All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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Robert Gillespie Reid to the Rescue

Born in 1842 in Scotland, Reid apprenticed as a stonemason and in 1865 went to Australia with his new bride Harriet Duff, to work in the gold fields. There he instead found employment at various public work projects. He found that his skills as stonemason were in great demand. He found work building bridges (including several railway bridge foundations) and even worked for a time on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 1869 Reid's father died and he returned to Scotland with his family, which included two sons: William Duff Reid, born November 20, 1867 and Harry Duff Reid, born January 29, 1869. In 1871 Reid moved to North America where he became a railway bridge constructor both in Canada and the United States.

The Reid Contracts

The Reids were successful in their bid to government to build the Newfoundland railway in 1890. Eight years later, on June 29, 1898, the first train left the East End station in St. John's, however, not without controversy.

On March 15, 1898, the Newfoundland Government signed a contract with Robert Reid that was seen by some as beneficial for both the people and the Government of Newfoundland, but seen by others as the illegitimate establishment of a monopoly over Newfoundland resources, communication and transportation.

Under the new contract, Reid paid the Government $1.5 million in exchange for ownership and operational control of the Railway, Telegraph system, and Drydock in St. John's for 50 years, after which time he would maintain ownership of the Coastal service for 30 years, and 5000 acres of land for every mile of track, bringing his total ownership to five million acres -one sixth of the entire Island! In addition to the payment of $1.5 million, Reid also agreed to build the Riverhead Station at the West End of St. John's (the building which presently houses the Railway Coastal Museum), to cobblestone Duckworth and Water Street and to construct a street-car line in St. John's to replace the line that had gone to the East End train station.

At the time, most members of the Newfoundland Government, headed by Sir James A. Winter, saw this as a positive deal. Not only was it coping successfully with the many economic burdens of an almost bankrupt Newfoundland due to the bank crash of 1895. But as well, St. John's got itself a streetcar and a new train station. An added bonus was that the Reid's 5000 acreage deal involved all inland territory and promised the inland development of industry. Many did not agree.

The contract was signed amidst accusations of favouritism and unfair concessions to Reid, fuelled by the fact that the Receiver-General, A.B. Morine, was on retainer as Reid's lawyer while negotiating the contract on behalf of the government. Morine was forced to step down as Receiver-General, but only after negotiations were already completed. The land grants were contested, as some of the land given to Reid already belonged to other people. These land-owners then had to prove their ownership - a difficult and time-consuming task given the lack of records and the fact that deeds to land were often handed down through family over generations.

A vote of no-confidence in the spring of 1900 brought down the Winter government, and in the following election the contract of 1898 became a central issue. Robert Bond's Liberals won the election.

Portrait of Robert G. Reid seated.
Robert Gillespie Reid (1842-1908), the man who built the Newfoundland Railway. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.
Map showing Reid land holdings in Newfoundland.
This Newfoundland map shows the land which Reid received for building the Newfoundland Railway. Ken Byrne.
Riverhead Station St. John's c. 1905 as seen from Water Street.
Riverhead Station at the West End of St. John's which presently houses the Railway Coastal Museum, c. 1905. Railway Coastal Museum.