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Newfoundland History

Economic Progress in Newfoundland in the XIXth Century


[This text was written in 1950. For the full citation, see the end of the document. Parts in brackets [...] and links have been added to the original document by Claude Bélanger.]

[Fishery and railway issues in the following period are discussed at this site.] Once the decision not to enter Confederation had been taken, the new Government threw itself into schemes for internal development. Progress was made in road construction, agriculture was encouraged and a series of successful fishing seasons led to expansion in other directions. In 1874 revenue reached the record figure of $841,588, imports were valued at more than $7,000,000 and exports at more than $8,000,000. In 1882 the Rope Walk was established for the manufacture of fishing gear, including cordage and cables which had previously been imported. It has remained one of Newfoundland 's chief local industries. In 1884 a dry dock was completed at St. John's .


By 1874 the population was 160,000, of whom 45,800 persons were engaged in curing and catching fish and 26,000 were able-bodied seamen employed as fishermen. Besides these, the census returns of 1874 listed four bishops, 120 clergymen, 41 doctors, 589 merchants or traders and 1,004 farmers.


Up to the last quarter of the 19 th century, no serious attempt had been made to open up the interior, but now this seemed for the first time to be practicable. Geological surveys, begun in 1838, had revealed mineral resources in the interior, there were timber reserves in the northwest and good agricultural land on the west coast. It was felt desirable to make the Island less dependent on one industry, the fishery, and to supply better communications than were possible by sea.


In 1880 a Railway Bill was passed for the construction of a line from St. John's to Hall's Bay in Notre Dame Bay , with branch lines to Harbour Grace and Brigus, a total of 340 miles. Work was begun in 1881 but the contract was not completed. A second contract was let in 1890 to a firm headed by Mr. (later Sir) Robert Reid [consult his biography at the DCB], who had a long record of railway contracting in Canada and the United States. Three years later the contract was revised to provide for a complete cross-country line ending at Port aux Basques; it provided for large cash subsidies and land grants, as in the original contract of 1880, and in addition for monopoly rights to operate the railway and coastal steamers and other concessions. The line was completed on schedule in 1896, bringing the total of railway lines to approximately 613 miles. [For an examination of the relations of the Reid Company to the government of Newfoundland in the period of 1895 to 1908, consult this page by Melvin Baker.]


Before its completion, however, the Island was faced with a financial crisis. The Government, hampered by lack of funds but anxious to continue the development of the country, made another contract in 1898 which became the object of much hostile criticism. Under the contract Reid was to operate the railway for a period of 50 years, to provide eight coastal steamers, purchase the dry dock, assume responsibility for the telegraph system, provide a street railway for St. John's and pave a portion of the city. In return for all this he was to receive additional land grants, bringing the total of land granted under the two contracts to 2,500,000 acres, and cash subsidies for carrying the mails, operating the coastal boats and constructing the street railway. Under this contract. as the British Government pointed out, the Island handed over to a single individual the ownership of nearly all the Crown lands of any value and control of virtually all the Island 's means of communication. The Bill became law but public agitation continued until the defeat of the Government which had sponsored it. Under the succeeding Government the contract was modified and the additional land grants of 1898 were withdrawn. The railway was subsequently placed under the Reid Newfoundland Company, inaugurated in 1901, which continued its operation until the Government took it over in 1923.


The economic benefits from railway construction were considerable. It provided employment during a period of serious depression and has since provided permanent employment for a considerable working force. It opened up new areas and stimulated the development of the pulp and paper and mining industries. It provided year-round communication for the first time between the east and west coasts. But the total benefits were less than anticipated and the Island 's debt was substantially increased.

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Source: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA , Newfoundland . An Introduction to Canada's New Province , Published by authority of the Right Honourable C. D. HOWE, Minister of Trade and Commerce, prepared by the Department of External Affairs, in collaboration with the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa, 1950, 142p., pp. 15-41.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College