All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

Making It Work

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Running the railroad - People

The Newfoundland Railway needed many workers for a smooth operation. For this reason, the Newfoundland Railway was one of the biggest employers in Newfoundland during its time.

One of the assets that Reid brought to the Newfoundland Railway project was an experienced and loyal staff. Many of his staff had been associated with Reid in his Canadian contracts and many of them had an even longer association with the family, having been brought from Scotland by the railway magnate.

One of the men Reid brought to help build the railway was Jim Bird, a black teamster from the southern United States. It was recognized that he was the best teamster who ever drove a horse in Newfoundland. Bird remained in Newfoundland for the rest of his life and owned a small shop near the station platform at Whitbourne into the 1930s.

Reid was not at all reluctant to advance young Newfoundlanders if they showed ability in railroading. John P. Powell, a young man from Carbonear, got a job as a chainman with one of the first survey parties. W.D. Reid, the eldest of the Reid sons, eventually came to hold a high opinion of Powell's abilities and arranged for him to study engineering at McGill University during the winter months. Powell spent the next forty years with the Reids

Life on the Line - Early working conditions

The life of the construction workers who built the Newfoundland Railway was quite primitive and involved strenuous physical labour. After the route had been surveyed, the labourers would chop a wide swath through tangled forest, or they would have to drill and blast their way through expanses of solid rock to create a smooth path on which the tracks could be laid. Wooden ties, or sleepers, would be arranged across the grade at exactly two-foot intervals. Steel rails were then carefully placed on the ties. Fish plates had to be attached across the sleepers and securely spiked into place with sledge hammers. A back-bolter would bring up the rear, pounding in additional bolts. In this fashion the end of the track could advance about a mile per day. Crushed stone taken from blasting sites was packed firmly between the sleepers as ballast to keep the track from shifting out of position under the weight of the moving trains.

During 1892-1897 some 1500 men were employed in the section gangs. After a week of 60 hours of hard physical labour, a worker could look forward to a pay of six dollars. In case of illness or inclement weather, his pay would be reduced accordingly. There were no bunkhouses provided and the men shacked themselves. When a man got a job on the grade, he was issued a pick and shovel and charged $1.80 for it. Then the railway labourer would be given a roll of tar paper or felt and a handful of nails for makeshift accommodations. Cooking utensils and food could be purchased at reasonable cost from the contractor at construction headquarters.

When more permanent camps were established, board was $2.50 per week for company personnel, and 15 cents a meal for transients. In winter, most of the men were laid off, but a few gangs were always kept busy cutting extra timber for sleepers, pilings and telegraph poles. Despite the poor working conditions, there was no shortage of recruits. Times were hard and most of the men were grateful for any gainful employment.

Click for video interviews
Making it Work Slideshow
Making it Work Slideshow
Portrait of Robert G. Reid seated.
Sir Robert Gillespie Reid 1842-1908. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.
Railway worker J. Hayman Bird with his wife and son.
Jim Hayman Bird (1851-1930) from Louisville, Kentucky, with his family. John Gosse Collection.
Portrait of Roadmasters and Engineering staff, 1904.
Roadmasters and Engineering staff, 1904. Engineer John P. Powell standing, 2nd from right. CN Pensioners Collection.
Reid and labourers in camp at Southern Harbour.
Reid labourers in 1892 at camp 3 construction headquarters near Southern Harbour. A.R. Penney Collection.
Steam engine moving on track at Gaff Topsail, ca. 1898.
Baldwin 2-6-0 locomotive heads a four car passenger train at Summit Gaff Topsail, ca. 1898. The work on the track was not finished at the time as the tents of the construction workers on the side of the tracks indicate. A.R. Penney Collection.