All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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Completing the Railway

In the fall of 1897, the Railway was completed from Norris Arm to Grand Bay, a distance of less than two miles from Port aux Basques. It was known as the "Newfoundland Northern and Western Railway".

In early June of 1898 the last rails were laid, and the final link was completed into Port aux Basques. On June 20, 1898 at 10:45 pm, the first express train arrived in Port aux Basques, taking 27 hours and 45 minutes for the trip from St. John's. The Steamship Bruce was already waiting for the crossing to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, handling passengers, mail and freight. The Newfoundland Railway was completed!

The railway was officially a private company, but it carried on construction largely with money borrowed on bond issues, as well as government guarantees and subsidies. However, after the completion of the railway to Harbour Grace, it failed, and its assets were taken over by the Newfoundland Government.

The Newfoundland Railway was built, mostly by hand, through some of the most rugged country imaginable. Labour, at one dollar a day, was cheap and readily available. So the railway was built by pick and shovel, and of necessity, to the cheapest specifications. The gauges were only three and one-half feet apart. This was done with full knowledge that the standard rail gauge in most of North America was and is four feet, eight and one half inches. The track of the railway in Newfoundland was thus fourteen and one half inches narrower than that of standard railways in Canada and the United States. This remained the case for the life of its line.

Being more thrown into place than constructed, the Newfoundland line had the curviest roadbed of any railroad in North America. Of its seven hundred miles of track, almost six hundred were expended in curves. There were instances where a train was in the process of negotiating three curves at the same time. Railway engineers in North America were hesitant to build curves of 10 degrees, six degrees being considered the optimal maximum. But in Newfoundland, curves of fourteen degrees were commonplace. Moreover, the builders could not afford expensive features like tunnels and signals. There was a bridge every four miles on average. The entire length of the railway's track did not have a single tunnel, though steep hills were common. In situations where it was impossible to go around obstacles, the accepted alternative was simply to go up and over them. Though the highest elevation in Newfoundland is less than 1,000 metres, the rate of climb was steeper than most gradients found in the Rocky Mountains. As one might expect, the sharpest curves had the unfortunate tendency to appear on the steepest inclines. The legislation passed by the Colony of Newfoundland in 1878 was hardly exaggerating when it stated: "The railway intended to be constructed shall not be what is deemed in England or the United States a first-class railway."

Dockyard Slideshow
Dockyard Slideshow
Railway labourers cut the brush at the end of the track. 1897.
Labourers at the "end of track," 1897. With construction completed in 1897, the Whiteway government faced the prospect of 2000 railway labourers being unemployed. R.G. Reid was contracted to build several branch lines. Railway Coastal Museum.
Map of Railway lines across Newfoundland.
This map shows the main railway line across the Island as well as the branch lines from 1897- 1923. Railway Coastal Museum.
The S.S. Bruce in Port aux Basques harbour.
On being acquired for the Gulf Service in 1897, the S.S. Bruce initially took passengers from Jerseyside, Placentia to Sydney, Nova Scotia. It commenced service between Port aux Basques and North Sydney on June 30, 1898. A. R. Penney Collection.