All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Technology

Narrow - Gauge Rails

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In the Beginning there was a Vision...

The arrival of the trans-atlantic cable in Newfoundland in July 1866 provided a communications link to Britain, and with the establishment of a telegraph system the world seemed to open up for this island in the middle of the Atlantic. The possibility of faster physical connections throughout Newfoundland and to the rest of the world became more tangible and achievable.

The vision of connecting Europe with the Pacific via Newfoundland was enthusiastically adopted by the Newfoundland Government of the early 1870s. The expectations at the time were that Newfoundland would be established as a modern nation by opening up the interior and exploiting all the resources the province had to offer, thus diversifying the economy and providing regular employment for the increasing population.

The island's railway system was launched in the latter part of the 19th century. Prime Minister Whiteway proposed in 1880 that Newfoundland build a narrow-gauge (3'6") line from St. John's to Hall's Bay with a branch line to Harbour Grace.

Making a Choice

The following year Whiteway's government received two bids. E. W. Plunkert and Associates proposed to build a standard-gauge railway for cost plus five percent, operating it on an annual subsidy of $1000 per mile. They did not consider building a narrow-gauge railway because "The cost of operating it in the climate of Newfoundland would be so great as to deter practical railway men from undertaking it." (Evening Telegram, July 23, 1880)

The government, however, rejected the proposed standard-gauge line, though most suited to the extremes of the Newfoundland winter, in favour of a bid for the construction of a cheaper but less suitable narrow-gauge line by the New York Blackman Company. The selection of the narrow-gauge of 3'6" or 42" for this system was also preferred, since it was "British metric." (Newfoundland was then still separate politically from Canada.) The cost of construction of the Railway had been excessive for the small population of Newfoundland with its limited resources, even though all possible measures in the interest of economy had been used. The decision in favour of the narrow-gauge line, though more economical in the short-term, proved to be problematic throughout the entire life of the railway system.

The Newfoundland Railway operated on the island of Newfoundland from 1898 to 1988. With a total track length of 906 miles (1,458 km), it was the longest 3' 6" (1,067 mm) narrow-gauge railway system in North America.

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The S.S. Cyrus Field laying cable at an unknown location around Newfoundland, 1930.
S.S. Cyrus Field laying cable, Nov. 1930. 10.013.007 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Passenger train entering Port aux Basques, c. 1900.
Passenger train in Port aux Basques, c. 1900. 15.02.002 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Line drawing of the Baldwin 108.
The Baldwin No. 108 came to Newfoundland in 1900. Note the difference between standard and narrow-gauge rail width. A.R. Penney Collection.
Tracks by the Narrows in St. John's, c. 1900.
Tracks running along St. John's Harbour, c. 1900. 03.07.012 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
View of narrow-gauge tracks around Placentia.
Narrow-gauge tracks on the Placentia line, pre 1910. CN Pensioners Collection.