All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Accidents and the Weather

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The Predictably Unpredictable: Winds and Snow

High winds were of particular danger to trains in certain areas of the island - particularly, an area close to Port-aux-Basques, the Gaff Topsail or Wreckhouse area. The 'Gaff Topsail' was a legendary place in Newfoundland railway lore. Heard of by everyone in Newfoundland - including people who had never been on the railway - as a place of deep snows and wild winds which often required burning furniture to keep steam going in the boiler of a train stuck in a snow drift for days. Passenger trains would run short of food and yet the high stakes poker games would continue in the dining cars of trains marooned by the winter storms. An eminent railroader A.R. Penney wrote: "The direct route over the Gaff Topsail was feasible but it was certainly not practicable. The railway should never have been built there."

In the wintertime when the Gaff Topsail was swept by wind and snow it was a tense ride for the train crew and a long wait for the dispatcher sitting by his telegraph in the office in Bishop Falls. When the winter had settled in and the snow cuts along the track reached the top of the cars - making it appear that the train was going through a tunnel as you looked out at the shiny snow banks sliding past the train windows - the roadmaster would spend a lot of his time living in his cabin on the Gaff. It was the roadmaster who continually assessed the snow conditions, the wind and the weather, and called for plows on the trains as they left Humbermouth going east and Bishops' Falls going west. When conditions worsened he ordered out the rotary plow, the great snow fighting machine that kept the line open when the high snow cuts prevented the regular push plows from getting through.

Photograph of 6 foot high snow cut showing men on tracks.
The Gaff Topsails section was barren with steep grades, high winds and heavy annual snowfall. Under such conditions, a 10 or 12 foot wide cut could all fill in during a few hours. A.R. Penney Collection.
A locomotive stuck in snow, Winter 1920, Harbour Grace.
A locomotive is stuck in Harbour Grace, c. 1920. Section men are shovelling snow from around the engine. Fabian Kennedy Collection.