The Period from 1855-1895. (continued)

  73. The principles underlying the Committee's recommendations found ready acceptance. In 1880 a first Railway Bill was passed, providing for the construction of a light railway from St. John's to Hall's Bay, in Notre Dame Bay, with branch lines to Harbour Grace and Brigus. The total length of the proposed railway was estimated at 340 miles. In the autumn of the same year the survey was completed from St. John's to Harbour Grace. It was the intention of the Prime Minister, Sir William Whiteway, that the Government should itself undertake the construction of the line but, after tenders had been received, a contract was made with the Newfoundland Railway Company which was confirmed by the Railway Act of 1881. Under this contract the Company was required to construct the line under the supervision of a Government engineer, to operate and maintain it continuously, and to complete the whole line to Hall's Bay within five years. The Government on its part undertook to pay an annual subsidy of $180,000 per annum for 35 years, proportionate payment to be made as each section of five miles was completed, and to give the Company a land grant of 5,000 acres for each completed mile. Grants of this kind, which to-day seem disproportionate to the objects in view, were to become a common feature in the history of the Island's railway development.

  74. In 1881, a start was made with the construction of the line and the country immediately felt the benefit of increased employment. Prowse records that "the money thus spent ...came on the whole community like the gentle rain from Heaven; its refreshing dews descended alike on the friends and opponents of the new enterprise; its rills trickled into everyone's pocket--merchant, trader, small shopkeeper, all alike experienced the good results of this large outflow of money to the railway labourer."* Unfortunately, the "refreshing dews" were, in a later period of the Island's history were to become heavy showers which lured whole sections of the people away from the fishery in the hope of a less hazardous means of livelihood and thus tended to hinder the progress of the country's primary industry. By 1884 the line was completed as far as Harbour Grace and in 1888 an extension from Whitbourne to Placentia was opened to traffic. But the failure of the contractors held up further progress, and it was not until 1891 that the railway was extended to Trinity and Bonavista Bays.

  75. In the meantime developments had taken place in other directions. In 1882 it was decided to proceed with the construction of a dry dock, and a contract was made with J.E. Simpson and Company of New York. The work was completed in 1884 and proved an immediate success. The dock, a wooden structure, which was capable of admitting the largest steamer then afloat, was at first leased to Messrs. Simpson and subsequently to a local firm. The year 1882 was also noteworthy for the establishment of the "Rope Walk," a factory for the manufacture of fishing gear, netting, cordage and cables which had up to that time been imported from the United Kingdom and the United States. The "Rope Walk," which is owned and operated by the Colonial Cordage Company of St. John's, remains to this day one of the most important of Newfoundland's local industries. In 1882 also the revenue of the Island for the first time exceeded $1,000,000 and Sir Frederick Carter, who was administering the Government in the Governor's absence, was able to say in his opening speech to the Legislature: "The coincidence of the improved conditions to which I have adverted with the inauguration of the Newfoundland Railway marks an era of progress which is a meet subject of congratulation to the country."†

  76. In 1885 Sir William Whiteway resigned and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Thorburn. During the next two years negotiations relating to the vexed question of French fishery rights formed the main preoccupation of the Government. In 1887, the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria's accession, the first Colonial Conference was held in London. Newfoundland was represented by Mr. Thorburn who, as Prime Minister of the "oldest Colony", was the senior Colonial Premier, and by Sir Ambrose Shea, who later in the same year was appointed Governor of the Bahamas. The opportunity of discussion afforded by the Conference enabled agreement to be reached with the Imperial authorities on the course to be adopted in relation to French claims, but further difficulties soon arose and necessitated the despatch of special delegations to England in 1890 and 1891.

  77. There were also difficulties with the United States. After the lapse in 1885 of the reciprocity Treaty of 1871 with that country on the principle of free fishing and free selling (see paragraph 61), serious disputes with United States fishermen arose as to their alleged poaching in British North American waters. Thereupon in 1888 negotiations for a reciprocity Treaty with the United States were conducted at Washington by a delegation consisting of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, Sir Lionel West (His Majesty's Minister) and Sir Charles Tupper, then Minister of Finance in the Canadian Government. The Newfoundland case was presented by the Attorney-General, Mr. (later Sir James) Winter. The negotiations resulted in a Treaty and a Protocol.‡ The Treaty established two principles: (1) relating to the delimitation of British North-American waters, (2) providing that, as soon as the duties in force in the United States on Canadian and Newfoundland fishery products had been removed, United States fishery products would be admitted free of duty into Canada and Newfoundland and United States fishing vessels would be granted annual licences free of charge to enter Canadian and Newfoundland waters for the purpose of purchasing provisions, bait and other supplies, transhipping their catches and shipping their crews.

  78. The Treaty, which included provision for the appointment of a Mixed Commission to delimit British North American waters on the basis laid down, was not ratified by the United States Senate and never came into force. (It was not indeed until 1912 that the question of delimitation was finally settled by the conclusion of a new Treaty§). The Protocol, however, came into force at once. It introduced a modus vivendi whereby United States fishing vessels under annual licence at a fee of $1.50 a ton were permitted to enjoy all the facilities and amenities contemplated by the Treaty.

  79. Two years after the rejection of Mr. Chamberlain's Treaty, Newfoundland acted alone independently of Canada; and Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Bond, on behalf of Newfoundland, and Mr. Blaine, on behalf of the United States, negotiated a treaty for the mutual accommodation of both countries. As a result, however, of representations by the Canadian Government to the Imperial authorities, this Treaty also remained unratified. A little later Newfoundland again moved for improved trading facilities with the United States in fishery products. A treaty was again provisionally agreed but it was also vetoed, on this occasion by the Senate of the United States,º and Newfoundland had the mortification of seeing her cherished desires once more obstructed.

  80. The year 1892 was a calamitous one. In February a violent storm caught unawares a number of fishermen in Trinity Bay who were out looking for seals. The majority succeeded in fighting their way back, but many were blown out to sea and there was a heavy loss of life and great suffering and distress.

Green's Harbour (Trinity Bay), n.d.
Photo by Holloway. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Green's Harbour

In July of the same year there befell the worst disaster in the history of the Island. Twice previously had St. John's been ravaged by fire, but the conflagration which raged for 16 hours on the 8th and 9th July eclipsed all previous experiences. The fire broke out in a stable at the eastern end of the town and, fanned by a powerful gale, spread with alarming rapidity. The firemen were compelled to work without water, as the pipes were under repair and the supply had not been restored. Volunteers were called for, and the townspeople flocked to fight the flames, but it was soon apparent that no human effort could check their progress. The heat was so intense that brick and stone offered little more resistance than wood. Flying embers were soon scattered over the city, and in less than two hours new fires had started in several places. By the early morning of the 9th July, fully three-quarters of St. John's lay devastated. Over 2,000 houses and stores had been destroyed, and nearly 11,000 persons were left homeless. The damage to property was computed at $20,000,000, of which less than $5,000,000 was covered by insurance. Of the principal shops and warehouses, scarcely a vestige remained; the business and professional quarter was completely gutted; the chief public buildings, the Hospital and the Church of England Cathedral and many churches were alike reduced to ruins.

  * Prowse, op. cit., p. 508.
  † Ibid., p. 510.
  ‡ United Kingdom Parly. Papers, C. 5262, 1888.
  § United Kingdom Parly. Papers, Cd. 6450, 1912.
  º An attempt was made in 1897 to revive the Treaty without success. Evening Telegram, St. John's, Oct. 4, 1897.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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