Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions
As the Notre Dame Bay copper boom catalyzed mineral exploration across Newfoundland it also escalated the need for better communication and service routes between Notre Dame Bay and St. John's. During the ice-bound months of November to March, the difficulty of sending machine parts and other supplies northward from St. John's to the mining region only equalled the impossibility of shipping Notre Dame Bay ore to Swansea. While foreign competitors with mines in warmer climates supplied copper markets all year around, Newfoundland mine managers spent the winters watching snow-covered ore piles, often as not wondering whether community food stocks would last until spring. Conditions were far from conducive to a growing mining industry.
It was no coincidence that William Whiteway, with his vested interest in mining, called tenders in 1880 for Newfoundland's first railway to be built from St. John's to Halls Bay in Notre Dame Bay. Ironically, Whiteway's other vested interests led him to grant the railway contract to the Newfoundland Railway Company, whose incompetence and corruptions indirectly thwarted the very mining concerns he wished to promote. The company went bankrupt in 1883 and fueled a political scandal that lost Whiteway in 1885 election. The Halls Bay Line - the one feasible means by which the copper industry might have survived the late 1880s - was never finished. Although Whiteway returned to power in 1889 and called the mining region only equalled the impossibility of shipping per mines.
In order to ensure the railway's completion as well as to placate his suspicious electorate, Whiteway awarded the railway contract in June 1890 to one of the best-known engineers in North America: Sir Robert G. Reid. Reid, a Scotsman by birth, had already supervised the building of such engineering masterpieces as the railway along the north shore of Lake Superior and the International Bridge across the Niagara River.(1)
The 1890 Railway Contract between the Newfoundland government, Reid and his partner, G.H. Middleton, instructed the contractors to complete the railroad to Halls Bay within five years. The railway reached Soulis Brook north of Gander Lake in the spring of 1893, but by then the copper boom's collapse had discredited Halls Bay as a terminus. The government therefore signed a contract with Reid (Middleton having since left the partnership) stipulating that the railway bypass Halls Bay and proceed on to Port aux Basques. The 1893 Railway Contract granted Reid the surface and mineral rights to 5000 acres of land along the railway for every mile of completed track, with the specification that he could pick the grants or "Reid Lots" in the areas beyond the railway, should a given piece of land beside the track be unsuitable.
By the time the railway reached Port aux Basques in 1897, Robert Reid owned several thousand square miles of fee-simple land grants, the majority of which parallelled the railroad. Had the railway passed through mineral-rich lands, or had Reid chosen more lots away from the railroad in places of known mineral potential, he might have turned his considerable finances to full-scale mineral development and given the Newfoundland mining industry a timely boost. Reid, however, showed more interest in the timber rights on his lots and, in the 1890s at least, regarded his mining enterprises somewhat casually.