newfoundland Railway and began her 30 year service on the northern coastal route in 1936. Both, the northern Labrador and southern coastal services remained vital even after ground transportation began to develop in Newfoundland. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.
Five of the ten wooden boats of the Splinter fleet under construction in Clarenville, c. 1945.
A shortage of ships during World War II led the Government to establish a shipyard at Clarenville, where 10 wooden ships were constructed for the local Coastal trade and the West Indies trade. Named after Newfoundland communities, they were referred to as the "Splinter Fleet." A. R. Penney collection.
Front view of the M.V. Trepassey under steam.
M.V. Trepassey was one of the "Splinter Fleet". Under charter, the ship made two voyages to the Antarctic. It was sold in 1963 to the Trepassey Shipping Company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.