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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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?