Incidents of Winter Travel

By W. W. Blackall, B.A., (Supt. Education C. of E.)
Reprinted from Newfoundland Christmas Annuals, Christmas Bells 1913
Memorial University of Newfoundland – Digital Archives Initiative


It was my lot—shall I say my fortune? Why not, for the experience proved very exhilarating? —in the winter of 1910 to 1911 to make a tour of school-inspection. In this narrative I shall pass by many incidents of the tour, and write of such only as are likely to prove of some interest to my readers. Another reason for passing by them is that the tour I made was a lengthy one, so that if I were to deal with it fully, my narrative would probably prove too long for the purpose for which I have been invited to write it. One more word of explanation before I begin the narrative. I shall not deal at all with the schools but confine myself to the incidents of travel. Let me start, then, on the journey! It is the month of February, 1911, and I am bound for the South West Arm of Random—a picturesque arm of Trinity Bay, stretching some twelve miles inland, having beautiful Random Island on the North and the rugged mainland on the South. To reach this in the winter one must proceed to a flag-station on the railway called Northern Bight, which lies some four miles from the bottom of the Arm, and is connected therewith by a road which was in those days in a very poor condition. At the flag- station there is no railway agent. One or two section men have their homes there, and there was a cabin erected by the Railway Company and fitted with a stove for the convenience of passengers who might arrive there and require shelter and the means of making a fire while waiting for trains. The train from St. John’s passes Northern Bight about midnight. Being aware of these conditions, and knowing that there was a possibility of the night of my arrival being stormy, I had arranged by letter beforehand to have some one there to meet me and conduct me over the road to some place of shelter for the night.

Westward freight train with steam locomotive No. 113 approaching Northern Bight Station (Photo credit A.J. Stoyles – printed in All Aboard, Volume 2 by Bill Baggs)

Accordingly, on the appointed night I left St. John’s, and as luck would have it the night proved very stormy. A strong wind blew and the snow fell and drifted. All was comfort aboard the train, but what if the man who was to meet me at Northern Bight station should think it too stormy for me to travel and not turn up to meet me! The storm delayed the train, and it was nearly two in the morning before we reached Northern Bight. I alighted from the train and found—fortunately, as it turned out—a passenger awaiting the train. I noticed carefully the cabin out of which he came. My man was not there to meet me. What was I to do? I could not, in the blizzard, face the lane that led to the Arm, alone, unguided and unaccompanied. That would be folly. Consequently I sought the shelter of which I have already spoken. What was my dismay to find it dismantled and wrecked. The windows had all been smashed, the door broken to pieces, stove and funneling gone, the seats torn up. ” What folly!” I exclaimed to myself. Here was a shelter erected for the comfort of the people of the neighbourhood, and ruthlessly knocked to pieces by the very persons whom it was intended to serve! I could not help feeling that it would be a severe punishment that would be too severe for the hooligans who had taken any share in this crime. What should I do? The solitary passenger! Some one must have been sitting up with him in the cabin out of which he came. I must hasten thither before whoever it was had retired to rest. I approached and knocked. What joy! The door opened; I explained my plight. “Come in, Sir,” replied the man. — “May I take shelter here until the morning?” I asked. The cabin consisted of two small rooms—a kind of living-room-kitchen and a bunk bed-room. The good tenant—and both he and his wife were good, for it proved that he had lately taken unto himself a wife—said: “Certainly. We have not much accommodation, but you can lie on this bench here and keep the fire going.” And thus I spent the night.

Eventually, of course, morning broke. The good wife boiled the kettle and furnished a cup of tea. With a grateful heart I started off for the Arm. The snow was very deep and the travelling difficult. Fortunately I had brought my snowshoes, and by means of these my journey was rendered much easier than it would otherwise have been. My objective was Heart’s Ease, at the Southern Head of the opening of the Arm into Trinity Bay. Several settlements had to be passed and schools inspected. I met many kind friends. The following evening—a Saturday, I remember—found me at Hodge’s Cove within some four miles of Heart’s Ease. It was four o’clock and I had completed the inspection of the school there. Should I press on so as to spend Sunday at Heart’s Ease, the headquarters at that time of the Mission of Random? The day had been mild; the snow was soft and sticky; it looked like rain. Apparently the shortest way to get to my destination was to make for the bottom of another short Arm, the name of which I have forgotten, and travel along it to Butter Cove which is quite close to Heart’s Ease. A Mr. Smith undertook to drive my guide and myself as far as the nameless Arm. But it would perhaps be dark by the time we reached it; it might be raining, and possibly the ice would not bear us. So great, however, was my desire to get on that I decided to take all these risks. What a drive that was! It was fortunate that the horse was strong and accustomed to the work. The snow had drifted very deep in places, and was now soft and sticky. It is no exaggeration to say that at times the horse was entirely buried in the drift, his neck and head only being visible. In due course we reached the bottom of the nameless Arm and enquired of a man who lived near if the ice was safe. He thought it was, but imagined that there were probably some holes in it. The light was now very dim, and of course grew less as the moments passed.

A few minutes on the ice and we found that not only was there a possibility of holes, but that under the snow was considerable water and slush as the result of the mild day. My guide, Mr. Elial [Eliol] Balson, of Butter Cove, concluded that it would be most dangerous to walk down the Arm on the ice, and so, with a stick to try the ice at almost every step, we hugged the southern and safer shore. Pretty well all the way along the ice was drifted up in heaps, forming what is locally called a ‘ barricaddy,’ and oh, what a time of it we had! Shortly it began to rain a bit. I will not charge my experienced guide with any conduct so undignified, but for myself I have to confess that in the dark and the rain, I slipped and floundered and fell over and over again along that fearful barricaddy. When should we reach the end of this wonderful journey? Minutes seemed hours. At last a light appeared. I really said, “Thank God!”—rather a vulgar expression, I admit, but not uttered by me that night in any vulgar sense, but from a truly thankful heart.

The light proved to be in the house of a sturdy old English settler, by name Elias Baker, residing on the side of the Arm, right opposite to Butter Cove. We ascend the cliff and enter his house. We are drenched to the skin but not cold—no, far from it. What a fine old fellow Mr. Baker proves to be, and what a fine, strapping lot of sons he has. “Is it safe to cross the Arm on the ice?” we enquire. “Very doubtful,” comes the reply, but the edge of the ice is only a few yards off, and the boys will soon launch a boat and put you across.”

Here was good nature. The old gentleman and his family made us comfortable while the young men were launching the boat, and soon we were on the other side and in Heart’s Ease safe and sound.


The following Tuesday evening finds me back again at Northern Bight Station awaiting the cross-country express, and again I avail myself of the genuine hospitality of my host of a few nights since, Mr. William Churchill. It is another stormy night; the snow is drifting wildly, and the train is delayed. We are agreed that it is useless for all hands to be sitting up, losing the night’s rest, so Mr. and Mrs. Churchill retire to rest, and I recline on the bench in the kitchen. We arrange that the first to hear the train shall call out. Sleep overcomes me, and I fall into a state of blissful unconsciousness. Suddenly I am aroused by a shout from Mr. Churchill who springs out of bed, and I see the flash of the engine fly past the cabin window. I jump up, seize my traps, and rush through the door—half awake only —into the blinding storm. The train has rushed through and begins to vanish from sight. What shall I do? Lo, it stops, but quarter of a mile away. I must run through the darkness with all my might. Off I go, blundering and tumbling through the snow. Joy! joy! The train puts back. In the snow-drift the driver had not detected the station soon enough and had run through. Discovering his error he had put her back to deliver the mail and I got aboard, much relieved.

The journey thence to Bay of Islands was pleasant enough, and I must say the service on the train is not only a credit to the Company but also to all its servants. Of course we suffered delays. These were unavoidable with so much snow down—and on one or two occasions the mighty snow-plough was derailed and thrown across the track.

I landed at Bay of Islands, and could give an account of my experiences in travelling the length and breadth of that glorious Arm of the sea, but I refrain. The winter increased in severity, and gradually its rigours threw the railway service out of order. As opportunity offered, I visited the whole district of Bay St. George and eventually found myself at Codroy. Having completed my work there I returned to Little River Station—six miles from Codroy—to await a train to Channel. Pretty well the whole line of railway was blockaded and trains were few and far apart. At last two engines with a giant plough, a van, and a passenger car came through from Bay of Islands, partly for the purpose of clearing the road and more particularly for the purpose of taking about one hundred men from the Codroy district to Channel for the purpose of joining one of the sealing steamers —the Labrador, I think—to the icefields in the Gulf. It reached Little River at about one or two in the morning. I need not say that the one passenger car was crowded. It was so crowded, as a matter of fact, that I preferred, in spite of the cold, to stand on the platform in the rear.

The snow banks on the line of railway were in places very deep indeed, and as they had already been cut out and were now filled with a fine drift snow, they were packed very, very tight. The sensation and excitement of charging through these was worth going through, and well compensated me for the cold and inconvenience that I suffered on the rear platform. Had I had a comfortable seat within, I should have lost much that was to me novel and thrilling. Bank after bank is overcome until the neighbourhood of Cape Ray is reached, and near the dawning of a cold March morning we strike a bank deeper and tighter than any thus far encountered. The two noble engines do their best, but by degrees their powers are overcome; the speed is gradually reduced, we stop. I turn to get out and find the snow actually higher than the tops of the carriages. I climb up to the top of the bank of snow and find myself looking down upon the train which is embedded from end to end in the snow. I walk to the engines and find them snorting and prostrate. They cannot budge a tittle backward or forward.

“All hands out! Get to work with the shovels!” comes the order. The train had to be dug out completely. It was a great task and took three or four hours. Little accidents in the way of broken pins, steam-hose and air-brake connections, etc., etc., occurred before the train was got on her way again. Breakfast hour was past and there was little for any one to eat but snow and ice. At about nine o’clock we were going again ; the sun shone gloriously, and we were within some four or five miles of Channel when again our steaming and fiery steeds were overcome in such a bank as the one which I have just endeavoured to describe, but this time with a sound of a rushing, mighty wind, What was it ? All rushed out! I rushed out! What a sight! The accumulated resistance of the snow bank had become so great that the combined powers of the two magnificent engines could not drive the plough any further, and so a battle, brief and strong, had ensued between the giant-like plough, bound in snow, and the engines, with the result that the plough had been unceremoniously thrown off the track on the left of the road and badly battered in its hind quarters, while the leading engine (No. 105) had been thrown off the track on the right of the way, most of the strong iron-work at its head twisted and bent, and many of its taps and valves smashed off. Through these the steam was escaping at a pressure of, say, 150 lbs. to the square inch. For the moment the sight was frightening. The engineers, however, quickly drew the fires and reduced the noise of the rushing steam.

This ended our journey, and each man literally “took up his bed and walked “— to Channel.


 I must now pass by many interesting incidents (for I travelled the whole coast from Channel to LaPoile) and place myself in a motor-boat in Burgeo on the 14th March to inspect several little settlements on the coast immediately East of Burgeo. In the evening of the following day, just as it got dark, we steamed into the entrance of Little River (now called Gray River) which empties itself into the ocean about midway between Ramea and Cape LaHune. The entrance lies between very high cliffs, and in it a very strong tide runs. It was here, and owing to the tide, that the Church ship Star, with Coadjutor Bishop Kelly aboard, was lost in the summer of 1871.

About a mile or a mile and a half from the entrance and up the river lies the little settlement formerly known as Jerrett’s Cove, but now more commonly called Gray River. The motor- boat that I was aboard carried the mail, the owner was the mail courier for the shore, and this was his first visit for several weeks, so that no one was expecting us. The night was dark. After we had steamed up the river about a mile, we found the river still frozen over, and we were unable, in consequence, to reach the settlement in the boat. We, therefore, anchored her to the ice and proceeded to follow the shore on foot up to the settlement. By and by our footsteps are heard, word is evidently passed round, by telepathy or otherwise, and soon all hands are out to learn who the strangers may be who are approaching. What a noise and commotion! The whole settlement is agog. “Ah, Mr. Lavage”—for that was the name of the courier— How are you? We thought we were never going to see you again. What kept you so long?” Such and similar remarks are passed. When one considers that these people had not seen a soul apart from themselves for several weeks, nor had letter or paper; when one recalls the loneliness and dreariness of the long winter evenings in settlements where hardly a soul can read, and where there is positively no recreation, one can imagine the joy of the first visit that the mailman brings after the winter’s isolation—even though it be short. I am introduced. My visit, quite unexpected, excites much interest and curiosity. Is it possible that the Superintendent of Education has deigned to come, at this time of year, too, to visit such an out-of-the-way place as Gray River, and such an unlettered people? Here was a mixture of joys and excitements. The mail bag is opened and the Superintendent of Education seated in the same kitchen— that of Mr. Frank Young. All the settlement, young and old, men, women and children, have gathered together within the same walls. Mr. Young’s daughter—a girl of some 14 or 15 years, who has learnt how to read a little—deciphers the addresses on the envelopes, and reads for most of the recipients the messages therein contained. At first the mail and myself share about equally the attention of the party, but when the news becomes absorbed, I become the winner, and long into the night I am the cynosure of curious eyes. The children want to see me but feel timid and shy. They hide behind their mothers, get away into the corners and peep at me in such measure as their courage permits. The mailman has to give them all the news of the neighbourhood, and by some of the men I am put under close examination. They were anxious to have a school conducted regularly in their midst, and found it quite difficult to believe me when I assured them that if they would do their part in the matter of the building, they should have a teacher every year for the whole school year.

Here is a place far removed from railways, a place where no steamer calls, a place in very truth severely isolated. Small wonder, then, that in pretty well every particular—in regard to their homes, their manners, their dress, their speech, their life— they are the most primitive people I have met in the country, and there are few settlements that I am not acquainted with. In one art, however, they excel: they are great boat-builders.

It has not been my pleasure to go up the river, but from what I have heard of those who have, Gray River is one of the finest rivers in Newfoundland. I understand that about two miles further up the river than Jerrett’s Cove there are fine falls above which the river is wide and navigable for many miles, passing through a belt of forest country of exceptional excellence. end.

And here, though my journey continued, my narrative must end.


Click here to view the original document: Christmas Bells 1913


Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, February 2021
These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.