All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Accidents and the Weather

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Derailments were a constant danger to the trains and its crew and passengers. They could be caused by heavy snow, faulty communication, expanded rails, moose or other large animals on the track, or curves which were out of alignment because of slipped ballast. Just as each winter brought snow delays, so each spring saw washouts and trestles carried away by river ice. The curvature and grade of the narrow-gauge track were also cause for frequent derailments.

Collisions with other trains were the most serious accidents. There was an increased number of accidents during World War II due to increased traffic and inadequate equipment.

The first railway fatality occurred near Upper Gullies in July 1882, when a woman asked if she could hitch a ride on a flatcar with labourers returning to St. John's. Her request was denied but she attempted to board the moving train anyway. She was killed as she lost her footing, slipped and fell between two cars.

A roaming cow on the track caused the derailment of Engine #60 close to the station in St. John's in 1901.

In January 1917 a head-on collision between a westbound engine and an eastbound freight train occurred between Gallens and Harry's Brook. A locomotive was badly damaged and its fireman seriously injured. The engineer of the westbound engine had misread his orders.

In January 1917, Mildred (Coombs) and Moses Rodway, just married, were travelling through Newfoundland by train. The young couple was heading to Port aux Basques, where they intended to catch the ferry for their honeymoon in Nova Scotia. As was customary in those days, men and women, even married couples, slept in separate train cars. In the early morning hours, the Rodways were in their berths when their happy journey took a tragic turn. Four miles east of Glenwood, two cars jumped the track and derailed, causing them to overturn. The kerosene lanterns which lit those cars shattered in the crash, spreading flames throughout. Moses Rodway's car was unaffected by the blaze but Mildred was not as fortunate. Aware of the danger, Moses rushed aboard the burning car to save his bride. Both died in this accident.

In March 1942, a mixed train operating between Bonavista and Clarenville was derailed by snow build-up in a remote spot. The force of the accident catapulted one traveller the entire length of the passenger car. The crew and thirty passengers were advised that it would be at least two or three days before they could be rescued. Without any food the people, including women with small children, trudged eighteen miles along the rails to safety.

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Photograph of Mildred Coombs and Moses Rodway.
Just married, Mildred (Coombs) and Moses Rodway were travelling by train in February 1917 to Port aux Basques. Four miles east of Glenwood their train had an accident in which the couple perished. Railway Coastal Museum.
Mildred Rodway's travel trunk on exhibition.
This travel trunk and the clothes belonged to 22 year old Mildred. Railway Coastal Museum.
Rotary plow to the rescue of a stranded train, 1918.
A rotary plow comes to the aid of a train stranded in snow, April 1918. A. R. Penney Collection.