Where the trains ran …

Paul Sparkes
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New book shows our island’s changing topography in then-and-now railway photographs

The trains which crossed the island of Newfoundland passed through some God-forsaken swaths of landscape. They crawled across barrens, along beaches and over windy, snow-blown “topsails.” They persisted through land that was more sand than anything else; they clanked over bridges which held them above streams unknown before the rails came.

And when the caboose dutifully brought up the rear, those stretches closed in upon themselves again and all was quiet.

I am sure Ken Pieroway will agree that our trains were never merely a means of transportation. Their arrivals and departures were social events, especially for tiny collections of houses hardly warranting the word “community.” The trains were every bit as eagerly anticipated as the vessels which picked their way, harbour by harbour, along our coast.

Ken is the author of “Rails Across The Rock,” a 183-page album-style book just off the press. The book will be introduced at The Railway Coastal Museum in St. John’s Monday, Sept. 30, 6-8 p.m., and I’m told everyone is welcome.

“Rails Across The Rock” is a “then and now celebration of the Newfoundland Railway,” as the cover says. It is largely about photographs, for Ken almost miraculously pulled together a collection of photos of our trains at many different points along the nearly 550-mile mainline. The photos represent six decades. Armed with this collection, he then criss-crossed the island taking “today” photos to show those same spots along the route where the earlier pictures had been taken.

I handed my copy of his book to several people, saying nothing by way of preamble. I watched them as they thumbed the pages, looking left at the older shot, and then right at the same location today. All simple enough. No one closed the book after only a few page flips.

My first reaction to the book was to derive a measure of assurance from the fact that so many featureless or cut areas from years ago are now healed. Some areas that were open spaces in the 1950s are now heavily treed.

So, nature does heal itself, I thought.

I sat down with Ken a week ago and I marvelled aloud at the amount of time and work evident in this book (published under the signature of Creative Publishers, St. John’s). He told me he took great pains to position himself in exactly the same spots where his photos of trains had been taken years before.

“Altogether, I’d say it took me three years. I wanted to collect as many railways pictures as I could to represent the island end to end. As a number of dedicated train photographers had visited here over the years, I made contact, looking for pictures.”

Response was wonderful. Legendary names are represented, like Mike Shufelt, Robert J. Sandusky, Phil Mason, Ronald S. Ritchie, Ted Wickson, Omer Lavelle, Jim Scribbins, Mont Lingard and Sandy Goodrick. It is a singular achievement that Ken was able to bring together into a book so many representative items from men like these, renowned in the railroad world.

In all, the picture comparisons represent 89 communities across the island. For me, the photos of lonely places are most appealing … the sand in the Port au Port area, the Gaff Topsails, Kitty’s Brook in winter … and surely there is none lonelier than that 1961 photo taken at Harry’s River, near Gallants. In these pictures you can hear the horn straining to break the solitude.

Ken (do I need to say?) is a train enthusiast. From his childhood in the late 1960s, he has memories of his father taking him to see the trains arriving and departing near the mill at Corner Brook. He has train-travelled extensively … he has left Paris to swing over towards Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel; he has gone by rail to Nice and Cannes … to Rome, Vienna and Craz in Austria. Lucerne, Basel, Bruges ... he has taken the train west across Canada. He even proposed to his girlfriend on the train in western Canada (and was accepted). We can take it for granted that his wife fully expected that their home would hold somewhat more than its share of railway memorabilia.

I asked Ken the obvious question, whether in Newfoundland we are not so well off without trains now. I asked him to set romance aside for a minute.

“Our economy is booming now,” said Ken. “A rail line would definitely be an asset — look at the wear on our highways ... our narrow gauge would still have worked well for freight.”

When we do turn our attention to the romance of our railway, old names return. Our more senior people today will recall these with certain nostalgia: Millertown Junction, Patrick’s Brook, Caribou, Mary March, Quarry, Summit, Gaff Topsails, Pond Crossing … points along the line which are pure railway talk. Kitty’s Brook, by the way, was settled by railway people in 1903; in 1935 its population was 11. In 1945 it was abandoned.

A registered social worker, Ken is certainly the most dedicated fan of railways that I have ever met. But perhaps that understates it — “I love transportation,” he told me. “I like plane travel, and one day I’d very much like to cross the Atlantic in a steamship … but most of all, I love trains.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Railway Coastal Museum, Newfoundland Railway

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Port au Port Gallants Corner Brook Paris Vimy Ridge Nice Cannes Rome Vienna Austria Millertown Junction Atlantic

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Recent comments

  • Mary Jane Bennett
    May 20, 2014 - 17:59

    I have had a long history with the railway. My Grandfather Joe O'Reilly was a conductor on the Buchan's run. He would supply the locals with chickens and (as I have been told alcholol) dad and his 2 brothers moved to Bishop's falls to work on the trains. They married local women and spent a career with CN. My dad was involved with (I am told) was the only armed robbery on the trains in the 20th century. He was the unfortunate one riding in the car guarding the payroll for the Grand Falls Mill(I think). As a small child I well remember him being brought to our house by the police on that day. I would love to have a copy of your book. Where would I find one?

  • Ed Hong
    September 26, 2013 - 15:06

    I haven't read Ken's book yet but I intend to be at the signing with my purchase. I've known Ken for some time now and I think I can safely say that Ken would only do a great job at whatever he turns his hand to... Congratulations, Ken !!!

  • Stephen
    September 25, 2013 - 11:02

    Well said, Don II. We all know the ATV lobby groups wanted the rails gone as well as government back then. The reality is what's left of the old rail bed is in bad shape and no effort on part of the ATV riders to maintain it for all folks to use. The same guy who lobbied Govt here for the contract to tear up rail for scrap metal is now in New Brunswick doing the same making his fortune off tearing up small spur lines and encouraging ATV use on them. We're just going backwards.

  • Don II
    September 25, 2013 - 07:31

    I recall a conversation I had with a popular politician regarding the Newfoundland Railway prior to it being dismantled. I argued strenuously that the railway should not be torn up and abandoned in favor of a plan by a handful of ATV and snowmobile riders, who apparently had political connections, who wanted the rail bed stripped of tracks so they could use it for driving around on. The politician told me that I was in the minority and the ATV crowd had made a compelling argument for tearing up the tracks. In addition, the Government needed quick cash from Ottawa to repair the roads in the Province so it was a done deal, regardless of what nay sayers like me thought. The fact that the Government of Newfoundland would tear up a major and operational railroad that would be needed for real economic and mining development in the future convinced me that the Government of Newfoundland was incompetent and run by arrogant and ruthless bureaucrats who were influenced by lobbyists selling everything from soup to nuts to the Government and by even more ruthless politicians who would expropriate their own mothers house because some well connected developer or local hack movers and shakers wanted the land it was built on!