All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Accidents and the Weather

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The Predictably Unpredictable: Snow

In 1960, the run from Port aux Basques to St. John's was scheduled to take twenty-one and one-half hours. However, despite paying close attention to the timetables, delays and unexpected events still occurred. Few places on earth have winds fierce enough to match those of an area near Cape Ray on the west coast. The railroad track, perilously close to the shore, bore the full brunt of the ocean elements and winds of up to one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Fully loaded freight cars could be tossed off the track like match boxes if not chained down with ships' anchors.

Snow conditions, especially on the Gaff Topsail often proved to be more than men and equipment could handle. Most winters, the Gaff Topsail was blocked half the time and in 1899 was blocked all winter. The light engines and wooden push plows had little chance of opening the deep snow cuts. Many trips took two weeks or more to cross the Island. The first rotary plow was brought in by Robert Gillespie Reid, the builder of the Newfoundland Railway, in 1904. Two more plows would be built in succeeding years. The size of the plow required two locomotives to push it. Along with spare tenders of water, coal cars, bunk and cook cars, it required a large crew. The plow, with its enormous 10-foot wheel, could clear a track of snow, throwing it as much as 100 feet from the track, but the operation was slow and costly.

Eugene Bartlett writes in his book, Least Known America (1925), "The trains in summer run across the Island once in two days and are usually late, even with a very liberal time allowance. In summer they may be from a half day to a day late and in winter the days have been known to run into weeks."

"In February, 1912, the Methodist minister at Lewisporte tried to go St. John's, two hundred and fifty-five miles away, with an ailing wife and children. It was only a few hundred yards from the parsonage to the station and, flogging through the drifts, they reached it on an ox sled. At a house by the station they waited two weeks for a train, finally a train started, moved by five engines, two rotary plows, and a hundred shovelers. But it was two weeks more before the train made the two hundred and fifty-five miles and reached St. John's. A car-load of beef which the railway furnished kept the passengers from starving."

Train making its way through a deep snow cut on the Gaff Topsail, c. 1905.
Reid brought in the first rotary plow in 1904 to clear snow. This image shows a 16-foot cut on the Gaff Topsail, c. 1905. Railway Coastal Museum.
Rotary plow in action with two crew members.
The rotary plow was a great improvement, but it took two locomotives to push it, along with extra water and coal cars, cooks cars, bunk cars and additional crew. Therefore its operation was slow and costly. A.R. Penney Collection.
Photograph of train snowed in at Gaff Topsails.
The highest section of the Railway was the Gaff Topsails, between Millertown and Kitty's Brook. In this section the weather often played havoc with the trains. They often were stuck there for days before they could be ploughed out. Clayton Cook.
Rotary plow train.
Rotary plow at Humbermouth. A.R. Penney Collection.