All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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Completing the Railway

During the war years the St. John's division was the most important, as it controlled the movement of most of the coastal steamers and the branch railways of Bonavista, Lewisporte, Argentia and Carbonear. In addition, there were the military bases at Argentia, St. John's and Gander. Lewisporte was also handling large ships whose cargoes had to be transported to Gander, with coal shipments destined for Bishop's Falls for the Newfoundland Railway.

When the ports of Botwood and Corner Brook were closed to navigation during the winter months due to ice build-up, all newsprint would be moved by rail from Grand Falls to St. John's for the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company Limited (A.N.D.), and for the Bowater Company Limited, for shipment to world markets.

Reid's Battle for Survival

Operating the railway proved to be still more of a financial challenge than building it. In a desperate attempt to remain solvent, the Reid Newfoundland Company slashed operating expenses drastically. The frequency of trans-island expresses was cut back, winter operations on the branch lines were curtailed, and maintenance reduced to a mere fraction of what was recommended. The Newfoundland Railway was beginning its steady decline into decrepitude, a decline that would last until World War II.

The many twists and turns of the railway route across the Island severely limited the number of passenger and freight cars that the steam engines could haul along the steep grades of the narrow-gauge line. Heavy snows played havoc with the schedule, especially in the Gaff Topsail where excessive drifting regularly closed the line for days, sometimes weeks at a time. In the spring, great torrents swept away sections of the line, even trestles. The Reid Newfoundland Company lost $6,000,000 operating the railway in Newfoundland between the years 1901 and 1921. The problem was the impossible task of making a profit in the conditions that existed in Newfoundland. There were simply too many miles of tracks to maintain and not enough traffic to subsidize the work. The population was too small and too spread out, the economy too small to support a railway of the size it had. Small engines traveling on narrow-gauge lines over heavy grades could not pull enough cars to be profitable; and freight rates were low considering the increasing labour and material costs. Branch line operation contributed to the financial burden.

Historical pamphlet published during WWII.
This 32 page pamphlet tells the story of the Newfoundland Railway during war time. Railway Coastal Museum.
View of a snow cut.
Snow was a major problem with the railway. Special equipment was needed to keep the snow off the tracks and the trains running. A. R. Penney Collection.
Railway workers and passengers in Western Newfounldand, c. 1900.
Newly opened rail line in Western Newfoundland, c. 1900. John Gosse Collection.