The Life and Death of the New­found­land Rail­way


New­found­land’s rail­way, con­ceived in hope, was at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic de­bate through­out its life, and died in con­tro­versy.

It is still mourned by count­less New­found­lan­ders. Sir Wil­liam White­way, three times prime min­is­ter in the last quar­ter of the 19th cen­tury, may truly be called its fa­ther. Those were the years when huge rail­way projects com­manded wide pub­lic at­ten­tion and dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal de­bate in Canada and through­out North Amer­ica.

Rail­ways were seen as the key to a bright eco­nomic fu­ture. Gov­ern­ments of ev­ery po­lit­i­cal stripe com­mit­ted huge sums of pub­lic money to build them.

Vi­sions of great mines along New­found­land’s north-east coast and even greater agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment through­out the is­land’s in­te­rior danced like sugar plums in the heads of our politi­cians from the mid­dle of the cen­tury on. But it wasn’t un­til 1878 that White­way took up the cause.

The next year, the House of Assem­bly voted to lend $5 mil­lion to a com­pany that pro­posed to build a rail­way from St. John’s to Hall’s Bay in Green Bay. (The sug­ges­tion that it be ex­tended to the West Coast came to noth­ing, be­cause France still pos­sessed ex­ten­sive fish­ing rights along the so-called French Shore). Line reached Har­bour Grace The line of rail reached Har­bour Grace in the fall of 1884. The New­found­land Rail­way Com­pany fell into bank­ruptcy a short time later, how­ever, and con­struc­tion on the line west from Con­cep­tion Bay was halted.

The Thor­burn ad­min­is­tra­tion (1885-89) built a branch line to Pla­cen­tia, which cost twice as much as the $500,000 orig­i­nally fore­cast, but it was not un­til White­way be­came prime min­is­ter again in 1889 that work on the main line re­sumed.

Robert G. Reid, a prom­i­nent Cana­dian rail­way con­trac­tor, agreed to com­plete the line — to Port aux Basques rather than Hall’s Bay — at a cost of $15,600 a mile, to be paid in gov­ern­ment bonds.

The first cross-coun­try train from St. John’s ar­rived in Port aux Basques at 10:45 p.m. on June 30, 28 hours af­ter it left St. John’s. The 546 miles of rail that car­ried it there had cost New­found­land just shy of $11 mil­lion. Three branch lines had also been built — from Har­bour Grace to Car­bon­ear, from Bri­gus Junc­tion to Til­ton via Clarke’s Beach, and from Notre Dame Bay Junc­tion to Lewis­porte, at a cost of more mil­lions. They were be­gun by White­way and the Lib­er­als, and com­pleted by Sir James Win­ter, the new prime min­is­ter, and his Con­ser­va­tives af­ter their vic­tory in the elec­tion held in the fall of 1897.

Reid soon be­friended the Con­ser­va­tives and be­gan to ne­go­ti­ate a new deal with Win­ter, which be­came the in­fa­mous 1898 Rail­way Con­tract. Reid agreed to op­er­ate the en­tire rail­way, in­clud­ing the branch lines, un­til 1948, in re­turn for grants of 5,000 acres of Crown land for each mile of rail, and the right to buy the rail­way at the end of the 50-year pe­riod.

He also got the fran­chise to op­er­ate the coastal boat ser­vice, the St. John’s dry­dock, the ferry across the Cabot Strait, the St. John’s street rail­way and the is­land’s tele­graph sys­tem. Furor over deal The 1898 deal touched off a furor. Robert Bond, White­way’s suc­ces­sor as Lib­eral leader, led the cam­paign to re­write it. He won the 1900 elec­tion over­whelm­ingly, and im­me­di­ately be­gan ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Reids. The gov­ern­ment re­gained full own­er­ship of the rail­way it­self and the tele­graph sys­tem, but Reid re­tained the right to op­er­ate the rail­way un­til 1951.

The gov­ern­ment, for $ 850,000, bought back 1.5 mil­lion acres of land granted to him. The re­main­der of the 1898 con­tract stood un­changed.

The rail­way was al­ways a disas­ter fi­nan­cially. By 1914, it had cost New­found­land nearly $23 mil­lion. It lost money from the first day of op­er­a­tion; these losses came to $7 mil­lion in the 20 years be­fore 1921.

R. G. Mor­gan, a Cana­dian ex­pert called in by the gov­ern­ment that year, re­ported that it cost the Reids 10 times as much to move a ton of freight along a mile of track as it did the CPR, adding that the CPR earned $16,000 per mile per year, but the trans-is­land one earned only $1,500.

Two years later, in 1923, the gov­ern­ment paid a fur­ther $2 mil­lion to the Reids, and as­sumed full re­spon­si­bil­ity for op­er­a­tion — and for the op­er­at­ing losses. By 1934, when New­found­lan­ders for­feited the right to gov­ern them­selves, the rail­way had gob­bled up an­other $11 mil­lion. An im­mense strain The New­found­land rail­way had con­sumed far more than one-third of all the money bor­rowed by all New­found­land gov­ern­ments since 1855.

The Rail­way con­tin­ued to be an im­mense strain upon the pub­lic fi­nances through­out the Com­mis­sion era, al­though it ac­tu­ally made money for two years dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. (The fi­nance com­mit­tee of the Na­tional Con­ven­tion set the op­er­at­ing profit at $20,000).

Con­fed­er­a­tion meant that the fi­nan­cial bur­den was as­sumed by the tax­pay­ers of Canada. By 1988, mat­ters had come to the point where the Gov­ern­ment of Canada sought to shut it down.

Premier Brian Peck­ford agreed to do so, in re­turn for the pay­ment of $800 mil­lion. The money was paid, and the rails were taken up. The New­found­land rail­way be­came his­tory. The rail bed sub­se­quently be­came a pro­vin­cial park, now in­cor­po­rated into the Tran­sCanada Trail.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor from 2002 to 2008.

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