All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

The World Wars

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World War II

The Battle of the Atlantic started in September 1939 and lasted for five years, eight months and five days, ending on May 8, 1945. The war at sea was crucial not only because of its broad strategic implications, but also because, in the words of Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, it was "the only battle we could not afford to lose."

Overnight, Newfoundland was transformed from a remote backwater to the bastion of the North Atlantic. American and Canadian troops, guns, munitions, construction materials and supplies poured into the Island. The governments of Canada and the United States would build more than 100 land, air, and naval bases of different sizes, and for various purposes throughout Newfoundland. The Railway's movements of freight and troops between bases, and over the railway line from Port aux Basques, were significant contributions to the West Atlantic war effort. It was vital to security that the enemy not capture Newfoundland and use it as a springboard for the invasion of continental North America. For the first time in its history all the Island's resources were in heavy demand. Government was faced with the pleasant situation of an annual financial surplus!

The construction boom created thousands of jobs for Newfoundlanders. The readily available employment on the bases was welcomed by a population that had suffered great economic hardship during the pre-war years. Unemployment had been severe since the First World War, and by April 1939 nearly one-third of the Island's 300,000 people were drawing government relief. However, at the peak of construction in 1942, approximately 13,500 Newfoundlanders were working at the American bases and earning relatively high wages.

The railway was almost overwhelmed by the soaring amount of business. At the start of World War II the Newfoundland Railway, still staggering from the effects of the Depression, suspended its ten-year bridge replacement program and its gradual conversion from coal to oil-driven steam locomotive. Its main focus was on transporting troops and shipping guns, munitions and supplies. Employees worked an average of seventy hours per week. Wages rose from $2,000,000 in 1930 to $5,000,000 in 1940 and $7,000,000 in 1945. The railway was supplied with whatever it needed, much of it courtesy of the United States government.

Holyrood, 1939 Royal Visit.
Holyrood, 1939 Royal Visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on June 17, 1939, was the first Royal Visit to Newfoundland by a reigning monarch. 1.003.002 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Locomotive #1008, circa 1914.
The demands of the war pushed Railway workers and equipment to the limit. In 1941, the Newfoundland Railway acquired nine new locomotives. Clayton Cook Collection.
Aerial view of Canadian Navy Hospital, 1941.
Aerial view of Canadian Navy Hospital used after the war until 1970 for post-polio cases, 1941. Lillian Steven Museum and Archives.
American troops in New York boarding for Newfoundland, 1941.
The first American troops bound for Newfoundland board the S.S. Edmund B. Alexander in New York. The steamer arrived in St. John's January 29, 1941. Maritime History Archives, Memorial University, PF-306.752.