Out on a cold afternoon, walking up the road from an old house to an even-older, long-abandoned railway line, a graded ribbon of gravel and stone that stretches out in both directions.
Everything stopped running in 1930 — or maybe 1932 — on this little 48-mile branch line from Carbonear to Bay de Verde.
It was started in 1915, part of an ambitious branch line project that was supposed to open up many parts of the province.
This branch line didn’t work.
The trains didn’t run in winter, and were apparently replaced in later years by a sort of rail trolley.
There are still crumbling bridge abutments if you know where to look, and occasional rust-furred lost rail spikes that work their way up through the stone ballast, even though the ATV trail the tracks have become now has different sets of wooden bridges.
It was an expensive venture built with the best of political intentions: the main line of the Newfoundland Railway lost money almost from its inception, an estimated $100,000 a year between 1901 and 1910 — colossal amounts for the time — and the branch lines almost immediately doubled those losses. The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website describes it like this:
“Although popular politically, the branch lines were uneconomic from the first, adding 375 miles of trackage but little traffic.”
Coverage from the day was big on the employment value, and the fact that “over 230 men are actively employed,” making progress of about a mile a week.
Fall, and the predominant colours along the railbed are beige and brown, broken only by the bright reds of rose hips, the barrens running away up low hills like shoulders and hips under blankets.
There is water everywhere: night’s cold has risen small pipe-organs of ice in the wet soil, fragile constructions that are revealed only when you step through part of them, and afterwards you can crouch and wonder at the physics that builds ice columns in such matching regularity.
Beside the railbed, the ditches still carry water away and down to the occasional culverts, the small rapids musical. The edges of the bog drip evenly, rhythmically with brown water, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that you can hear the individual plinks of the drops falling.
The alders are wrestling in on both sides of the railbed, and in places, only the frequent ATV traffic keeps the line from filling in entirely. Grass in the middle in many places now, the gravel ballast sinking down and disappearing and the fine soil rising up and closing in over the top, perfect drainage for new roots.
This scrap of railway has its own formal sites: the small yellow station that stands with no tracks at Western Bay, the big missing bridge over tall falls at Broad Cove with its 20-foot-high, still-squared-off concrete ends.
There are little sites, too. Out in the fall cold, you can find a short spur that is a line to nowhere, almost completely filled in, and at the end of it, something that looks like it might once have had a service area. There’s a small deck of flattened drawers with tangles of crumbling waste, most obvious the strange, thin-spined spark plugs with their centres now only ochre threads but with their porcelain sleeves intact. Bolts and washers and wire. Maybe something to do with the railway: probably not. But like the railway, clearly a piece of a project abandoned midway, the sort of thing that happens when your well-planned world is overtaken by larger problems.
Big ideas, small ideas — big dreams, small dreams. Sometimes you can’t help but think how they run afoul of circumstances their planners can’t imagine, or more to the point, simply choose to refuse to imagine.
Forty-eight miles of branch line that ran as a railway for, at most, 17 whole years — a heck of a financial and engineering investment for literally nothing. A lot of hard work that, like the other branch lines, foundered on a worldwide economic collapse and a Great War that everyone pretended they couldn’t see coming.
Jury’s out on whether the endless political losses of the railway helped push the Dominion of Newfoundland towards its fiscal collapse.
One thing’s for sure: the railway didn’t make money and its losses mounted until the government took it over — and after that, its losses became one more constant weight on an already over-stretched public purse.
You can say for certain that it didn’t help.
But as an idea, as a political selling point, it was always the kind of grandiose plan governments love to beat their collective chests about and champion — it will open the province, bring much-needed industry, make us masters of our own dominion.
Its remains have lasted far longer than the dream or the money did.
Eventually, water and brush will probably win. Nature’s far more pragmatic and always has more time.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.