All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Railway/Coastal Boat Service

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...there was only the boat

Early transportation was nearly always by water. Cod scattered the first Newfoundlanders among more than 1400 settlements along 10,000 miles of coast. Boats brought them to the fish. Boats brought them to Labrador. Boats connected them to the sea and to each other. More than a thousand little outports were connected to each other and the outside world by boat alone. The interior of Newfoundland, the sixteenth largest island in the world, was almost totally unknown. Before roads, before rail, before radio, there was only the boat. The boat brought the news, supplies, and medical assistance. It was by boat that people moved away and by boat that some came back. For hundreds of years, isolated communities depended on the arrival of the boats of the fish merchants. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a more formal coastal boat service operated by government subsidy had evolved. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador lived much of their lives in anticipation of goods and people promised to arrive "by the next boat," their only lifeline to the outside world.

From 1851, when the Colony took over the operation of the post office, the government implemented mail contracts for packet boats. By 1860 subsidized schooners were operating on the northeast coast from Greenspond to New Perlican, and along the south coast from Placentia to Channel-Port aux Basques. The first steam-packet, S.S. Lady LeMarchant, operated on Conception Bay after 1852.

The Newfoundland government had established regular steamer service linking coastal towns and outports by 1860. There was also an early coastal boat that travelled to Battle Harbour, Labrador. The first vessel chartered to the service was the S.S. Victoria in 1862. In 1863 S.S. Ariel took over, alternating a northern run to Twillingate (later extended to Tilt Cove) with a southern run to LaPoile. In 1871 Grieve and Co. replaced S.S. Ariel with S.S. Leopard and S.S. Tiger, inaugurating northern and southern runs based at St. John's, to Battle Harbour in the north, and to Halifax in the south. After 1877 the two-steamer coastal service continued with Bowring Brothers' S.S. Curlew and S.S. Plover, while S.S. Lady Glover ran in Conception Bay. In 1888 Harvey & Co. took over the service, with S.S. Conscript on the northern service and S.S. Volunteer. The packet S.S. Hercules, then later S.S. Alert, began running in Placentia Bay, while S.S. Favourite ran in Trinity Bay and S.S. Lady Glover in Notre Dame Bay. Once the railway reached Harbour Grace there was no need for a steam-packet on Conception Bay. After S.S. Volunteer was lost in 1891, Harvey's commissioned S.S. Grand Lake and re-named S.S. Conscript the S.S. Virginia Lake. Meanwhile Farquhar's S.S. Harlaw served western Newfoundland, out of Halifax. These ships carried bright-eyed young teachers to their first outport assignments. They transported deaf children to Halifax where they would receive the services they needed. They brought wedding dresses to excited brides and parcels and letters at Christmastime. They carried the sick home from urban hospitals, and the dead to be buried in family plots. They were willing to assist in any situation. These boats represented a lifeline for the people of small communities accessible only by water.

Alphabet Fleet Slideshow
Alphabet Fleet Slideshow
Coastal Boat Slideshow
Coastal Boat Slideshow
King's Cove as seen from the water, pre 1900.
King's Cove was one of the stops on the route of the coastal boats in Bonavista Bay. Pre-1900. 12.02.001 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Battle Harbour, 1901.
Battle Harbour, summer c. 1901. Once the unofficial capital of the Labrador fishery, Battle Harbour was an important port of call for the S.S. Home and, later the S.S. Kyle. Col-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Portrait of Sir Edgar Rennie Bowring.
In 1904, Edgar Rennie Bowering received a contract from the Newfoundland Government to provide a coastal steamship service. He had the steamships S.S. Portia and S.S. Prospero built for this service. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.