All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

Railway Employees

Page 1 Next Page


Many people were required for the smooth operation of the Railway Coastal Service in Newfoundland and Labrador. For this reason, the Newfoundland Railway was one of the biggest employers outside the fishery in this province. When CN took over the railway after Confederation in 1949, 5000 people were employed to run the trains and coastal service, the St. John's dockyard and the Canadian National Telecommunications (CNT) company.

Most travellers on the Newfoundland Railway and Coastal Boats would have been familiar with the crew: the conductors, engineers, porters and stewards, captains and ticket sellers. These front-line people represented the face of the Railway and many of them were very well known to the travellers and vice-versa.

For the railway worker, the job came first. He could be called out at any time to report to duty, and no one knew when he would be returning home. A railway man routinely faced the worst kind of hazards every day as part of their job.

Behind the Scenes

Much of the work went on behind the scenes. At the center of the railroad activities were the commercial departments. In liaison with top management, they determined the type, frequency, and speed of the trains. It was the job of the operating department to meet these demands. The technical engineering department would provide the necessary equipment, and the civil engineering team ensured that the track and fixed structures were in working order. All this work was supported by many specialized departments, ranging from timetabling and accounts to marketing and publicity.

Reid's Approach

Robert Reid drew on his Canadian railway-building background to recruit experienced construction workers and management staff. He brought in people like fellow Scots Alexander Cobb and Charles Henderson, who were master stone masons. Such experts taught Newfoundlanders their trades, as well as railroad operation.

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.

Soon there was a dedicated, professional local workforce of people in place who worked their way through the ranks. The resulting breadth of experience was explained by Mickey Wade of Holyrood. He worked on the railway from 1894 to 1936 where he said he had to be a "carpenter, blacksmith, cooper, pipefitter, plumber, steamfitter, and mechanic." There are many Railroader families in this province who proudly worked for the railroad for several generations.

Click for video interviews
Railway Employees Slideshow
Railway Employees Slideshow
A crew of  four sectionmen checking the tracks, near Port Blandford, c. 1910.
Capable and personable employees were the human face of the Newfoundland Railway. A.R. Penney Collection.
Portrait of Conductor Paddy Lee in uniform.
Paddy Lee was conductor for over thirty years. In 1921, Sir Robert Bond wrote to Fraser Bond, "Do you remember Paddy? He is the handsome, rosy-cheeked conductor in the railway train that runs between St. John's and Carbonear." Railway Coastal Museum.
Portrait of Herbert John Russell.
Herbert John Russell, General Manager, Newfoundland Railway from 1923 to 1949. H.J. Russell Collection.
Photograph of Roadmasters and Engineering Staff, 1904.
REWA Seated (l-r) are roadmasters Graham, Cobb, Connors, Steele and Ferguson. Standing are engineers McLellon, Emerson, J. P. Powell and Park. They were all long time Reid employees. CN Pensioners Collection.