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Encyclopedia > Newfoundland Railway
Newfoundland Railway logo or herald (used 1926-1949)

The Newfoundland Railway was a historic railway that operated on the island of Newfoundland and was the longest narrow gauge railway system in North America.


Early Construction

In 1880, a committee of the Newfoundland legislature recommended that a narrow gauge railway be built from the colonial capital in Newfoundland to Halls Bay, 340 miles to the west. Construction was started on the Avalon Peninsula in August, 1881 by a group of investors and by 1884, the Newfoundland Railway Company had built 57 miles west to Whitbourne before the company went into receivership.

The same investors continued to build a 27 mile branchline from Whitbourne to Harbour Grace which was called the Harbour Grace Railway, which was completed by October of that same year.

The colonial government undertook to build a branch from the junction at Whitbourne to the ports of Placentia and Argentia, which was done between 1886-1888.

Robert G. Reid

The colonial government sought new investors to continue the stalled project to Halls Bay and in June, 1890, Scottish-born Montreal resident and railway engineer/contractor Robert Gillespie Reid agreed to build and operate the line. By 1892, Reid's workers were approaching the half-way point at the Exploits River when the government changed the terminus from Halls Bay approximately 250 miles further west, first to St. George's Bay and finally to Port aux Basques. The route itself was diverted inland up the Exploits valley and over the Gaff Topsails (some of the highest elevation terrain on the island) and away from the coast once on the north bank of the Exploits River. This extension to the system was initially operated as the Newfoundland Northern and Western Railway and for it, Reid was granted land totalling 5,000 acres per mile.

The new line west to Port aux Basques was completed between 1894-1898. At the same time, Reid also proposed to operate a ferry service across the Cabot Strait from Port aux Basques to North Sydney, Nova Scotia and contracted for a steamship to be built in England. The Bruce arrived in the fall of 1897, before the line was completed to Port aux Basques, so her initial runs to Cape Breton Island were made from Little Placentia. On June 29, 1898 the first passenger train arrived at Port aux Basques and the Bruce set sail with passengers for North Sydney.

Later that same year, the colonial government persuaded Reid's company to take over operation of the bankrupt Newfoundland Railway Company and its sister Harbour Grace Railway, as well as the government-owned Placentia branch, in order to unify the system across the entire island (known as the Railway Contract of '98). The Reid company agreed to operate the lines for 50 years, in exchange for outright ownership and land grants. They also purchased the government drydock in St. John's and the telegraph system. The Reid company purchased eight new steamships to operate as coastal ferries around the island and into Labrador.

Controversy followed the awarding of so many assets to Reid and in 1901 the contracts were modified to place everything under a limited liability corporation named the Reid Newfoundland Company.

Reid's railway development in the colony began to attract attention to the potential of the island's natural resources. In 1903, the Reids partnered with a St. John's businessman, Harry J. Crowe, to purchase timber rights in Botwood, Norris Arm, Gambo, Gander Bay, and Point Leamington. In 1904, British investors named Harmsworth declared their intention to build a pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls and on January 7, 1905, the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company (AND) was formed, based on a partnership between the Harmsworths, Reid and the colonial government. Botwood was expanded through the construction of deepwater wharves and warehouses for shipping the finished pulp. To link the two, AND built the narrow gauge Botwood Railway (built to the same gauge as the Reid Newfoundland Company trackage) beginning in 1908 and completing it in 1909. It would later be renamed the Grand Falls Central Railway.

Reid died in 1908 but his company set the pace for development in Newfoundland's interior mining and forestry industries, although the entire operation continued to suffer losses. In 1909 and into the 1910s, the colonial government contracted for additional branch lines to be built. SOme of the major works included:

  • a line to Bonavista
  • a line to Trepassey
  • extend the Harbour Grace line through Carbonear to Bay de Verde
  • several smaller branches, some of which were graded but rails were never installed


By the early 1920s, the Reid Newfoundland Company's losses were mounting and in 1923 the colonial government passed the Railway Settlement Act which cancelled the operating contract for the entire system, passing the railway into government control (a form of nationalization). Some of the lands that had belonged to the Reid Newfoundland Company were used by the government as part of a deal to develop a pulp and paper mill in Corner Brook.

The railway was initially called the Newfoundland Government Railway but was soon shortened to the Newfoundland Railway in 1926. It would remain the property of the colonial government until Confederation on March 31, 1949 when it was transferred to the federal government.

In 1925, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) perfected a method for recovering individual metals in ore and entered into partnership with AND to develop a mine at Buchans, which was connected to the Newfoundland Railway by the Millertown Railway, also narrow gauge.


Although the railway saw an increase in traffic during the First World War, it was the construction of the air force base adjacent to the mainline in Gander as well as the construction of major American military bases in Stephenville (Ernest Harmon Air Force Base) and in Argentia (Argentia Naval Base) as well as Canadian and British defence facilities in St. John's which saw the Newfoundland Railway prove its worth as a strategic asset.

It was also during the war that the Newfoundland Railway would experience its most tragic loss when the ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed and sunk 25 miles off Port aux Basques by German submarine U-69 on October 14, 1942. 137 passengers lost their lives and only 104 people survived the sinking; 2 having died after being rescued. In honour of the passengers and crew who were lost, the Newfoundland Railway Employees Association had the entire workforce forego a day's wages as a donation to a public campaign which saw a memorial built near the Port aux Basques railway terminal.

Canadian National

On March 31, 1949 Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada and the Newfoundland Railway's assets were transferred to the control of the federal Crown corporation Canadian National Railways (CNR). CNR became a major presence in Newfoundland's early years as a province with the control of the railway, dry dock, many ferries and coastal boats, as well as the telegraph system resting with the company.

CNR made major capital improvements to the former Newfoundland Railway with upgrades to the mainline, bridges, rolling stock, and replacement of all steam locomotives with diesel units. Additional improvements were made to the ferry service with new vessels and an expanded terminal at Port aux Basques. An additional indirect service improvement to the Newfoundland railway operations was made in 1955 with the opening of the Canso Causeway linking Cape Breton Island with mainland North America and removing the need to ferry railcars destined for Newfoundland across the Strait of Canso.

CN's (name/acronym change post-1960) Newfoundland operations continued to see significant traffic increases with its improved ferry and rail connections but soon faced increased truck and bus competition after the Trans-Canada Highway was completed across the island in 1965. New railcar capable ferries were introduced and mainland standard-gauge railcars started to show up on Newfoundland, only after their standard gauge wheels had been replaced with narrow gauge wheels in Port aux Basques, however even interchange traffic could not reverse the traffic declines. The first casualty was the passenger rail service which was abandoned in 1968 in favour of buses. CN even began to demarket its own Newfoundland rail operations through the 1970s as it began to rely on trucks for hauling cargo.

In 1977, CN reorganized its narrow gauge system into Terra Transport, as a means to separate the subsidy-dependent Newfoundland rail operations from its mainland North America core freight rail system. Containerization didn't change the continuing traffic declines and the closure of all branch lines by 1984 was a prelude to what would come. In 1987, Canada deregulated its railway industry, allowing abandonments to proceed with less red tape. The former CN subsidiary CN Marine was reorganized into Marine Atlantic in 1986 and the railcar ferries were sold off, leaving the narrow gauge system with no interchange ability at Port aux Basques. In December, 1987 the provincial and federal governments signed a deal worth $800 million (CAD) for highway improvements, removing the provincial government's opposition to the pending abandonment of the railway. On June 20, 1988 it was made official that the railway in Newfoundland would be officially abandoned on September 1, 1988. Following abandonment, trains continued to operate until the snow fell, working with salvage crews to remove the rails from remote locations, particularly in the Gaff Topsails between the Exploits River and Deer Lake, Newfoundland and Labrador. The last train operated in Newfoundland in November, 1988.


  • The Newfoundland Railway station in St. John's today hosts the Railway Coastal Museum.
  • Numerous towns across the island have preserved railway equipment on display.
  • The entire mainline and many branchlines are maintained as recreational trails - in fact they comprise the T'Railway Provincial Park.

See also:

  Results from FactBites:
Terra Transport - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (857 words)
The majority of the Newfoundland Railway's operations were not economically self-sustaining, requiring significant subsidization, however it was only after the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway across the island in the early 1960s that the railway began to see serious declines in traffic.
CN's operations in Newfoundland revolved around the former Newfoundland Railway, which was the longest narrow gauge railway in North America, stretching for 1000 kilometres across the island from the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques to the provincial capital at St.
During the last years of the railway on Newfoundland in the early 1980s, it was common to see trains composed almost entirely of the distinctive TT containers.
Newfoundland Trains (465 words)
The Railway was a critical part of Newfoundland's history from 1882 until 1988.
The railway was originally called the "people's road" and was meant to last forever.
Newfoundlanders use them as a recreational area and for access to swimming holes and fish ponds.
  More results at FactBites »



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