All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

The World Wars

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New Infrastructure

Under the lend-lease program established on June 11, 1941, Britain, in return for the use of 140 destroyers, granted the still officially neutral United States permission to build military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the West Indies. Military bases were built in St. John's, Argentia, and Stephenville. Efficient communication between these bases was essential. As roads in Newfoundland were treacherous at best, the railway was the only alternative. To deliver this service, rail crews and rolling stock were stretched to the limit. The number of cars loaded in St. John's increased from 150 to 228 a week. Freight tonnage grew by fifty percent between 1938 and 1944. The War Department of the U.S. Government supplied locomotives, cars, equipment and rail to the value of over $2 million at 2.5% interest payable in 15 years. The 20-mile Argentia branch was ballasted and re-railed with 70-pound rail in 1942. A new terminal was built in Argentia to replace the old terminal taken in by the boundaries of the new U.S. naval base.

The Americans built a communications cable network and the railway was assigned a group of circuits. This was a most excellent addition as prior to the war the railway relied on a single galvanized wire strung between wooden poles crossing the Island; every winter, under the weight of ice and snow, breaks would occur.

The strategic importance of the Railway began in the late 1930s, with the building of the "Newfoundland Airport" at what is now Gander. This strategic base, constructed by the Canadians, was wholly dependent on the railway for supplies. War materials and troop movements became the top priority tasks for the Newfoundland Railway. The Newfoundland Railway did a magnificent job transporting men and supplies, including millions of gallons of high-octane fuel as well as iron ore and newsprint in quantities many times larger than it had been designed to handle. Traffic doubled, but the railway did not have the locomotives or equipment to effectively handle the boom. Passenger coaches were in such demand that they were almost constantly in use. Troops were packed on open platforms and in lavatories. Freight cars were routinely loaded twenty to fifty percent over the stated capacity. Before the war, gasoline was shipped at the rate of sixty barrels per car. During the war this jumped to one hundred and twenty barrels per car.

The major problem during the war years was keeping the railway supplied with ties for the roadbed. Made locally from untreated fir or spruce, the entire line needed about two million ties. With a lifespan of six or seven years, about 300,000 replacements were required annually. In 1939, 280,000 ties were replaced but only 120,000 in 1942. There was an abundance of trees in Newfoundland, but labour had become scarce as there were many good jobs available on the bases and on construction projects. When the war ended in 1945 the Newfoundland Railway was in need of 750,000 wood ties.

American crew on dry dock in St. John's, circa 1943.
On dry dock, the crew of an American convoy escort poses with the stars and stripes, aboard their vessel. Circa 1943. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.
Booklet commemorating war effort of Railway employees.
Booklet commemorating the war effort of Railway employees reportedly written by William B. Temple, a retired journalist. Railway Coastal Museum.