Thirty Years On-How the Railway Shaped Central Newfoundland

I have a spike somewhere. It was collected so soon after it was removed it was still covered in grease and creosote. I can’t tell you exactly when it was, but I was with Pop Baker and he was looking for some sticks to use to sure up his winter’s fire wood. This was his excuse for an excursion up the highway between Grand Falls and Badger. We were stopped in a gravel pit not far from a long forgotten siding. In searching for the perfect straight and easy to cut sticks we ended up on the railbed. I believe the track removal crew was so close that, although we couldn’t see them, we could hear them, at the same time I faintly remember that the tracks may still have been there. The spike came home with me and the sticks were driven into the ground to hold the carefully stacked birch junks in Nan and Pop’s back garden. I think those sticks of aspen might have outlasted Pop. He was gone not long after that. I am almost certain the wrecking crew was heading east.

Track Removal NL heritage..jpg
Track removal crew in Central Newfoundland (NL Heritage Website)

The construction crew would have been heading west one summer almost one hundred years before. They had reached a milestone with the crossing of the Exploits River at Bishop’s Falls in the preceding years. From here supplies were brought in via Botwoodville and Norris Arm in the Bay of Exploits, scowed, poled and portaged down the Exploits, through what would become Grand Falls-Windsor. The steel rails had seeded little bits and pieces of habitation and development as they were lain. Whitbourne, Clarenville, Gambo, Terra Nova, Benton, Glenwood and Norris Arm were all either started or energized by the building of the line.

Building the Railway west coast
Railway crew in Western Newfoundland. Building the railway was an immense task though a largely untouched wilderness with no preexisting infrastructure. In the interior the crews were often many miles from the nearest community.
Bishop's Falls Trestle with train
Train crossing the Exploits River at Bishop’s Falls. The current trestle, the last of three at Bishop’s Falls has been there since 1901. It was the longest on the Newfoundland Railway.

After Bishop’s Falls the next place where the crew would be headquartered would be Rushy Pond, then Badger. When the line was finished in 1898 section crews for this part of central would be located at Norris Arm, Bishop’s Falls, Rushy Pond and Badger Brook. At the time the last 3 isolated sections houses were atolls in a sea of wilderness connected by a narrow gauge ribbon of steel. They were not much more than a place to drop off hunters and lumbermen and their supplies. But within a few years things started to happen. In 1901 the railway decided it needed a central maintenance headquarters and repair sheds were built at Bishop’s Falls. That same year, at Badger Brook the Exploits Lumber Company set up a sawmill to supplement its large operation at Botwoodville. The previous year, another stop was added to the west, at Joe Glodes Pond to service a branchline built to a huge sawmill on Red Indian Lake. Another branch, to Burnt Bay was also built to provide this operation with an outlet to the sea at Burnt Bay. The junction of the mainline and what became the Lewisporte Branch became known as Notre Dame Junction. In 1901 the Parrsboro Lumber Company set up a sawmill there.

Millertown Junction.jpg
Water tank at Millertown Junction. A small community that once numbered more than one hundred people grew up around the fairly busy railway station. Ore from Buchan’s passed through here and any passengers going to Buchan’s or Millertown had to join the AND Company or Asarco train here. Thousands of loggers a year passed through Millertown Junction on their way to work in the Millertown Division Camps, so many that in during the 1940’s the AND Company built a hotel for them.

With no roads to speak of and only rivers navigable to only small boats all of this development would not have been possible in Central. The lumber from the mill at Millertown went to port on the Railway and turned the little community of Burnt Bay into the shipping center of Lewisporte. The machinery which ran the mill had been brought in by rail, the workers by rail. And five years later when the development at Grand Falls began, everything came in by rail. It had to, not only were there no motor vehicles, there were also no roads.

Early Reid Newfoundland Railway locomotive takes on water at the Rushy Pond Waterchute near the Exploits River. Prior to 1905 the only “permanent” settlement in the Grand Falls-Windsor area was a rail stop at Rushy Pond named on the time table as McCallum. As base for the section crew in the area it probably consisted of two or three buildings.  Canadian Science and Technology Museum
Grand Falls construction shunter.
First locomotive shipped to Grand Falls for shunting during mill construction. Little information is known about this contraption. Some have suggested it was at least assembled locally. As you can plainly see it was shipped in on the Reid Newfoundland Railway.

Bishop’s Falls eventually would become a divisional headquarters for the Railway. located almost in the middle of the line, round houses and repair shops were set up to service the fleet of steam locomotives operated by the Reid Newfoundland Company and, later the Newfoundland Government Railway. At one time, the railway was the largest employer in Newfoundland and a large number of those employees were in Bishop’s Falls. A number of employees also lived at Badger and that community became the rail-head for the communities in the Green Bay and Hall’s Bay area.

Mill workers at station 1906
Construction Workers at Grand Falls Station 1906. The influx of people into the area meant that a fairly large station was needed very early on. For many years the Station Master was Mr. P.J Connors. The original station was actually on the “Grand Falls” side of the tracks.

Grand Falls would get it’s own station as an influx workers came in to build the mill, though I do believe a telegraph relay station had been built early in 1905, around the same time that George Hardy was monitoring ice conditions on the Exploits for a new company owned by British newspaper interests. Across from this station stores, shops , primitive restaurants and hotels set up and formed the nucleus of a town that developed parallel to the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company’s townsite near the river. Grand Falls Station as it was called would later become the Town of Windsor.

windsor AG station
From the Atlantic Guardian, circa 1950.  Although the sign clearly said Grand Falls, the new station was in Windsor. Likely Minnie Snow is buying tickets for her and Hank to be “moving on” after a show, he would be back in town a few times in the coming decades. Is anybody aware of when and where Hank Snow played in Grand Falls or Windsor around 1950?

Most, if not all of the families that came to settle that townsite that became Grand Falls would have come on the railway. A respectable percentage of the pulpwood that fed paper mills after 1923 came in on the railway and until 1960 at least some of the paper produced from those logs was shipped out on the Reid or Government mainline. People from both Grand Falls and more so Windsor worked for the railway in the offices, on the section crews and on the trains.

Locomotive Windsor Thomas Norrell Better.jpg
Double headed passinger train stopped at Windsor, 1954. (Thomas Norrell Photo)

In 1965 the Trans-Canada Highway finally crossed the island. With Confederation people had a standard of living they wouldn’t have dreamed of thirty years before. People were now able to own cars. You could cross the island faster by road in your own car or after 1968 one of the buses the parent company of the railway, Canadian National brought in. After 1969 there was no regular passenger service.

Bishop's falls Norrell oil tanks anding tower
In the era of steam, Bishop’s Falls bustled as a maintenance depot and sub-division headquarters. Here you can see the oil tanks, sanding tower and water spouts needed to service the steam locomotives. Most of the engines on the Newfoundland Branch of Canadian National had been converted from coal to oil by the time this picture was taken around 1953-54. When they were scrapped a few years later some of the steam engines in the fleet were less than ten years old. (Thomas Norrell Photo)
Bishop's Falls station sign 1964
Bulletin board at Bishop’s Falls Station 1964. The next year the Trans-Canada Highway was completed across Newfoundland and the volume of passengers on the railway began to decline. (Thomas Norrell Photo, Canadian Museum of Science and Technology)

By 1984 the days of Canadian National in Newfoundland were numbered. In a last gasp to improve efficiently the freight service underwent a containerization program. Much to the chagrin of Bishop’s Falls, Grand Falls was chosen as the central terminal by C.N. From that massive floodlit yarding area the green Terra Transport containers were offloaded from the trains and loaded on transport trucks for redistribution in the area. This system still couldn’t save the railway in Newfoundland.

Bishop's Falls Railyard 1980's.JPG
Bishop’s Falls railyard in the last years of the railway. Note the empty pulpwood cars on the left, even up to the end pulpwood constituted a large amount of freight carried on the railway, especially wood going from Glenwood to Corner Brook and Gambo and Terra Nova to Grand Falls. Ore from Buchans was transferred to the Botwood railway here as well(If this is your photo please contact me)

The railway in Newfoundland had been overly ambitious, sometimes ill thought out, often slow, often delayed, expensive to operate and in the end unfeasible on an island with such a small population. Despite these shortfalls the impact that it had on the economy of the province is monumental. The towns of Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop’s Falls, Badger, Millertown, Gander, Benton and Buchans* all owe their existence either directly or indirectly to the Railway. And pre-existing settlements like Botwood (although Botwood was never serviced by the Newfoundland Railway, it was connected by a private railway) and Lewisporte would have remained tiny settlements had it not been for the railway. Places like Glenwood and Norris Arm would have been long forgotten without the line. The Grand Falls paper mill, Bishop’s Falls Pulp Mill, Buchans Mine, and even the Gander Airport would not have been developed when they were had it not been for the line.

mugup spot.JPG
This is exactly where this story starts.

I wasn’t on the the last train, I was in kindergarten and my best friend was. It would be another 17 years before I would ride on a train.  For some time afterwards you could still hear the horns of the C.N Diesels as they passed through the central area, singing their own death song as they took up their own tracks. Sometime in the fall of 1990, we stopped hearing those horns altogether.

It was a day like today, in early fall, sunny, somewhere close to Aspen Brook. I can still picture Pop now in my mind,  on his head, no doubt, was a navy blue ball cap from Irving,  he took up a spike from the railbed and handed it to me. Those orange and black locomotives wouldn’t pass though here anymore.

-Bryan Marsh



*I didn’t include Glenwood, I know. It doesn’t make much sense, but I believe that the first sawmill in Glenwood may predate the building of the railway. I once say something from 1882 that mentioned a person was manager of a mill here at that time, this doesn’t make much sense to me but I saw it. At that time Glenwood would have been connected mainly by the Gander River to Gander Bay. I wonder if this is the case, how they shipped out the lumber? Barge?

One comment

  1. Great article Marsh. It certainly positively reshaped the country, as well as being a colossal financial burden with 11+ branch lines.


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