The history of the Newfoundland railway can be divided into five periods.
The construction period (1881-97) was succeeded by: operation by the Reid
family (1898-23); the Government of Newfoundland (1923-49); Canadian
National Railways; and TerraTransport (1978-88).
The first North American railway commenced operations in 1828, and the
first Canadian short line in 1836. A second boom in railway construction
began after the American Civil War (1861-64) and Canadian Confederation in
1867. The Newfoundland railway was first proposed in this era, that in
which the great North American trans-continentals were built as engines
of development and nation-builders.
Canadian engineer Sanford Fleming approached the Newfoundland government,
and in 1868 sponsored a preliminary railway survey across the southern
interior. In 1875 the government commissioned a survey for a direct route
across the centre of the Island. But it was not until William V. Whiteway
became Premier in 1878 that a decision was taken to proceed.
In 1880 a committee of the legislature recommended a narrow-gauge railway
from St. John's 340 miles west to Halls Bay. The contract was awarded to a
group of investors headed by New York lawyer A.L. Blackman and construction
commenced in August 1881. Over three years the Newfoundland Railway Company
built a line 57 miles to what is now Whitbourne, before going into
receivership. The bondholders continued construction of a 27 mile
"branch" to Harbour Grace, completed in October 1884. A second branch,
to Placentia, was built as a public work 1886-88. Thereafter a new Whiteway
government sought a private contractor to complete the trans-insular line.
In June 1890 a Scots-Canadian contractor, Robert G. Reid (initially in
partnership with George Middleton), agreed to build and equip the railway
to Halls Bay, for $15,600 per mile. Under Reid's direction construction
proceeded apace. By late 1892 grading approached the Exploits River,
virtually the half-way point - for now the government proposed to continue
to Port aux Basques by diverting the line from Halls Bay to Grand Lake across
the Topsail. In May 1893 Reid signed an extension for a the remaining 285
miles, as well as a 10-year operating contract for what was now known as the
Newfoundland Northern and Western railway, for grants of 5000 acres per mile
1894-97 saw steady progress across the central and western interior. The
first through passenger train ran 28-29 June 1898, connection with Reid's new
Gulf steamship, the Bruce, at Port aux Basques. Earlier that year, in
anticipation of the end of construction, a new Conservative government
headed by James S. Winter negotiated with the Reid family to take over
the Harbour Grace railway and unify railway operations and also for an
extended system operating contract. The resulting document, known as the
Railway Contract of '98, was a quite extraordinary melding of Newfoundland's
prospects with the ambitions of William and Harry Reid, sons of R.G. Reid.
||Port aux Basques wharf, ca. early 1900s.
Probably the Bruce at the wharf.
From the A.R. Penney Collection. Courtesy of
Harry Cuff Publications.
The Reids agreed to continue operating the line for 50 years in return for
outright ownership at the end, as well as further lands grants. They further
agreed to purchase the government drydock and telegraph, and to provide and
operate eight coastal steamships at an annual subsidy. The contract soon
encountered political opposition and in 1901 a new government headed by
Robert Bond forced the Reids to accept modification in exchange for
assignment of the contract to the limited liability Reid Newfoundland
For the next 22 years the Company was in an extraordinary position in the
Newfoundland economy. The Reids and their lands were key to developing the
forests for sawmilling and pulp and paper. But the pace of development
could not overtake annual operating losses and the Reids chafed at the
intransigence of Bond's Liberal party. Offers to sell the line outright
were refused and R.G. Reid died in 1908 recommending that his heirs liquidate
their Newfoundland interests.
But it was also in 1908 that the Reid brothers took heart in the founding
of a new political party, the People's Party of Sir Edward P. Morris.
Securing a majority with Reid backing in 1909, the Morris government let a
new contract for a network of branch railways. Although popular politically,
the branch lines were uneconomic from the first, adding 375 miles of trackage
but little traffic. The suspension of construction with the Great War and a
pronounced post-War slump had the effect of raising the Railway Question
again with increased urgency.
In 1920 Harry Reid informed the government that the Company could not
continue. For two years the line came under a joint Reid-government
commission. But in the spring of 1922 Reid tried to force the government
to take over, shutting down the line for a week in May. Meanwhile, the Reid
lands were key to the proposed "Humber Deal," for a new pulp and paper mill
at Corner Brook. With the Railway Settlement Act of 1923 the government
cancelled the operating contract. Legislation for the Humber Deal followed
Initially styled the Newfoundland Government Railway, the line was known
as the Newfoundland Railway from 1926 to 1949. Operations were directed by
general manager Herbert J. Russell, who began a program of gradual
improvements only to be hamstrung by the onset of the Great Depression.
Three of the branch lines were closed in 1931 and under the Commission of
Government (after 1934) expenditures continued to be watched very closely.
Yet beginning in 1936, with the construction of an airbase at Gander in
anticipation of the coming War, the Newfoundland railway became a vital
strategic asset. During World War II the line further proved its worth,
as other military bases were built at Argentia, St. John's, and Gander.
War's end found the railways plant and personnel in a run-down state.
As Newfoundland's future form of government was being discussed so was the
fate of the railway, with Confederation advocates pointing to Canadian
National Railways as holding the solution to the long-term problem of the
railway as a necessary but structurally unprofitable public service.
In 1949, under the Terms of Union, the railway as well as connecting
coastal and marine services were taken over by C.N. and a certain level
of service seemed assured. Initially there were sweeping capital
improvements, improved pay scales, and a rapid increase in the amount of
freight carried. Under a program of dieselization there was a complete
turnover of motive power 1953-59, followed by substantial re-railing, and
a new Gulf ferry.
|Freight Train, near the Humbermouth, n.d.
When the railway was taken over by C.N. in 1949, there was
a rapid increase in the amount of freight carried.
From the A.R. Penney Collection. Courtesy of
Harry Cuff Publications.
But the transportation boom in the new province was also reflected in
a growing trend towards road transport. The Trans-Canada Highway spanned
the Island by 1965, and in 1968 C.N. replaced passenger trains with a bus
service. By the mid-1970s C.N. was also diverting freight to highways
nationally, and employee and public uncertainty was rife. In 1977 a joint
federal-provincial commission was appointed to look into the entire
Newfoundland transportation system. The Sullivan Commission reported in
1978 to public outcry over its acceptance that the railway would be abandoned
within ten years.
And indeed that was what happened, despite the an initial reaction to the
outcry through formation of a Newfoundland Transportation Division
(TerraTransport) within C.N. The remaining branch lines were closed in
1984, and in 1988 the two levels of government agreed on compensation to
the tune of $800 million for highway improvement. The last train ran in
June of 1988, with rails of the main line being taken up by November 1990.
© 2001, Robert Cuff