All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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The Beginnings

In the early 1800's, most of the 200,000 inhabitants of Newfoundland lived on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, and the remainder lived in the hundreds of small communities all around the shores of the Island, where they eked out an existence in coastal fishing. Roads were scarce. Transportation, freight and communication were limited to coastal boats. But there was the prospect of new industry and a diversified economy, if a means could be devised to reach the unexploited timber, mineral and agricultural resources in the interior. By 1850, there was talk of building a railroad to Harbour Grace and Carbonear, which were thriving fishing communities not yet connected by road to St. John's. In 1875, the government of the day initiated a survey from St. John's to Port aux Basques along the South Coast. This survey was done by Sandford Fleming, a Canadian engineer. There was some talk in subsequent years that the Great American and European Short Line would build a railway along the surveyed route to accommodate the transportation of passengers from New York to the British Isles.

Sir William V. Whiteway led the Liberals to victory in the general election of 1879 on a platform that included a promise of action on a railway, a promise he fully intended to keep.

In 1880, Newfoundland's Prime Minister Whiteway told the house of Assembly that the construction of a national railway from St. John's to Hall's Bay, on the North East Coast, was to be, 'the work of the country. And in its bearing on the promotion of the well-being of the people, in which the returns are alone sought and will be found, [a railway] eminently commends itself to our judgment.'

His first action was to approach the British Government for financial assistance to build the projected line to the French shore. However, the British authorities held that the rail line would be of no strategic or commercial importance to the empire as a whole, and would only cause friction with the French who had treaty rights on the west coast.

As an alternative to a trans-island route, Prime Minister Whiteway proposed in 1880 that the Colony build a narrow-gauge (3'6") line from St. John's to Hall's Bay with a branch line to Harbour Grace, at an estimated cost of four million dollars.

The following year Whiteway's government received two bids. They rejected a proposed standard-gauge line, though most suited to the extremes of the Newfoundland winter, in favour of a bid for the construction of the railway across the Island with a cheaper but less suitable narrow-gauge line, from the New York Blackman Company. Once their contract was approved the Blackman Newfoundland Railway Company floated a bond issue in England to raise capital. The railway was to be owned by the Company after the construction was completed, but the government held the right to purchase the line after 35 years.

Work began on the railway in August 1881, and by the fall of 1884 the line had reached Harbour Grace via Whitbourne. This line was known as the Harbour Grace Railway, 'Southern Division.' Work commenced on the building of a railway from Whitbourne to Placentia in 1886, and was completed in October 1888. This line was known as the Placentia Railway - Northern Division. Within three years, however, the Blackman Company was bankrupt and Whiteway had less than 100 miles of track. Work on the main line ceased and Whiteway was defeated in 1887 by the Conservative Party headed by Sir James Winter and Alfred Morine. Work then continued and, in 1893, the railway was completed from Whitbourne to Placentia Junction to Norris Arm, and known as the 'Hall's Bay Railroad.'

The new government recognized that a new industrial development strategy was necessary to provide employment and develop industries. The trans-island railway project needed to be revived. R.J. Reid was approached to rise to the challenge.

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Fishing boats moored by St. John's harbour .
Fishing boat stages by St. John's harbour. 01.010.03 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Portrait of  Sir William Whiteway.
Sir William V. Whiteway, Prime Minister of Newfoundland 1878-85, 1897. 26.010.10 Coll-137, Archives and Manuscripts, QEII, Memorial University.
Drawing of early Blackman Company locomotive.
One of the first locomotives purchased by the Blackman Company for use in Newfoundland. Fabian Kennedy Collection.